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USC program trains counselors to help students in military families

Duane Brown, his wife Marria and Rita Beal talk about their days in the Beal kitchen.
Duane Brown, his wife Marria and Rita Beal talk about their days in the Beal kitchen.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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By one count, close to 100,000 California public school kids have at least one parent serving in the military. Advocates say educators have done a poor job supporting these kids at school through the stressful times before, during, and after military deployments. That’s changing.

The Beal family of Westminster is ready for the change. Corey and Rita Beal recently moved into their new house in north Orange County. Their three kids are settled into their rooms, the four floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are up in the living room, but their wedding pictures aren’t hung yet.
Rita Beal says there’s really nothing new about moving into a new house; the family's lived in “over a dozen in the last 10 years,” she said. Husband Corey has served in the U.S. Army for 13 years. In that time the family has lived on and off military bases.

On this day the Beals did something they haven’t done very often - walking together to pick up their second grade daughter from school. 

With his infantry unit, Corey Beal deployed twice to Iraq and Afghanistan. He saw combat. Six of his friends died. So did many more from the unit. But he said he realized early that deployments are the toughest part of his servicebecause of the strain it places on his family.  His wife says the kids’ schoolwork has suffered.

“Our daughter that we’re picking up now only in second grade, seven years old, but the differences between what the requirements were in school back in New York, last month, and just up the road in Cypress, four months, six months ago are all completely different,” she said.

Their two older boys have had a particularly rough time with the moves. Teachers and principals who lack an awareness of military life haven’t helped. When her oldest son was seven years old, she said, a public school teacher in Washington State told the entire class that one student was absent because his father had been killed in combat. The school was on a military base. Nearly every other student in the class had a father in the same unit. 

Rita Beal said that experience shocked her into a commitment to educate schools about military culture and the stress of deployment on families. At the school her kids attended last year, she formed a PTA committee and organized a Veterans Day event.

“We had a wonderful flag celebration during Veteran’s Day last year. We actually donated a new flag,” she said. “My husband’s command sergeant major he would like to perhaps present it personally. He we’ve also got a lot of soldiers at the unit who’d love to come down.”

When the Beals reached their daughter’s new school, 7-year-old Cecilia ran up with a waist-high hug. She wore a Halloween carnival mask.

When asked how many schools she's attended, the girl replied, “about two, I mean three,” she said as Rita corrected her. “This is number four." 

Few schools or districts keep a tally of students with parents in the military. Administrators in Orange County, where the Beals live now, are beginning to try.

“So that the schools are serving and helping the families as they adjust,” said Richard Riegel who’s the head of student services with the Orange County Department of Education. “It can also coordinate services to perhaps have parent support groups, children support groups.”

His office is creating online courses for educators to help them military deployment cycle, understanding military culture, and family dynamics.

Riegel gives a lot of credit to the University of Southern California’s Ron Astor, who teaches social work at the masters level.

On a recent day Astor led a class for nearly three dozen graduate students at USC’s San Diego County satellite classroom. Personnel from the Navy and Marines told students about resources available to help military families. In breakout groups, they also talked about Veterans Day activities in the schools they work in.

The grad students counsel the children of military families in 140 schools in Riverside, Orange, and San Diego Counties. Their faculty mentor Ron Astor said the experience resonates with them because these days, fewer than one percent of Americans have served in the military, compared with nine percent during World War Two.

“I believe it’s a debt that’s owed by civilian society for the 10 years where they have been a little bit business as usual while this very small group has been carrying the war on their backs,” Astor said.

Astor wants to grow the program. He recently published a set of guides for parents and educators based on his research from the counseling program. He’s also working with school district officials who’ve requested social work interns to help their students.