Appreciating school employees


It was a time to come together for Howard County school system personnel. Declaring Oct. 10 red, white and blue day, Superintendent John R. O'Rourke invited all 6,000 employees to a reception held in appreciation for their response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

"This is very simply an opportunity for all of us associated with the school system to say thank you to all of you," O'Rourke said to workers gathered at Ten Oaks Ballroom in Clarksville.

O'Rourke called the employees extraordinary and praised their efforts during and after the terrorism.

Decked out in red, white and blue clothing, employees laughed, hugged and talked, as the sounds of the Hepcats jazz combo of students from Wilde Lake High filled the room. Others wandered along the perimeter of the room perusing displays of artwork by county schoolchildren.

"I think at a time like this, people have a need for that sense of community more than ever," said Patti Caplan, school system spokeswoman.

O'Rourke's event was valued by several guests.

"It's always nice to be appreciated," said Judy Litz, manager of technical services at the central office.

Nearby, Tara Girch, a teacher at Cedar Lane School, called the reception great for morale.

"It's also therapeutic - people need to gather and regroup," said Keith West, assistant principal at Wilde Lake Middle School, who appreciated an event in which employees could take time for themselves, share stories and see how each is faring.

County Executive James N. Robey added his sentiments. "You've made a tremendous difference to all the young people who are so confused by what's going on," said Robey, who also expressed gratitude for their continuing efforts as the uncertainty continues.

The events of Sept. 11 set off a chain reaction for school personnel unlike anything previously experienced. Because of news coverage of the attacks, parents came to schools almost immediately, Caplan said.

Schools implemented emergency plans, set up tables and checked identifications of an influx of adults arriving to pick up children. Runners were sent to classrooms to retrieve children, she said.

Reports indicated everything went smoothly, Caplan said. School personnel stayed late in the day until every child was accounted for.

"On Sept. 11, most people packed up and went home," said O'Rourke. "Our people stayed with the children."

He said employees continue to put aside personal concerns to take care of the children.

West talked about how difficult that day and its aftermath have been. Many employees have friends and relatives in New York, said West, who is from Harlem and has a sister who was close to the World Trade Center collapse. It was hard to take charge of pupils and staff while worrying about her safety, he said.

Girch said that teaching was a distraction for some, but for others it was a reminder of the tragedy as children asked questions. West called school a "sane place" and a haven from constant media coverage.

Artwork lining the room spoke volumes about children's personal feelings of the tragedy, the United States, unity, diversity, patriotism and family. Drawings, pictures, collages and photographs were included, each an impression of the world through the eyes of young people.

"In the days that followed, there were numerous teachable moments with students," Caplan said.

Employees used the opportunity, shaping positive discussions among older children in social studies classes.

Guidance counselors, school psychologists and pupil personnel workers passed on information from the National Association of School Psychologists about how to talk with children about their feelings, Caplan said.

She said school personnel continue to re-evaluate the emergency response plan, fine-tuning procedures to ensure equipment and resources are available to respond effectively in the future.

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