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Military Deployments Having Impact In Cumberland County Schools

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FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — The issues of war can be complicated. But even young minds can pick up on the consequences.

In Cumberland County, nearly one third of all students attending public school are from military families. The schools are doing their best to help children cope after their parents get deployed for a possible showdown with Saddam Hussein.

In a first-grade class at Hefner Elementary School on Tuesday, the lesson Denise Holmes gave was how to say goodbye.

"Some of our moms and dads are leaving our country, " Holmes said. "It's called deployment."

Six-year-old Kaylea Stokes gave her father a farewell hug last Friday.

"Me and my sister went into my parents' bed, and we all started crying," Kaylea said. "We felt sad."

At Hefner Elementary, 75 percent of the children are from military families. The classrooms reflect that. There are stars on the windows and bulletin boards decorated in red, white and blue.

With so many children at Hefner with parents getting ready to deploy, counselors are working with the kids. They are telling them it's O.K. to be angry or scared, and it's O.K. to ask questions.

"Where is my parent going?" Holmes said, citing an example of the questions kids ask. "What will it be like there?"

Schools across Cumberland County are seeing an increase in absenteeism; some military parents are keeping their kids home in order to spend as much time with them as possible before being leaving. Although school leaders don't encourage this, they are trying to work with the children so they don't fall behind in class.

"When the child returns to school, we are trying to remediate them and catch them up," said Robin Tatum, a counselor cooordinator, "and stress the fact that if a child is in emotional distress, that has to be dealt with first, and academics comes next."

Counselors are encouraging teachers to be extra sensitive: For example: If a student doesn't do well on a test, it could be because he or she said farewell to a parent the night before.

Holmes said the counselors and teachers at Hefner are trying to be open and supportive. She encourages the same at home.

"I think it's the first step in helping them cope with changes in their family," she said, "because they become a part of what's going on around them."

Michael Baltimore's father has been gone a while. Michael has advice for his friends with parents who are just now leaving.

"We have pictures of him," Michael said of his dad, "and I look at them to remember him."

These kids have their own mission now - to support one another.

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