Skip to main content
Full Menu Close Menu

Julie Beatrice and Pat Prusak

No Child Left Behind: 9/11/01 Revisited

As we wrap up another school year and begin also to plan for the upcoming one, school social workers across the nation, and certainly within New York State, cannot avoid addressing the recent developments in the nation’s "war on terrorism." The death of Osama Bin Laden, the president’s recent visit to Ground Zero, and the upcoming tenth anniversary all bring us to a time of personal and professional reflection.

Within New York State, we share stories that strike a common chord while also being strikingly different, depending on our proximity to the events, both physically and emotionally. This collaborative article will hopefully serve as a prompt for your own recollection, as schools and districts make plans to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11/01, which will be upon us at the start of the new school year.

President Obama’s recent visit to New York City to put closure on the terrorist attack was a great step toward doing so for the families, firemen, policemen and volunteers that he recognized. The fact that school children and educators were not addressed prompts one to wonder if the public recognizes how the children of New York City and New York State and we school social workers were affected by the devastating event.

We social workers in New York City (and throughout the state as well as the USA) can never forget where we were the minute we heard about the September 11th attack of 2001, happening sadly on a school day. This was a day when terrorism entered our students’ lives in a very real and scary way. While much has transpired over the course of the almost ten years, the stories of the educational heroes and the psychological effects on the students in the city, who were evacuated and ran from the carnage of this event and the destruction of the buildings and surrounding devastation (both physical and psychological), continue and need to be recorded in our New York City history. The events of these past several weeks have again brought us face to face with the legacy of pain that has stemmed from the terrorist attacks of September 11th.

Comment From the Front Line — Julie’s Story

I was sitting in my office looking at and reviewing a Title I counseling record. My principal came in and he stated that, "We are under attack, the Twin Towers have been hit, they got the Pentagon, and maybe other planes are involved too." He rushed out. I sat there stunned in shock.

I get up to follow him down the stairs, almost running to catch up. On the way downstairs I stop and go into the Title I Room, my Title I teacher is there. I tell her the principal said "The Pentagon and the Twin Towers have been hit and we are under attack." She looked up and starts to hysterically ramble about how she lived through attacks like these as a child. I didn't know that. As she spoke, from behind her, I could see out the window. The front of our school shares a parking lot with a Muslim mosque. I could see the front of the mosque, I could see the Muslim men who were selling goods in front of the mosque, talking excitedly to each other, hurriedly packing up their goods and exiting the street, rushing back into the mosque.

I think terrorist, what terrorist? I hear my Title I teacher crying, and then crying out that her husband was in the building across from the Trade Center. I calm her down and tell her to, "Wait here, let me find out some more information, I'll be right back."

I go down to the first floor to the front office. The priest, principal and secretary are hovered around a radio. I listen too; incredibly a second plane now hits the second tower. I stand there numb (I didn't know how to feel, I've never been anywhere under attack). I listen some more. The tower falls down and then the other follows. I think, "Oh my God, what is happening to us?"
A short time later, I go back upstairs and with the help of another, the other Title I teacher, we try and help the first Title I teacher think about how to locate her husband.

I went back then to the first floor. Parents are starting to come to the school. There becomes a steady stream of parents asking to pick up their children from school. I help to get the children from their classes; they will be discharged to their parents. The priest and principal tell me not to say anything and let the parents' explain to their own children what has happened. By now the school is buzzing and teachers discreetly are trying to find out information. Some get on the landline phones at the school. There is no cell phone service. I use a landline and call my supervisor and my friend.

I get through to both. I ask my friend to go to my home and wait for my children to get home. I'm not sure if I'll reach my friend again but I need to hang up. There are over four hundred children at this school and I turn my attention to whatever needs to be done to help them.

The pastor and principal decide they are going to keep the school as normal as possible and not tell the children about the attack. The word gets out to the teachers. Many of the children's parents work in the city; many are police, firemen, nurses, airline people, livery drivers, etc. This is the Bronx and most parents work in New York City. We wonder how long will we be at the school and if the parents will be able to come for the children? There is a convent at the school so we have a backup plan to house the children if need be. The decision is made to keep the children here at school all day. We do not want to discharge children before the end of the school day.

