It seems that every other week, we turn on the news and open the newspaper to learn about another school shooting and our despair only deepens as more and more young lives are taken. We grieve those who died and send our condolences to the surviving students and their families. A few weeks go by and this happens again at a school across the country and we repeat.
We hear our politicians spitting out the same sorrowful verbiage. We hear the unanimous cries of parents who lost their child. Communities rally to find meaningful ways to pay tribute to those lost lives while Washington does little to prevent the loss altogether.
Adapting to a New Normal?
The surviving students develop some type of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They struggle to adapt to a new normal after the devastating loss of friends, family and sense of normalcy and safety, yet are continually subjected to triggers with more media coverage of new school shootings all over the country as time goes on.
The impact of these school shootings go much deeper than many realize. When students go back to a school that recently had a mass shooting event, the feeling of safety is diminished despite any new efforts to place metal detectors or additional security guards (Cornell and Mayer, 2010).
Consider a similar impact on survivors of car accidents. Many times, those who have survived a car accident avoid driving on the road where they had the accident or avoid driving during the time period when the accident occurred. This avoidance is not because those roads or that time is more dangerous, but rather the feeling of safety is gone. This situation is true for students who enter a building where a week prior they were running, ducking and hiding for their lives; they are traumatized.
According to Berman, Kurtines, Silverman, and Serafini (1996), approximately 68% of students exposed to these violent events develop these PTSD symptoms. This result explains the decline in overall student success in these schools as students have to cope with their symptoms in addition to the focus and work it takes to be successful in school in general.
While students are typically taking notes in class and engaging with the course material, student survivors from a mass shooting oftentimes become triggered from routine noises or drills, sudden movements or flashbacks (Glew, Fan, Katon, Rivara, & Kernic, 2005).
According to Beland and Kim (2016), students performance after a mass shooting declined in standardized test scores in the subjects of English and math.
The implications go beyond school as school is the foundation on which students build their futures. Students who perform lower in math and English tests have lower odds of acceptance in colleges and consequently, lower chances of becoming high-earners in the future (Hoekstra, 2009).
Given the knowledge we have and research that can be done to continue to support this population of students, we need to consider not only the lives lost but the surviving lives that are changed forever as a result of school shootings.
We need to consider the emotional and socio-economic barriers these students may encounter in the future and how, we as professionals, can prepare these students apart from the standard career counseling and test prep courses.
We need to consider the impact of this trauma well beyond the following few months of a shooting and consider the manifestation of these PTSD symptoms later on in these students’ lives and help them develop the coping mechanisms they need to thrive in their futures.
Beland, L.P., Kim, D. (2016). The Effect of High School Shootings on Schools and Student Performance. Educational Evaluation & Policy Analysis, 38, 113-126.
Berman, S. L., Kurtines, W. M., Silverman, W. K., Serafini, L. T. (1996). The impact of exposure to crime and violence on urban youth. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 66, 329–336.
Cornell, D. G., Mayer, M. J. (2010). Why do school order and safety matter? Educational Researcher, 39, 7–15.
Glew, G. M., Fan, M. Y., Katon, W., Rivara, F. P., Kernic, M. A. (2005). Bullying, psychosocial adjustment, and academic performance in elementary school. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 159, 1026–1032.
Hoekstra M. (2009). The effect of attending the flagship state university on earnings: A discontinuity- based approach. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 91, 717–724.
Silvi Saxena is a licensed social worker, certified oncology social worker and clinical trauma professional. She works with the chronically and terminally ill population in Philadelphia, PA and has a special focus on employee health and wellness.