Coping together

School counselors prepared to help student evacuees heal

Isabella Mitchell reunited with her teacher, Ambrosia Krinsky.

Isabella Mitchell reunited with her teacher, Ambrosia Krinsky.

PHOTO/Ashiah Scharaga

A more permanent school location will open in January at 1000 Fortress St., Chico, California, the site of a former Facebook operations center, with capacity for 700 students. That’s when psychologists will start looking out for delayed trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, Ingersoll said.

Isabella Mitchell was on the phone with her father, who was at work in Redding, as flames rapidly approached the SaveMart parking lot where she and a few hundred others had gathered in Paradise.

“I told him that I didn’t think we were going to make it out,” she said, her voice breaking. “I kind of said my last goodbye to him, and I said I loved him, and then the AT&T cell towers stopped working.”

She’d woken up on Nov. 8 and got ready for school but never made it to Paradise High. She escaped with her mother, brother and four dogs. They were not reunited with her father until 6 p.m., when they made it to Chico.

“He was crying,” Mitchell said. “I was crying. My mom was crying, and we were all just hugging.”

Recognizing the trauma endured by students and staff, Paradise Unified School District has worked with the Butte County Office of Education to provide mental health crisis services.

BCOE spokesman Neil Meyer said via email that, prior to classes resuming on Dec. 3, the focus was to bring in local and national trauma response experts to train staff not just from Paradise but also across its 14 districts and 18 charters (where many displaced students have now enrolled). Another effort was to assign counselors to the schools most heavily impacted.

One such expert is developmental-behavioral pediatrician Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the University of Southern California Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.

Secondary stressors and losses often follow disasters, he said, and people can uncover pre-existing trauma or loss. When a large percentage of the population relocates, even temporarily, “you lose all these things that are important to you, and that may be what is actually upsetting.” Parents can become stressed over finances or job loss following a disaster, as well, prompting marital conflict and even an increase in substance use and domestic violence.

Among California’s 58 counties, Butte has the highest prevalence of adverse childhood experiences—such as abuse or witnessing domestic violence—which places children here at a higher risk of developing an overactive or toxic stress response, said Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, pediatrician and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness.

School psychologist Carly Ingersoll said that BCOE has gathered a roster of volunteer mental health professionals to help students and staff. Last week, there were six mental health counselors, plus five academic counselors, working between the high school and Paradise Intermediate School resource centers at the Chico Mall. They, along with the teachers, have been focusing on listening to their students when they want to share their experiences and creating a safe, stress-free space, Ingersoll said.

“Consistency is huge,” she said.

It can be as simple as being able to regularly see friends and teachers again.

Teacher Ambrosia Krinsky spoke highly of her students bravery and resilience. She’s been checking in with them periodically. One asked her if it is OK to feel happy.

“I said, ’Absolutely. Everything you’re feeling is normal,” she said.