Public Release: 

New tools help families and schools prepare for disasters

University of California - Los Angeles

As the second anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America nears, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) is disseminating two new tools to help families and schools prepare for future disasters and terrorism. This nationwide school preparedness initiative is endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education.

The tools will help those who care for children assess and address various aspects of disaster planning, including safety, security and well-being. The NCTSN is administered by research teams at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and the Duke University Medical Center.

"One legacy of Sept. 11 is an awareness of the impact traumatic events have on children," said UCLA's Dr. Robert Pynoos, co-director of the NCTSN. "Across the country, parents and teachers made immediate efforts to protect children. In New York City, almost 8,500 students were evacuated, the largest school evacuation in U.S. history."

The new tools for schools and families include:

  • A checklist for schools, prepared in coordination with the U.S. Department of Education, to help administrators and principals assess and address the mental health issues that go along with ensuring the safety and well-being of students and school personnel before, during and after an emergency.
  • A family preparedness guide and wallet card to help families be prepared in the event of a disaster. A "Family Preparedness Plan" will help make sure that families are "on the same page" when it comes to planning for whom to call and where to meet. The wallet cards include important telephone numbers and Web sites for emergency information.

The new tools and informational resources regarding the anniversary of Sept. 11 are available on the NCTSN Web site, www.nctsnet.org. NCTSN sites in New York City, Los Angeles, Durham, Okla. and across the country also are preparing "best practices" for school response to violence, terrorism and disasters.

"The U.S. Department of Education and Department of Homeland Security are encouraging schools to enhance their crisis response plans and teams," said UCLA's Marleen Wong, director of NCTSN's School Crisis and Intervention Unit. "These new materials focus on the mental health components of the schools' crisis and emergency plans and will drive our outreach to schools over the next year."

"The Sept. 11th attacks on America shocked the nation into a deep awareness of what it means to live with uncertainty and danger," said Duke's John Fairbank, co-director of the NCTSN. "As horrible as the attacks were, it is equally tragic that many children face traumatic events every day in America."

Common sources of child trauma include:

  • Abuse and neglect.
  • Serious accidental injury.
  • Disasters.
  • Violence in neighborhoods, schools, and homes.
  • And life-threatening and chronic illnesses.

More than 25 percent of American children experience a serious traumatic event by their 16th birthday; any child exposed to trauma is at risk of developing posttraumatic stress.

Traumatic stress can interfere with the ability to learn and seriously delay the development of a child's brain and body. It can lead to depression, substance abuse, other mental health problems, educational difficulties, risky behaviors and more. Fortunately, treatment from a mental health professional who has training and experience working with traumatized children can reduce traumatic stress reactions and minimize physical, emotional and social problems.

Within hours of the attacks on Sept. 11, network centers across the country were providing direct services to children and families and consultation to emergency, medical and educational professionals. In the following days, the network disseminated new guidelines for the treatment of traumatic grief and provided specialized trainings for school personnel in New York City, Washington, D.C. and other parts of the country.

"The Terrorism and Disaster Branch of the NCTSN is partnering with governmental and local systems to promote comprehensive, coordinated preparedness and response, and ensure the availability and accessibility of effective mental health intervention and treatment services for children and families after terrorism and disasters," said UCLA's Alan Steinberg, associate director of NCTSN.

In a new report, "Serving America: How the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Responds to 9/11," the NCTSN looks back on the past two years to assess how it served those left in the attacks' aftermath, how it meets ongoing needs and how it will continue to help in the future.

Because the concern over our traumatized children and families is so great, the federal government established the National Child Traumatic Stress Network to improve the quality, effectiveness and availability of therapeutic services to traumatized children and adolescents. By 2004, the network will include more than 50 sites working collaboratively to address child trauma in our nation.

The UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute is an interdisciplinary research and education institute devoted to the understanding of complex human behavior, including the genetic, biological, behavioral and sociocultural underpinnings of normal behavior, and the causes and consequences of neuropsychiatric disorders. More information about the institute is available at www.npi.ucla.edu.

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