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Experts mop up storm's trauma

VAN WERT, Ohio - Ask almost anyone in this tornado-wracked town about last week's storms, and they'll tell you the same thing: They're glad to be alive and thankful it wasn't worse.

“We were very fortunate it wasn't more of a tragedy,” said Cathy Hoffman, superintendent of the Van Wert City Schools.

But the sight of so many homes and businesses destroyed, the knowledge that friends or relatives have lost everything, can cause its own kind of trauma.

That's why Dean Sparks has been in Van Wert since Thursday, taking the community's emotional pulse. Mr. Sparks, a mental health specialist for the American Red Cross, is counseling victims of the disaster and helping school officials look for signs that students are suffering trauma.

“You don't have to have your house blown away to be affected by these tornadoes,” Mr. Sparks said. “We're seeing some sleep disorders and what would ordinarily be classified as behavioral problems.”

Mr. Sparks, executive director of Lucas County Children Services, conducted a disaster training session yesterday with 14 teachers and staff members at Washington Elementary School. During the meeting, Mr. Sparks suggested ways to spot trauma and help students cope.

“We had some questions about how we should approach some things with our children if we encounter them,” said Peg Schilb, the school's principal. “As we go down the road from this disaster in the community, we'll be able to recognize some of the signs that students are experiencing stress.”

Mr. Sparks said he has visited every school in the county, which was hit especially hard in the Nov. 10 storms. Two people were killed and 19 seriously hurt in Van Wert County, and dozens of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed.

In 16 other Ohio counties, three people died and seven suffered serious injuries.

Mr. Sparks said children may seem fine after a traumatic event but show signs of stress later on, by acting out, refusing to do homework, or crying for no apparent reason.

“I think when we deal with children, many times they can't verbalize that there's something wrong in their life, so they show us with their behavior,” Ms. Schilb said.

The school has had isolated behavioral issues since classes resumed Thursday, the principal added. She pointed to a situation involving a student whose grandfather lives near a heavily damaged area.

“One of the behaviors I dealt with today was from a sixth grader who a year and a half ago lost his father suddenly,” she said. “I'm not even sure the student recognized that himself.”

Ms. Hoffman, the district's superintendent, said guidance counselors at all the city schools are available to talk with students.

“From what we're hearing, sometimes this type of reaction is down the road a little bit,” she said. “Right now, everybody's in a state of shock, or maybe it hasn't hit them yet.”

Mr. Sparks urged school officials to get back to routine schedules and activities as soon as possible and avoid exposing children to images of the damage.

“He shared that anyone who watches a disaster over and over again, as we did on 9/11, experiences fear and anxiety at a higher level, so his attitude was that we should shield our children from that,” Ms. Schilb said.

However, some images are unavoidable and close to home. Ms. Schilb pointed to TV footage and newspaper pictures of the damaged Van Wert Cinemas that showed overturned cars and rubble in front of rows of theater seats.

“Living in a small community like this, every one of our kids has been in that theater,” she said.

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