Time passes; some Muslim parents come in and get their children. I can tell by their faces they are frightened, they hug their kids for dear life. They silently look into my eyes and leave quickly. I wonder what they are thinking. When trauma strikes you try to logically separate yourself from the event and objectify things; it makes you feel like you have control over feelings and thoughts when really the thoughts are spiraling out of control and you are afraid.

I continue to work. A teacher is crying and another is leaving. Their loved ones are in danger, they need to find them, and they are working at the World Trade Center. Other teachers cover their classes. The phones are dead, the subways and busses stop running, the noise of the city stops. It's eerie, it is silent, and I can hear the birds. The children are asking questions, why is everyone being picked up from school? We are reassuring but with a non-committal response.

I begin to think about home, but I remember now all the bridges are closed and mass transit has stopped. I have a car but how can I cross to Long Island if the bridges are closed? How can I get home to my children? I am a single mother and I feel scared. I wonder if I will ever see my children again. I am a social worker who has never been faced with anything like this before. I wonder will some parents never make it to the school to pick up their children. I wonder how many parents were working in the Twin Towers. I think I will stay until every last child is picked up, then what? Maybe I'll be with the kids in the school all night, kids whose parents — like me — can't get home to their children either.

I speak to my supervisor. She is a good woman and a great social worker. She wants me to stay safe, sleep at the convent if need be or get myself to her apartment, which is not over a bridge. She is always there for us as a social worker supervisor, always thinking about her staff. She tells us all the time, when we counsel children, "Talk to the head, not to the feet." She tells us that everyone in the school is our client: the principal, the custodian, the children; our job is a job of relationships and we should never forget that everyone is our client. So I walk around the school, make myself useful to those who are afraid, are crying, are talking, anyone that needs me to listen. This is a time for rational thought and composure. I am composed.

I start continuously circling the building. This is something my son does when he is excited and needs to talk and walk at the same time. There is some very important feeling that needs to come out. I start circling the building, the third floor, the second floor, the first floor, talking to staff, parents and children. Comforting and listening, comforting and listening.

The principal tells me that the pastor is going to address the remaining children after lunch at 1:30 p.m. I go and listen, too; I need to be there for the children.

At the assembly the pastor speaks in general about this being a difficult day. The children need to be very helpful and good today. Father tells them to be nice to their parents and that many of their parents are having a very hard day today working in the city. He asks the children to raise their hands if their parents are policemen or firemen. I am surprised there are about 40 -50 children that raise their hands. I try to note, who are these children, and in what grades. We are there for about an hour. I find it hard to believe that he is going to discharge them later in the day without explaining anything further.

After the assembly, I continue to aid in the discharge of children as parents are coming in grabbing their children. The stories are beginning to flow about what is happening now or has happened outside the school, downtown New York City is not that far away. A police officer comes into the school and talks with the principal, I listen, and it is awful. First he is getting his child then he needs to report to work. He has a radio on his shoulder. I ask him about the bridges. I need to get home. He radios and tells me that the Whitestone Bridge is opened in one direction only for a short time, getting out of the city onto Long Island and that I should leave immediately and get home. He does not know how long the bridge will remain open. My principal gives me an order to leave. I leave the school.

On the way home I feel weird. All the cars are at a dead stop coming into the Bronx. People are standing outside their cars and looking toward the city. I am moving away from the city and, as I get to the top of the bridge, I get my first glimpse of where the Twin Towers used to be. These is only smoke and as I look I pray to God to, "Help all those people in those buildings." I go home. My 11 year old daughter and 13 year old son are home. I hug them and cry.

The schools are closed and I have been watching the mass destruction of lower Manhattan all night on television. The next day I am summoned by my social work supervisor who calls me at home to go to the Department of Education for trauma training. I go, as do others, to an auditorium filled with social workers and psychologists. We get a crash course in dealing with trauma. The schools are closed today. The training is chaotic and noisy but effective; we social workers are at work. People have been working all night to give us this information.

