Dexter tornado aftermath: Schools give students support, time to reflect
Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com
(This story has been updated.)
Administrators at Dexter Community Schools worked hard to make Monday as normal a day as possible. But there was no denying it wasn't normal, just four days after a powerful tornado ripped through the town, displacing many children and teachers.
There was the still-very-visible damage students had to pass on their way to school. Crisis team members were on buses to help students deal with that.
And there were the conversations in the hallways, the classrooms and the lunchroom. Administrators encouraged those, stating students need to process their feelings and conversations help.
About five members of the district’s crisis team rode with students on bus routes Monday morning. The crisis staff was assigned to routes that traveled through areas and neighborhoods with the most destruction.
Jami Bronson, principal at Mill Creek Middle School, said the idea to have the crisis team ride on the buses to facilitate conversations with children who may not have seen the damage yet was Superintendent Mary Marshall’s.
Bronson said it also will help the district to assess where children are in terms of their understanding of the damage from the tornado and their emotions toward it.
Officials said Monday that more than 200 homes were damaged by the storm and at least 20 homes were destroyed.
Assessing students’ needs was the goal Monday, Bronson said.
The crisis team met throughout the weekend to discuss a course of action. It will meet again at the end of the day Monday to make plans for the remainder of the week, Marshall said in a statement.
Bronson said the tornado was the primary topic of conversation as children entered the building Monday and it continued throughout the lunch hour. Bronson said the location of the school has probably led to increased discussion because students can see much of the damage from Mill Creek’s property. Mill Creek also served as the initial tornado shelter Thursday night.
“(The students) have been extremely kind and polite and have been demonstrating empathy,” she said. “I’m not such how much they understand A lot of them are still in the processing stages.”
Bronson said she sat during lunch at a table of all boys who shared stories with one another of helping to cut down trees or rake debris for a neighbor or even crying all weekend.
Something positive the children have garnered from the experience is a real sense of pride in the community and how everyone has come together, she said.
Community pride also was central to assemblies hosted at Bates and Cornerstone elementaries first thing Monday.
“We wanted to speak with students a little, but not a lot and really quickly acknowledge that we all have feelings of being scared and nervous about what happened and acknowledge that the community did all the right things and has been very resilient,” said principal Craig McCalla.
McCalla praised pupils and their families for following recommendations and getting into their basements and near an inside wall. He talked about the importance of knowing what to do in a fire, tornado or other disaster situation as well as the importance of practicing those drills at school.
However, McCalla said Cornerstone will be pushing back its annual, spring tornado drills for "a little while" to give pupils a chance to recover from Thursday’s actual tornado.
Classes throughout Dexter are operating on their regular schedules. Counselors and social workers are available at each building for students to speak with. At the K-6 schools, additional counselors and support staff were sent from Chelsea and Saline school districts to help, McCalla said.
At the middle school, each teacher did something different to allow the students an opportunity to reflect on the tornado. Bronson said some teachers asked students to write a journal entry, while others just spent a few minutes chatting openly with kids.
But the biggest task teachers were charged with was moving students forward.
“Routine sometimes can be comforting for kids,” Bronson said.
Teachers district-wide have been told to be on the lookout for children that may have lost their homes in the tornado and for those in need of clothing, food or other support.
“Everybody is jumping right on board,” McCalla said.
He added at the lower elementary schools, the fees for before- and after-school programs are being waived for two weeks to help support tornado victims. The district’s Food and Nutrition Department also is helping subsidize meals for children affected by the storm.
Bronson said aside from the dozens of children affected, Dexter schools had 24 staff members whose houses were destroyed in the tornado.
“I have always been proud to be affiliated with Dexter,” she said, fighting back tears. “But I don’t think I could be any more proud than I am today to live and work here.”