In aftermath of Monterey Park shooting, students return to school and new reality

In aftermath of Monterey Park shooting, students return to school and new reality

A helicopter flew over Alhambra’s Granada Elementary School Saturday evening, warning nearby residents to stay inside.

Three miles south, in Monterey Park, at least 11 people lost their lives that night in the deadliest mass event since the Uvalde, Texas school shooting last year.

Just two blocks away from the Star Dance School tragedy, sits Ynez Elementary. It’s one of Alhambra Unified School District’s 13 grade schools, four of which serve Monterey Park residents.

But, as the community comes to grips with unthinkable tragedy, what officials at AUSD — one of four school districts that serves Monterey Park — want to emphasize is not the hurt, but the healing.

It’s healing that has to begin immediately in the predominantly Asian and Latino community. How can students process the trauma they are seeing on television and social media? Afterall, the shooting ravaged their own neighborhood on a Luna New Year weekend meant to be celebrated.

Instead, said Toby Gilbert, a spokesperson with AUSD, students run the risk of being traumatized over and over — by memories of those helicopters and by bombardment of images from the tragedy.

But, AUSD is not new to managing diverse expectations, Gilbert said. The school district of more than 15,000 students in grades K-12 has community coordinators who work with families who do not speak English at home. There are 17 home languages spoken, she added.

Nor is AUSD a stranger to trauma, Gilbert said, as she shared stories of district parents who struggled with day-to-day issues such as tough living conditions, job loss and confusion about how to help their struggling students.

“Our kids are just really brave,” Gilbert said as she started to cry.

What brought on the tears?

“Our kids are predominantly disadvantaged,” she explained. “The COVID economics and the deaths hit our families harder.”

Gilbert said some AUSD students lost parents, grandparents, uncles to the pandemic. Some had to move in with relatives mid-school year. Some had to help with siblings, while continuing to keep up with their own schoolwork.

So, you see, AUSD is not new to trauma, said Gilbert.

“But we are new to this type of trauma,” Gilbert said of the mass shooting. “This is a particularly large and unanticipated trauma.”

AUSD’s superintendent, staff members, board members and counselors had a day to prepare as Monday was a planned student-free day.

And fortunately, in an unexpected silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic, the district no longer has to share mental health resources from campus to campus. Thanks to the pandemic, Gilbert said, every AUSD site now has its own school counselor.

Over at neighboring Garvey School District, school was in full session on Monday.

As she toured the school campuses she leads near Monterey Park, GSD Superintendent Anita Chu noticed one thing in particular that morning.

There were far fewer students than normal in attendance.

Garvey had 350 absences, said Chu. Normally, the district of around 5,000 pupils has a daily absentee rate of 150-200 students.

It has not been an easy couple of days, said Chu, who has been fielding questions and communicating with staff since Sunday afternoon.

“It’s been quite a journey,” Chu said, referring to the magnitude of bearing responsibility for safeguarding the mental health and safety of students who are already vulnerable based on their ethnicity. About 60% of Garvey’s students are of Asian descent, Chu said. The other 40% are mostly Latino.

And her staff? They were unusually subdued today.

“I think we all feel very much overwhelmed,” Chu said. “People are shocked. They are quiet.”

That sense of awe and disbelief was shared by counselors over at AUSD who spent the day in meetings trying to determine a plan to help students, said Carol Perez, a licensed mental health counselor.

Perez, along with three others, serves as a lead for the district’s mental health program.

Monday, was a tough day, she said.

“It was definitely really hard for many of our staff to sit in these meetings and have this be a conversation we have to have in our schools right now,” Perez said.

But, she said, educators are working to bring their expertise to bear and they will focus on the students in the four Monterey Park elementary schools and those high schoolers who live there.

The challenge, said Perez, is to address the mental health needs of the school community in a space that is culturally inclusive, to a set of people who generally, have stigmatized such services.

“This happened during a major holiday,” Perez said. “How do we talk about this during a time when we should be celebrating and enjoying space with our families? And now it’s taken this turn.”

The community, in future years, runs the risk of Lunar New Year becoming synonymous with Monterey Park Shooting.

“It’s definitely going to change the community,” Perez said. But, with students receiving support from counselors and teachers, and with providing a safe space, they’ll get through, she said, and be able to identify what each student needs.

And the coming days could be more difficult, as Chu, and other school leaders face the revelation that family or friends were either killed or injured in the Monterey Park attack.

Towards the end of a somber school day Monday, Chu learned a third-grader in her district lost a great aunt in the Monterey Park tragedy. She declined to give more details so as to honor the family’s need for privacy.

But, counselors, she said, have already reached out to the student and family. The third grader’s parent, said Chu, is a consummate volunteer at that elementary schools.

Overall, said Perez, the best way to reduce the stigma of mental health is to normalize it as much as possible. She and her colleagues encourage pupils to talk about their feelings, in circle time at elementary schools, for example and in safe spaces such as the Calming Room that opened this month at San Gabriel High School.

And, much of that work can begin at home, Perez said.

Parents can look to see if students have a change in personality over the next few weeks or even months, as trauma can linger and take time to process.

If a child has as marked change in behavior, said Perez, that’s a bad sign. Has the child stopped talking? Doing homework? Doing things they normally love? Those are good indicators something is wrong, she said.

Ultimately, the onus is on all of us, said Gilbert, to ensure our children are safe at school — safe from gunmen and safe from the aftermath of mental stress.

“This is something we all do together,” she said, adding the district works with Monterey Park and Alhambra police departments on safety measures. And, the old adage, “if you see something, say something,” relates to childrens’ behavior as well.

“We emphasized (during the Uvalde tragedy), that no single person can keep our kids safe,” said Gilbert. “It relies on all of us to act.”

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