Sonoma County Office of Education

SCOE Receives Grant to Provide Fire Trauma Counselors for Sonoma County Schools

10/03/2019 -

Two years after the Tubbs Fire devastated Sonoma County and made a lasting impact on schools and students, a newly created team of counselors is gearing up to help students and staff cope with the ongoing trauma.  The Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) has received a $311,000 grant from the California Department of Education (CDE) to hire counselors to help students and staff impacted by the Fall 2017 wildfires.

The grant, awarded in August, comes through a federal Immediate Aid to Restart School Operations (RESTART) grant that the CDE received following the 2017 wildfires. Using these funds, SCOE created the Crisis Assistance and Resilience Education (CARE) team, which consists of one half-time and two full-time counselors. The team began work in September and has been busy gearing up to serve schools. This includes: meeting with school leaders to determine needs and priorities; receiving training in trauma-informed care from the International Trauma Center; and identifying ways to measure the impact of their work. As well, the team has been reviewing a wealth of training materials and resources created by the SCOE Special Education team in the immediate response to the 2017 wildfires. 

The CARE Team consists of three credentialed school counselors, all with more than a dozen years of experience each in Sonoma County or San Francisco schools. Two of the counselors attended Sonoma County schools themselves. Two were also directly affected by the wildfires. 

“This cause is near and dear to my heart,” said Counselor Keeli Kahmoson, whose home in Coffey Park was destroyed in 2017.

To make the most of the counseling positions, the team is developing a menu of tiered services that schools can choose from, said SCOE School Psychologist Ryan Pepin, who is supervising the effort. The first tier will be the most general. It will include district- and school-wide training and resources. The second tier will be targeted to smaller groups, including group counseling for students or staff. The third tier will be the most targeted and will focus on areas of highest need. It will include one-on-one student and staff counseling. The team will also refer students and staff to community resources and additional outside counseling as needed.

“Our goal is to always be working to empower school sites to serve the greatest number of students while also meeting the immediate needs of individuals,” said Counselor Shauna Hamilton. 

The RESTART grant is a one-time contribution that only covers the 2019-20 school year. However, recognizing a high need for counseling positions following the wildfires and the loss of county mental health counselors that used to work in schools, SCOE is looking at creative ways to make the CARE team sustainable in the long-term. This could involve SCOE and interested school districts dividing the cost of the counselor positions in years to come.

“We know the need for these services will continue beyond this school year,” said Steve Herrington, Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools. “SCOE is working hard to find a way to ensure that the CARE team can continue this important work beyond 2019-20.”

In a survey conducted to determine whether the positions were needed, 20 responding school districts reported that about 2,900 students and more than 400 educators were still showing signs of increased anxiety, stress, depression, behavioral problems, or decreased academic performance resulting from the Tubbs Fire. Schools also reported anecdotal increases in suicide attempts, vaping and drug/alcohol use, and referrals for mental health over the past two years. 

Counselor Nicole Tafoya said they are already hearing from schools and districts that are excited to use their services, especially as the anniversary of the wildfires nears. In September, schools saw increased anxiety on the part of students and staff during the recent public safety power shutoffs. “I think we can definitely expect to see schools reaching out more with the anniversary date coming up,” she said.