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Joplin Schools Brace for Storm Season

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Mo. Gov. Jay Nixon hands out free backpacks full of school supplies to students at East Middle School in Joplin, Missouri on August 17, 2011. East Middle School was destroyed by the May 22, 2011 tornado and rebuilt in a former warehouse over the summer.    UPI/Tom Uhlenbrock

Mo. Gov. Jay Nixon hands out free backpacks full of school supplies to students at East Middle School in Joplin, Missouri on August 17, 2011. East Middle School was destroyed by the May 22, 2011 tornado and rebuilt in a former warehouse over the summer. UPI/Tom Uhlenbrock

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — It’s that time of the year again.

Since school started last August, the Joplin School District’s approach has been to educate students about weather and preparedness in the event of a storm.

“The more information you have about something, the less scary it is,” said Krista Farris, school psychologist at Emerson, Kelsey Norman and Duenweg/Duquesne elementary schools.

For Missouri Severe Weather Awareness Week, Weather School presentations were given at eight Joplin schools by Gary Bandy, chief meteorologist for television station KSN. Bandy talked about how to identify different clouds, what causes tornadoes and what to include in emergency kits. After a presentation recently at Emerson Elementary, pupils participated in a statewide tornado drill.

The May 22 tornado will have a long-term effect on Joplin’s students, said Lisa Orem, director of special services for the school district.

At several schools, students who were affected by the storm have been put into problem-solving teams and group counseling that includes teaching coping skills they can use to calm themselves when they feel anxious. Orem estimated that at some schools, up to 40 percent of students are part of these groups or receive individual counseling.

Kelly Miller is a fifth-grade teacher at Emerson Elementary. She also is the mother of a fifth-grader and a second-grader. She rode out the tornado with her family in interior hallways of their house at the corner of 27th Street and Kentucky Avenue. They lost their home.

“As a teacher, my mothering instinct kicks in here because I know how they’re feeling,” Miller said. “The biggest thing is to stay calm, and to practice and remember those routines. We talk about the weather. It’s the elephant in the room.”

“We’ve told our teachers just to be open and honest,” said Sara Thomason, school psychologist at Cecil Floyd and Irving elementary schools. “We encouraged teachers to talk about the weather. `It’s windy, and that makes me nervous. How about you?’ Address the elephant in the room. Reassure them that those feelings are normal.”

When the weather starts to change, she notices that students start to get restless and chatty.

“I haven’t really seen aggressive behaviors or dramatic changes,” she said. “On days that are overcast, they ask questions like `Anybody watching the weather?’ `Is it going to storm?’ `Is there going to be a tornado?’ It’s the first thing they jump to I’m reassuring them and myself at the same time.”

Overall, teachers, counselors and school psychologists are seeing more anxiety from students when it comes to the weather. They hope that the groundwork they’ve laid this school year with students and staff members will help during storm season.

Miller said living through the storm has made her more aware of what’s going on and to be more mindful of drills.

“They (students) hear people saying this may be a very eventful storm season,” she said. “I don’t want them to live in fear and feel anxious that that will happen again. In any event, I want them to feel prepared and safe. We’ve all done routine drills, but it’s always just been a drill. Now, we know exactly what could happen.”

At Emerson, Federal Emergency Management Agency shelters have been stocked with supplies as well as board games and activities to occupy students’ minds in the event they have to seek shelter.

“I’m preparing like a normal person would,” said Savannah Johnson, a fifth-grader at Emerson. “By practicing what we’re supposed to do, we’ll be prepared.”

After the Weather School presentation, Emerson parents said in interviews that they and their children are more prepared for a storm than they were last year.

“My little girl did better than Dad did” in dealing with storms, Jeff Shikles said of his first-grade daughter at Emerson. The family lost everything on May 22. “Any knowledge (the schools can teach) is great.”

Ginger Fillenwarth has a second-grade son at Emerson. She said her son is afraid every once in a while of storms, but he often reassures her.

“I just tell them to calm down and pray,” she said.

Julie Sinclair, school psychologist for Joplin High School, said high school students have coping behaviors more like those of adults and don’t express their fears the same way younger children do.

“For older kids, parents assume they’re less frightened,” Sinclair said. “That’s not the case. The kids are being brave for parents and they’re brave for the kids, and there’s not a lot of communication going on. A lot have said they’ve lost their childhood.”

Some older students are struggling with how to handle anger appropriately, and some are self-medicating and generally exhibiting more reckless behavior, Sinclair said. The school district also has started suicide prevention training for teachers and for students who are in fifth grade and older.

Some older students who do not have strong coping skills are taking more risks, said Orem, the director of special services. Officials are seeing more absenteeism among older students who are staying home from school or are ill more than normal.

“We’re looking forward to storm season being over,” Orem said.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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