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One school’s high price

How the principal of an elementary school in a New York suburb tried to maintain calm and order among students after hearing news of the Sept. 11 attacks.
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When word of the World Trade Center attacks reached Montclair, the principal of Hillside elementary school feared that some of the parents he saw drop their children off that morning might never be back. Sadly, he was right. When the trade center collapsed, it took with it nearly a dozen residents from this commuter town 12 miles from New York. Managing the fear of students and panicked parents alike became the job of Hillside’s principal.

Four children at Hillside lost close relatives: two fathers, a grandfather and an uncle. While that wouldn’t be known for some time, the potential affects of the attack on the school was clear to administrators of the school, which includes children from age 8 to 12.

“When I heard the news, I made a general announcement over the loudspeakers,” said principal Michael Chiles, who said he primarily sought to avoid panic among his 625 students. “I referred to the events that had taken place in New York City and asked the staff to minimize communication. I asked them to refrain from any discussion with students. Controlling the information was really key.”

The four children who lost close relatives heard the news from their families.

“All they knew was that something had happened in New York,” said Chiles. “We pretty much left it all ... to the parents.”

A desire to be close
Not surprisingly, many parents rushed to the school shortly after the attacks.

“It’s not because I was afraid the school wouldn’t deal with it,” said Irina Kuznetsov, who retrieved her 9-year-old son. “I just wanted him to be with me that day.”

Other parents thought it was better for the children to remain in school. “I was too personally upset to have them next to me,” said Kate McGuire, the mother of two. “I wanted them to have some normalcy.”

Some parents, who initially came to retrieve their children, decided not to do so when they saw that everything was under control, said Chiles.

A lot of parents were at a loss as to what to do and sought guidance. “People were calling me all day long with all sorts of psychological questions, like I was a therapist,” said Lori Beitler, co-president of the school’s PTA and the mother of two at Hillside School. “They were looking for just anybody to make a decision for them.”

protecting inquiring minds

Parents who came to pick up their children early were invited to go straight to the principal’s office to discuss the situation. Their child were then asked to report to the office, and parent and child were escorted outside without being permitted to return to the classroom, “so as not to impact on the other children,” said Chiles.

After Sept. 11, communicating adequately remained a priority for the rest of the year. The school organized discussion groups for parents and staff, and passed out literature on child psychology.

But it is impossible to shield children entirely from life’s tragedies.

“There was this beautiful playground, and this amazing blue sky, and all these beautiful children running happily, so oblivious of what had just happened,” said McGuire. “And I remembered thinking: ‘How many of them won’t have a father or a mother tonight?’ ”

Ten months after the terrorist attacks, Kuznetsov’s son still asks questions about them and doesn’t want his mother to fly. “We talk about it all the time,” she said.