Diaries from the field

Leadership lessons from the Camp Fire

By Aaron Benton | November | December 2019
The fire started on Nov. 8, 2018, and staff not personally affected who could respond jumped into action supporting family reunification. I reported to a Pizza RoundUp in Biggs to meet up with the one bus yet unaccounted for and found staff monitoring a busload of students they had just driven through the fire to safety. The eatery fed Ponderosa’s principal-hero, Ed Gregorio, and his staff and students for free. School board members from Biggs Unified School District soon heard about the visitors and came over to invite them to the local elementary school while students waited to be united with their families. To the sides of the classroom, away from the children, staff shared how they barely escaped with their lives. Smoke had quickly filled the bus and students were starting to pass out. The driver took off his shirt, ripped it up, and poured water over it to cover the mouths and noses of students. Versions of this type of story repeated many times over in the days to come. The next day, then Superintendent of Schools Tim Taylor told all county and SELPA employees that we now had three jobs: our current job that we were getting paid for, caring for our families and loved ones, and the tasks he was about to assign us. Stacy Doughman, special education director for Butte County Office of Education, and I were assigned to provide a trauma and crisis counseling response for BCOE. Tim specifically asked us to remove silos in our work on this and to collaborate with agencies countywide. We began framing our work with a team of about 10 staff at the Chico Branch Butte Public Library and we stayed at work all day, finishing at Stacy’s house in the evening. Our first big activity that day was identifying which of our staff members were impacted and contacting them to identify needs. We also got a healthy head start on a 10-page resources document that was uploaded to the website. By Saturday, we had a home base at the Career Tech Ed Center and we notified any staff who could to report there to assist. The new “trauma response command center” had an ebb and flow of staff and consultants coming through. It was a strange time. We knew we weren’t required to report to work due to the smoke and the need to care for family, but different people were coming to lend a hand as they could. We were receiving a lot of information about events in the community and in schools where mental health staff might be needed, like campus reunifications and dinners and healing circles. We built a list of available clinicians in the area and matched it against the needs we had, which changed by the hour. SELPA and community agency staff collaborated to provide refresher training in psychological first aid at Chico’s district office by the Monday after the incident.  We realized quickly we needed a better platform for communicating and launched a BCOE Crisis Response Facebook page (now BCOE Community Recovery) which documents all sorts of supports and events provided since the beginning. We were also growing in participation at the BCOE Crisis Response Command Center, so we moved into the dental classrooms at the CTEC building.  The work was intense and provided a welcome distraction from the post-apocalyptic scene outside. Everyone was wearing masks with the air still thick as soup, but now with some ash settling on our cars. I remember calling my kids to tell them to pack their most important possessions in case we had to evacuate, and I let them know I’d be late because there was a run on air purifiers at Home Depot. I drove through In-N-Out just to provide the family with some sense of normalcy, I told myself. Deep down I needed to see the employees in their tidy, white uniforms in a sparkling clean kitchen, just to feel hopeful again. But, as soon as I pulled away, after many days of holding back, I bawled like a baby the whole way home.  We had advertised and established a “multi-agency collaboration meeting” at the Chico Jr. High gymnasium for any mental health professionals from schools or county mental health agencies so that we could collaborate on needs and provision of services, and to avoid duplication of effort. We expected 15 attendees at best, and we were shocked when more than 75 mental health professionals convened at the gym. We took names and emails and established a Daily Briefing over the following two weeks. Modeled after the fire department’s morning briefing, we connected via Zoom or in person. We set forth expectations and team goals, shared information we learned and things to watch out for, and we then carried out a roll call where each agency briefly reported on the impact of the disaster to their staff and programs, in order to learn how they were meeting student and staff needs.  