The Department of Education passes out very useful information about dealing with students, "Facing Fear" manuals. I get some great books from the Red Cross and from FEMA. I leave with this information. I am now better trained in helping children deal with trauma. I take the information home and the next morning I get up extra early to drive to one school and drop off the information and then go to the next school. I arrive very early and someone is videoing the mosque next door to my school. It is very early in the morning and I think this is strange and I wonder if it is a local television station. I don't see the name of the station or anything or a truck and then the two people who are videoing see me and they leave very quickly. I go into the school and leave information for the principal and then go to the school I am assigned to that day. The video taping of the mosque by these strangers is something that the NYC police information hotline is very interested in knowing about.

This day begins trauma counseling at my schools. This trauma counseling has lasted on and off for ten years now. There are many moments from this point forward that make up my perceptions of the day trauma came to the children in our schools in New York City. In the course of the ten years that have passed I have counseled many children and their families as well as other people in my private practice who have been directly effected by 9-11-01, from people who were delivering their baby at the exact time the attacks were happening (with their mother-in-law in the World Trade Center) to children who have lost parents, to people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder who never returned to the city, to work, to people I know, my friends, my best man's wife, Nancy, who lost her life in the Trade Center and he lost his life line to his life, to children who cried for weeks on end because they felt their parents' fears and pains working to clean up the carnage at Ground Zero, to Muslim parents who would not let me counsel their children for fears that this would bring notice to them and their religion and reprisals to them and their children.

I listened to people tell me how they have been psychologically effected by their seeing these horrible things people should never have had to see. I counseled the children who sometimes brought their parents to me because as the parents were being affected by trauma so were the children, who could feel their parents’ withdrawal and despair, thinking that they the children were somehow responsible for the parents' changed personality. I sat with the children who couldn't speak about the trauma, we colored silently. I sat with the children who felt abandoned and hurt by the parent who worked with their own sorrow, fireman or policeman who were different for months on end, to the child or parents that didn't come home for days.

There were students, like the one who learned about the attack alone on the streets watching a television in a store. That night both of that child's parents didn't come home because one was an airline stewardess grounded in Texas and the other was a police officer not able to get back from New Jersey, mandated to work. I counseled that child. I would have opted to talk to the children who were not picked up by their parents before they left the school, so as not to have that happen, that the child returned to a home without a parent. But some of these things were not meant to be.

The story that I heard, involves three children that I think about often, I have spent countless hours with these students, who, the week before, were celebrating bring your child to work day with their father. That day, 9-11, he never came home and for the next two years or so they told me how they stared at the television each time the news showed the towers collapsing, with the people coming out of the building, hoping they can find their father running out of the Twin Tower building and reliving each and every time they saw the towers collapse, their grief of their father’s death. This was a building they were in a week before celebrating their father's work, in a restaurant which had been the fabulous "Windows of the World." I sat there with them and listened.

I know the face of trauma. I counseled these students and watched and participated in their suffering on an almost daily basis for years, as they waited for a father that never came home and waited to have feelings return again, they walked around the school, comatose, shadows of children who once had been happy. With all the outside counseling the school supports, including tutoring, academic success was not part of those early years. Trauma affects learning.

The thing about schools is that they bring support to children even in a time of trauma. One of the three students, who had lost her father, in her senior year at that school, did lots of volunteer work at the school. She hovered and buzzed as an adolescent around the principal. He had become her substitute father. He had been kind to her and seen her through these years. Her own father had been an extremely kind man and now this principal extended to her his genuine kindness. Happiness then returned and it was like what comes out of the ashes of a volcano or what resurrects after a forest fire, the signs of a new life, new twigs and sprigs born from the ashes and destruction.

