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Going Back to School is Tough, Especially in the Wake of Terrorism

September 23, 2003
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Going back to school is usually tough for students after the summer hiatus, but this year some Israeli students were relieved to be back in class after the summer’s calm was shattered by the resumption of Palestinian terrorism.

Teachers now have to figure out how to make their students feel safe as yet another school year begins in the shadow of violence.

“I’m in favor of going back to the routine as much as possible, but we do not ignore what is going on,” says Ronit Ben David, principal of Ironi Tet High School in Tel Aviv.

Students need the opportunity to discuss the ongoing crisis, she says. This year the school is offering a 15-minute homeroom period every day, instead of just once a week, so students can talk openly about what’s on their minds.

“Students discuss current events, the government and personal things,” Ben David says. “Everyone can get information and talk about what’s going on, both the facts and the feelings.”

Ben David says the homeroom discussions have been successful in providing “a place for students to free themselves and begin the day more relaxed.”

Lilach Tsadka, an eighth-grade student at Arazim middle school in Or Yehuda, a suburb of Tel Aviv, says she is glad to be getting back to routine and appreciates opportunities to talk about the summer’s disturbing events.

“It’s important to know what happened and why,” she says of recent bombings.

Sometimes, tragedy strikes close to home, and schools are forced to adapt their coping strategies.

When a student from Ironi Tet was killed several years ago in a terrorist attack at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, the school responded with what it called a “circles approach”: The closer people were to the victim, the more support they received.

The entire school went through three days of special programming to help staff and students cope with the loss, and the victim’s class went through a whole month of special programs. Close friends were offered an extended period of counseling.

Tragedy struck much more recently in a school district in the north. The Sept. 9 suicide bombing outside the Tzrifin military base in central Israel killed, among others, two men from northern Israel. One was the father of two young students in Pardess Hanna, near Hadera; another was the father of two students in Haifa.

The area school district sent counselors to the victims’ families and to the schools to speak with students.

“Students expressed lots of fears that maybe the same thing will happen to their own parents,” says Ayelet Yaron, supervisor of guidance counselors in the Haifa District Ministry of Education.

A number of students also expressed anxiety about how to handle the pain of friends who had just lost their fathers.

“The kids cried a lot,” Yaron says.

Though Yaron encourages the students to discuss their feelings, she says it’s crucial to move quickly to solutions for dealing with fear, grief and anxiety. That’s why the Haifa school district provides drama, art and music therapy for students.

Such programs are available for both Jewish and Arab schools, Yaron says.

“I don’t think there is a very big difference between Jewish and Arab response,” she says. “When there is a terrorist attack in Haifa, Arabs are also affected. They are also killed.”

Many children have developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of terrorism.

“We see there are a lot of consequences,” Yaron says. The attacks also “affect students’ academic achievement. We try to reduce the impact so it will be short term, not long term. We stress returning as quickly as possible to every day life, to studying, to learning, because we know that once someone is active, he doesn’t dwell on his fears and his grief.”

The return to the routines of normal life is what keeps many Israelis going during these difficult times.

“It’s the most comforting thing to see students going on with their lives even though things are falling apart around us,” says Ruti Lehavi, principal of Keshet High School in Jerusalem, a small school with a mixed religious-secular population of 220 students.

None of Keshet’s students was directly injured by the Sept. 9 attack at Jerusalem’s Cafe Hillel, but the bombing shocked the school, which is nearby.

Many Keshet students heard the blast, and two were at the site of the explosion minutes afterward, volunteering with Magen David Adom emergency services.

Teachers and pupils immediately were in contact with each other, making sure everyone was alright.

The next day, teachers made time for the students to talk about their feelings. One ninth grader, Tamar, suggested putting flowers and lighting candles at the scene of the attack.

“Her friends said it’s not the right thing to do,” Lehavi says. “They said the right thing to do is go on with the routine.”

In southern Israel, far from the scene of many terrorist attacks, carrying on with the routine of life seems a little easier.

“We are kind of far from all the problems,” says Hayim Eizner, principal of the ORT school in Yeroham, a suburb of Beersheba.

The school began the year with a course offering students security tips. Other than that, Eizner says, “We have a guard all day long for the students, but that’s it.”

Two years ago, the Ironi Tet school in Tel Aviv held ceremonies after terrorist attacks, and children participated in the services.

“But we are finished with that. We can’t do ceremonies every day. We have to try and have normal lives,” Ben David says. “We can’t live in a perpetual state of grief. It’s not normal.”

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