Santa Monica Welcomes First Hurricane Victims
By Ann K. Williams
September 8 -- Santa Monica began welcoming the first of what could be as many as several hundred victims of Hurricane Katrina this week, when the Red Cross took in half a dozen families visiting the area when the cataclysmic storm hit the Gulf Coast.
On Wednesday, three children displaced by the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history were enrolled in time for the first day of school in Santa Monica thanks to a hastily organized humanitarian response by School District officials.
The children from New Orleans were enrolled in elementary school, middle school and high school Wednesday morning by a team led by Director of Student Services Laurel Schmidt whose mission is to enroll the children of evacuees as quickly as possible.
“We’re going to do what we can to make sure the students have a successful transition and a successful school year,” Schmidt said. “Everyone in our community wants to help these people.”
“We feel we have an ethical obligation,” Chief Financial Officer Winston A. Braham told a meeting of the Financial Oversight Committee Tuesday night.
“We’re going to go ahead and accept these students,” Braham said, adding that the action is in keeping with Santa Monica’s identity as a “giving and liberal community.”
While it is unclear just yet how many evacuees will ultimately seek shelter in Santa Monica, there may be as many as 250 to 500, according to District personnel.
In a meeting earlier this week with the local Red Cross, Superintendent Dr. John E. Deasy offered the use of Santa Monica High School as a temporary shelter, Braham said.
“We do offer our schools in times of crisis,” Schmidt said. For now, the Red Cross has passed on the District’s offer, hoping to place any evacuees who come its way directly in long term shelter.
The Santa Monica chapter of the Red Cross is still waiting to hear how many evacuees national headquarters will send, but already offcials are taking care of six to seven families who were visiting the Westside when Katrina hit, Red Cross officials said.
Some families are being placed in hotels, Red Cross officials said. The family with the children enrolled in local schools is staying with relatives, according to District officials.
Enrolling victims of a disaster of this magnitude raised some thorny financial and risk management issues for the District, but Braham was quick to make it clear that these obstacles will be overcome and should not stand in the way of common decency.
Verifying the children’s immunization records and current health status will be a high priority for Schmidt’s team.
The Humanitarian Relief Act dictates special reporting and accounting of the students, so it will be some time before the students’ “Average Daily Attendance” money is paid to the District by the State.
“I believe that will all take care of itself,” Braham said Tuesday night. “The governor has not issued an order," but the State Department of Education "has asked us to extend a hand,” he said.
Committee Chair Paul Silvern worried that the District might be seen as more sympathetic than other districts and, as a result, end up taking “a disproportionate number” of evacuees.
Committee Member Cynthia Torres suggested that the District cap the number of displaced students it accepts, as some universities are already doing.
Though Braham said he would consider the idea, “a cap might suggest some people might be left out.”
Like Braham, Schmidt and her team are focused on helping the District’s guests.
School staff are being urged to “be mindful” of the psychological needs of the children, and school psychologists are being directed to be on the alert for signs of post traumatic stress disorder, Schmidt said.
Her team’s mission will extend beyond enrollment, as they provided school
supplies and clothes for the children during the year.
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