Leaders need to show their own vulnerability in order for others to know grief and sadness is appropriate. If talking is hard or you just aren’t touchy-feely, a good hug is one of the best forms of communication.
That same day, the county superintendent announced that all school staff would return on Nov. 26 and students on Dec. 3, to give time to locate classroom facilities, clean all schools in the county, and train and mentally prepare staff for what they would be walking into that first day back. That started a whole new set of timelines for our team. From our early days at the command center, some local experts visited us regularly, Matthew Reddam and Matt McLaughlin teamed up to provide training and support as needed. One of their first efforts was to prepare an initial Trainer of Trainers presentation to be delivered multiple times over Zoom to psychologists and counselors before the return of staff so they would be prepared to deliver it themselves to their teams the following day. We continue to work with Reddam and McLaughlin on a logic model to inform our work and identify the key focus areas of work going forward. Back at the command center, we researched who the experts were and brainstormed the type of supports we wanted to provide. We needed a large, in-person training option and we sought out the help of the National Association of School Psychologists’ Crisis Response Team, specifically Dr. Stephen Brock, Dr. Shelley Hart, and Dr. Rob Coad, who were able to provide an abridged version of PREPaRE training. Delivered in half-day sessions at CSU Chico’s Laxson Auditorium over two days, the training was ultimately attended by more than 2,600 Butte County educators and community members.  We also realized we needed someone who could speak with confidence to leadership teams from impacted districts and the county. We contacted Dr. David Schonfield from the USC Center for Crisis and Bereavement, who had experience working disasters from the tornadoes that tore through Missouri to the Parkland shootings in Florida. David provided in-person training and consultation for leadership teams and entire staffs to prepare them for what they would be walking into on the return to school, and what to plan for farther out from the incident.  Finally, we took the opportunity to reach out to Dr. Bruce Perry, an international expert in trauma, author, and founder of the Child Trauma Academy, who provided a series of three Zoom meetings, each a stand-alone training but on different themes. As a rural district fairly spread out from end-to-end, we felt strongly that people needed to get the content but it was our job to let them receive the training in whatever amount and format would work best for them. To be able to provide so much, so quickly was an absolute blessing for our community. We met with the school, district and charter leaders, as well as key agency leaders at a summit at Pleasant Valley High School in Chico in mid-November to share what we were working on and to create a sense of togetherness as a Butte County community. We attended healing circles, hugged and cried with colleagues and new friends. I clearly remember being in at least four meetings that started with the question, “Please stand up if you lost your home.” The enormity of the disaster and the sense of sadness and hopelessness are indelible, but the moments of true kindness and inspiration even more so. I only got here in July, but I am on a hugging basis with at least a hundred people. I quickly learned the counseling script and found myself asking others, “What is ONE thing I can do for you right now to make things better?” Simultaneous to all this, we used our time that week to solidify offers of support from around the state. I sent the word out to SELPA Directors, CDE, and the California Alliance to provide us information on PPS or licensed staff who could volunteer to provide crisis counseling and support any time between Dec. 3 and Dec. 20. Over two weeks we registered more than 250 volunteer counselors, vetted by CDE and the California Alliance. We obtained offers of housing for them when they arrived, and we prepared an introductory training that included protocols to follow when working in our schools, as well as a set of materials on crisis counseling triage and follow-up that they should take with them when they reported for duty. We were able to assign more than 80 counselors per day for a sustained period, and we were overwhelmed by the generosity shown by our colleagues and friends during this time. Most all of our school administrative staff said they could not have managed the return to school without these teams. As all of this was happening, we were working behind the scenes with Butte County Behavioral Health, CDE, and Cal OES to ask what types of supports were available and to coordinate service delivery and coverage. I recall walking into the Butte COE Crisis Command and getting a little choked up again to find ACSA Executive Director Wes Smith and ACSA Past President Tom Armelino there to lend support. I saw retired superintendent consultants like Tom DeLapp, Tim Herrera, and Kathy Wheeler coming in to provide group think and relief to the team. We sent regular updates to superintendents, special education coordinators, and charter leaders, who were all being asked what was going to be done to assist students, families, and staff affected by disaster trauma. As our trainings, connections, and resources grew, so did our confidence that we were meeting their needs for a meaningful response. Flashback to my real post as SELPA Director and I remembered we were supposed to simultaneously be working on special education class placements, tracking students with special education and where they ended up enrolling and assisting special education coordinators with regional classroom issues. My SELPA team got especially involved with the recovery and organized supply donations from across the state to the SELPA office. As Oroville planned to move students to make room for Paradise Elementary, we hosted a materials giveaway for Paradise and Concow teachers that was downright inspirational. We found out one donor offered to pay for our entire $10,000 wish list and had others who provided printers and computers for special education teachers who had lost everything. We made the rounds to classrooms to make sure things were going smoothly and reported back what we were seeing there to our clinician assignment team. I received a flood of calls and texts. I consider myself to be fairly organized, but I absolutely could not, at Week 3, find an ability to remember, to focus, or to find enough time. I started asking others to sit with me to compose a simple letter just so it would get done. I was becoming no use to anyone. After three emails, Mandy Corbin, assistant superintendent in Sonoma County, wrote again to tell me she understood if I didn’t reply because she knew where I was at that moment, where everyone is coming at you and offering support and you are scrambling to keep a sense of order. As an educator in a district only a year removed from the Tubbs Fire incident, she offered to come help do anything that could be helpful, even if it was fetching coffee. I had reached my limit, so I replied. “Please come!” I said. “I can’t even write a simple email. I need someone who can do what I would normally do if I could access my usual brain.”  Mandy got permission from her generous superintendent and decided to spend two full days with me and my team, and we made the most of it. We had her in early long-term planning meetings, helping us devise and develop a plan for after Dec. 20 based on her experiences. That plan has morphed and changed, but it helped us hire Trauma Response and Recovery Coordinators through the county to organize the larger needs for training and counseling for the road ahead. By the time school was back in session after Winter Break, Butte COE had over 20 mostly retired, part-time PPS credentialed staff who committed to come on hourly and help get their community through this challenging moment. The road forward continues to challenge us all, but together we remain “Butte Strong.” We recently received a generous $1.6 million grant from the Butte Strong Fund, a partnership between the North Valley Community Foundation, the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, and the Aaron Rodgers NorCal Fire Recovery Fund. This funding will allow us to continue the important work of disaster trauma response and recovery over the coming school year. The Camp Fire incident is the largest wildfire in California history, and the 6th largest in U.S. history, spreading across 240 square miles, taking 86 lives, and destroying much of the communities of Paradise, Concow, and Magalia in Butte County.  For comprehensive resources related to disaster trauma response and recovery, please visit the BCOE Community Recovery Padlet of Resources: 
Aaron Benton is the SELPA Director of Butte County SELPA in Oroville.

© 2019 Association of California School Administrators

Association of California School Administrators