One of the people I am most grateful to is my social work supervisor, who on that day and many days thereafter held fifty or so social workers and psychologists throughout the city together, calling on the ones she knew would be stranded by not having any public transportation, offering her apartment if you couldn't get home. She herself could not get home and went to a co-worker's home. She gave us group supervision, individual supervision, trauma training and humanity. She let us know we were the relationships that needed tending to, just like we needed to be the relationships that others needed; she gave to our Bureau of Non-Public School program the support we needed, so we could use our abilities to counsel countless other students and their families throughout this city. I told her the other day about the new trauma that children were facing, ten years later, the death of Osama Bin Laden and how the students had different reactions. His death is a complicated issue for children. As always, even in retirement, she talked about the need to listen to children, just listen and be there for them, let them talk because it is in their self-expression that they learn the most critical lessons in life about not only how they think but how they feel and it is with this expression of thought that we social workers are most trained and valuable to our schools. That we are able to listen to children and that listening allows children to grow and think. Children become better people and citizens by being listened to. We school workers are part of helping children value both their and our futures, as productive educated citizens who share in goodness of humanity.

So in closing, I pay tribute to the educators who ran from buildings with their school children to Battery Park and elsewhere. To the social workers and others who counseled countless families and children. I want all of us to think this 9-11-2011 that ten years later, when we in NYC experienced a national crisis, under attack, No Child in our great city was Left Behind or left psychologically to fend for themselves.

On the evening of May 1, when President Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader and mastermind behind the terrorist attack of 9/11, had been killed in a firefight with American Special Forces, I was struck by the number of young people who spontaneously showed up at Ground Zero and in Times Square. It made a lot of sense that these young adults, mostly in their 20s, gathered to show their relief at — and yes, even to celebrate the death of — Public Enemy #1. These same youth were our middle-school-age children who were robbed of their childhood innocence on 9/11/01.

On that Monday morning, the children in my schools immediately began to talk about the previous day’s events. The children were confused. They wanted to know, how should they feel about this event?

Comment From the Distance — Pat’s Story

In my position as an elementary school social worker in Western New York, the issues around the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 shared the same themes of loss, trauma and vulnerability, but in ways different from that of my colleagues downstate who were in the “eye of the storm.” We had what I guess I would call more “collateral damage.” Few people had direct ties to the Twin Towers or to the area surrounding it. (In fact, only one staff member reported a personal loss — and that was a friend who died aboard Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania.) We did not share the same trauma of being in such close proximity.

Like the rest of the country, of course, our world was turned upside down. War is something that is waged in a different land; American casualties, by a huge margin, largely involve only the military or civilians who are present in a war zone by their own choice. On 9/11 all of that changed in a matter of mere minutes. Children and adults felt unsafe in their homes, in their schools and in all public places.

That day for me and my colleagues became a crash course in crisis management as we organized systems for dismissing students to anxious parents who rushed to the school. I remember advising an administrator to limit our young students’ access to television and Internet media until they could process the day’s events with family nearby for comfort. It involved convincing teachers to turn off the classroom television and avoid the urge “to watch history in the making” at the risk of further traumatizing the children as they watched the towers fall over and over again in video replay. It involved being part of the core team who later in the day supervised the schoolchildren in large groups to allow other staff to go home to their own families.

At the public elementary school where I work, there was another factor that added to the complexity of dealing with the terrorist attack of 9/11. A quarter of the children in our building are non-Americans; we house a program for newcomers to the U.S. Most of our children in this program are refugees from countries ravaged by war, so the pictures of 9/11 evoked memories of their own personal tragedies and there was a great deal of grief work to be done in these classes in particular. Since several of the children are Muslim, there was also a need to address their self-identity, as well as the public perception of Muslims as a group to be feared or hated. (Fortunately, this school has a pretty solid history of multiculturalism and acceptance; so this task was less daunting than it might otherwise have been.) The presence of this group of children added another layer to the job of dealing with the horrific events of that September day.

While we share the nation’s sense of pride and patriotism in light of the successful effort to permanently stop Osama Bin Laden, I think we owe it to our children to avoid presenting war as a simple issue of “good guys” versus “bad guys.” I hope the anniversary of 9/11 is seen not only as a chance to honor the heroes who worked tirelessly on rescue efforts in New York, in Pennsylvania and in Washington; but also as a springboard for deeper discussions about man’s inhumanity toward fellow man. As school social workers, we could be using this opportunity to promote social justice within the communities we serve.