April 06, 2020

Schools to help military families Augusta forum to teach educators

It was 9:40 a.m. when Jackie Files received a text message on her cellular phone during her second period study hall at Brewer High School.

The message read: “Marcus is shipping out. I don’t know when his plane leaves.”

As tears began to run down her cheeks, the 16-year-old approached her study hall teacher, asking permission to use the bathroom and then be dismissed from school.

When the teacher asked what was wrong, the student said, “I don’t want to talk in front of everyone, I just want to be left alone,” as her classmates stared at her in concern, Jackie recalled on Monday.

Minutes later, Jackie’s mother approved her dismissal, and she hopped in her car and drove to Portland, trying to swallow her sobs.

Last week, Air Force recruit Marcus Files, Jackie’s 18-year-old brother, boarded a plane bound for Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where he will participate in basic training and technical school.

Jackie Files of Dedham is one of hundreds of Maine children and teens who are carrying into the classroom the anxiety associated with having a loved one in the military.

In recognition of the need to help those children, the Maine National Guard Family Program will host a conference on Thursday and Friday to help educate school officials from around the state on how to support military kids and families.

“This training is not just beneficial – it’s almost crucial,” Rick Bach, Maine National Guard state youth coordinator, said recently. “We do hear the impact [deployment is] having on the kids, behaviorally and emotionally. We try to help the kids and try to teach the educators how to help the kids.”

Bach wasn’t able to give an exact figure for the number of children of deployed military personnel in the state, saying only that there were “a lot.”

Approximately 47 school districts, military support groups, and community organizations around the state have signed up for the two-day conference. The level of participation indicates the state’s need for such a program, Bach said.

Conference participants will discuss the separation anxiety that results from deployment, changes in family economic situations when a parent is away, and even dealing with anti-war sentiment that children may hear in the media, at school, or in the community. Guard family members have been invited to participate, so school officials can converse with parents and hear firsthand the struggles military children face.

Staff with the Military Child Education Coalition, headquartered in Harker Heights, Texas, will conduct the seminar. The organization is sponsored by the U.S. Army Child and Youth Services, which receives funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, Bach said. The conference is free of charge to all who register and will run 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. both days at the Augusta State Armory.

“I think it’s vital,” Tim Hackett, director of guidance at Brewer High School, said Tuesday, explaining his decision to attend the event. “When you look at all the kids who are in school and the contacts they make, you realize they can’t really compartmentalize.

“They can’t put on one face to go to school and then take that face off later,” he said.

Hackett pointed out that the school has applied to offer an Air Force Junior ROTC program at the high school, which played a small role in his decision to participate in the event, he said. The school official also acknowledged that a lot of students in the district are affected by military deployment.

“Hopefully this seminar will give us some tools to really allow us to help solve problems for some families here, so guardsmen don’t need to worry about anything but getting home,” Daniel Lee, superintendent for the Brewer school department, said.

Kitty Mitchell has been a school counselor for SAD 48 in Newport for 20 years. As the wife of a retired military man, she said she will attend the training and hopes to make other educators in the district aware of the growing need for support for military families.

“I hope to bring back a more heightened awareness to the staff,” she said.

Before working for the Maine National Guard, Bach served as principal at the Bangor Christian Schools. While he was there, he saw firsthand the effects deployment has on children whose parents are in the National Guard.

One morning a few years ago, Bach walked into a classroom before school and found a high school girl with her head down on a desk, he recalled.

When he asked if she was OK, she lifted her head and her eyes brimmed with tears. “I miss my dad,” was her only response, he said. Her father had deployed with a local Guard unit.

Since that incident, he tried to be more involved with her family, Bach said.

“I wish we had this sooner for all those families who have been through deployment,” Bach said.

Jackie agreed that the growing awareness will benefit her school and said she hopes it will prompt teachers to identify symptoms of separation anxiety or stress before they become issues in the classroom.

The student said that by talking about feelings, other youngsters come to realize they’re not the only ones with family members deployed.

“It definitely helps to have training sessions like this because it comforts kids to talk to somebody,” Jackie said.

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