Part II: Responding to the Trauma of School Shootings

By Jackson Sims, CEI Intern


Now that we’ve addressed the “Why?” of school shootings in Part I of this series, the next step is to discuss the best ways to support students, families, faculty, and the broader school community in the wake of such tragedies. Since the publication of Part I in 2019, there have been a total of 86 incidents of gunfire on school grounds: 67 in 2020, and 30 as of June 2021(Everytown, 2021). These numbers may be lower—likely in part due to the shift towards remote education during COVID—but that does not make these events any less significant. The impacts of school shootings are not matters of “when”, “where”, or “why”. When one community is harmed, the others are as well: Every school community should be prepared to address such events rapidly and effectively.


Starting the Conversation


In the aftermath of a school shooting, there can be pressure to avoid the subject. However, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) recommends directly talking to children about the situation, starting by asking them what they know (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2014). They may have misconceptions about what “actually happened”. Take the time to clarify any confusion; honesty is important here. Children don’t need specific details, but they should feel comfortable asking questions and trying to understand the event as a whole. The subject can be intimidating, but providing a child with a deeper understanding of the situation can ease concerns and create a sense of stability in a confusing time.




These conversations shouldn’t focus entirely on information, though. The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds reminds us to frequently “check-in” about a child’s thoughts, feelings, and concerns. Different age groups may approach this aspect of the conversation in different ways. Elementary school students might address their feelings indirectly, communicating their concerns through play; on the other hand, adolescents may express their fears or frustration by initiating politically-charged conversations centering on gun control or other subjects (Beresin, 2021). Regardless of a child’s age, interest, or preferred method of communication, there are three key questions that every conversation should address:

  • Am I safe?

  • Are the people who take care of me safe?

  • How will this event affect my daily life?

These topics are challenging, but necessary. Above all, approach these conversations with the intent of being genuine, regardless of whether you’re answering questions about the event or listening to a child’s unique concerns. Through these conversations, we gain a deeper understanding of the specific needs of our school community, and can begin to take action to manage this collective trauma.


Becoming Proactive


The biggest challenge in addressing the trauma of a school shooting is knowing where to begin. Some people call for changes in legislation; others may advocate for increased security within the school itself. Disagreements may arise, but it’s important to note that there is no “right” answer. In an article by the Child Mind Institute, Dr. Jamie Howard encourages the development of a “parent group” to address school needs, a concept that could easily be expanded to include educators and administrators as well (Ehmke, n.d.). The acknowledgment of all voices is an essential trait in any school community. By considering multiple ideas and perspectives, we take steps toward patterns of change that are developed by and for our unique school communities.


Adults aren’t the only ones calling for change. Charlie Mirsky, a survivor of the 2018 Parkland shooting, is now the political director of the March For Our Lives movement. A year later, Mirsky completed his senior year of high school online, choosing to focus his efforts on lobbying for widespread gun violence prevention research (Meyer, 2019). While Mirsky’s example may not be as accessible to a “typical” student, many young people echo his sentiment and would like to push for political change themselves. Dr. Howard encourages parents and educators to support children in such endeavors, regardless of whether students stage a walkout or simply seek an opportunity to voice their opinion(s). These moments allow for children to realize that their voices matter, fostering a sense of capability and reminding students that they can make a change (Ehmke, n.d.).


Creating a Positive Atmosphere


Throughout all of the options mentioned above, there is one common thread: Establishing a hopeful environment. The trauma of a school shooting comes with a wealth of challenging emotions, including grief, frustration, and fear. Regardless of whether you’re starting the conversation or making concrete plans for change, reminding students that you care for them and are working to ensure their safety is essential. Above all, students want to know that they are safe; when we make that our goal, we create a school environment that fosters hope, optimism, and the knowledge that we can make a change.


References

Beresin, G. (2021). Another shooting—an important moment to comfort and talk with our kids. The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds.


Ehmke, R. (n.d.). Anxiety over school shootings. The Child Mind Institute.


Everytown. (2021). Gunfire on school grounds in the United States.


Meyer, T. (2019). Meet the 19-year-old gun control lobbyist who has lawmakers’ ears. Politico.


The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2014). Talking to children about the shooting.

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