Finding the "new normal" is a way of life for kids and families at Fort Belvoir Elementary School in Fairfax County, Virginia. Of course, according to Margaret Moore, school psychologist at Fort Belvoir, "That's the nature of life in the military. There is constant movement and change." And, since 9/11, a constant sense of uncertainty and risk.
Less than 15 miles from the Pentagon, the September 11 attacks were very close to homeforthe Fort Belvoir community. Physical proximity was compoundedby emotional proximity both because a number of students and staff had family working at the Pentagon and because of the frontline nature of the inevitable military response. As at many schools in the DC metro area, Fort Belvoir staff found themselves that Tuesday pivoting from a normal school morning of welcoming students and beginning lessons to crisis management that included coordinating a mass exodus of students. Parents rushed to pick up their children from school just as Congress and the White House were evacuating amidst serious concerns that another plane was headed toward the city. Moore recalls that "anxiety was extremely high over whether or not Fort Belvoir could be at risk as well."
Uncertainty about the fate of lovedones atthe Pentagon (sadly, some ofwhomwere killed) and knowledge that some units would be activated to defend the country added to the intense process of calming fears and ensuring that students were connected to the right family member or authorized adult. In almost time-stopped motion, everyone showed up at the school for their children by 10:30 a.m. and most everyone was gone by early afternoon. Many staff left as well out of concern for family members, but the administrative and mental health staff stayed on to begin planning for the next day.
Thus began what few could have predicted would be the school's decade-long (so far) role at the heart of the 9/11 legacy and the longest war in American history.
Withbetween 1,200 andi,500 students, Fort Belvoir is the largest elementary school in the Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) system and one of the few public schools in the country operating on a military base. Most base schools are part of the Department of Defense Education Agency (DoDEA), which operates schools around the world. Additionally, Fort Belvoir is one of the only U.S. bases serving multiple branches of the military (Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard). Ninety-eight percent of the students at the K-6 school are in families with active duty military parents. Most have parents who have been, are, or will be deployed to a war zone.
'The risks of terrorism and war are very real to these children," says Moore. "But there is also a culture of resilience in the military and a strong sense of purpose and community. These are tremendous assets."
The coexistence of risk andresilience is a common theme in the military experience. Both were evident Wednesday morning, September 12. Fort Belvoir opened for a full day of school and all but one student of a single parent soldier who was killed at the Pentagon showed up. Students were anxious, but parents had done a good job of talking with their children and reinforcing the idea that "We are military, we will take care of this and keep you safe," says Moore. (Adult reassurance like this was a lead theme in the guidelines for helping children cope released by NASP on 9/11.) The school also had the benefit of access to the mental health team at the nearby DeWitt Army Hospital, who sent counselors to help the school mental health team support students, staff, and families. Moore recognized that they benefited greatly from a critical factor in effective school-community collaboration: familiarity. "A big advantage we had with the DeWitt counselors is that they knew the kids and their families. They understood the culture and the school."
Ten years later, the military provides an array of support resources for families and students that teachers and other staff integrate into and/or supplement with those provided by the school. …