Shooting Survivors Face Long Road to Recovery
Hours after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, student Morgan Williams sent a wrenching tweet—a small glimpse of the trauma that this community faces:
"I cannot stop hearing the sound of the gun as he walked down my hallway. I cannot unsee my classmates who were shot get carried out by police. I cannot unsee the bodies on the floor. Please keep in mind the horror of what we've gone through today. #prayfordouglas."
At least initially, hundreds of students have channeled their grief into activism. In between vigils, memorial services, and the funerals of slain classmates, many Stoneman Douglas students were pressing lawmakers in Tallahassee for solutions to prevent another tragedy and preparing for upcoming marches in Florida and the nation's capital—work likely to have ramifications for the reawakened gun control debate.
Such actions can also lessen the sense of powerless many feel after a crisis or tragedy, mental health experts say. Yet on a micro-level, they warn, the Parkland community will be faced for some time with private, personal pain—all of it underscored by the fact that students will soon to return to the schoolrooms that were the settings for the most traumatic event of their lives.
Students lost even more than friends and teachers, said Adeena Teres, who teaches science at Stoneman Douglas.
"They lost the sense of school as a safe place," she said.
Broward County was slated to reopen the high school on a modified schedule this week following a voluntary student and parent orientation on Sunday. School leaders still focusing on the immediate logistical challenges of reopening the school had not yet outlined long-term counseling plans for students last week.
Long Road Ahead
What is clear, mental-health experts said, is that the after-effects will take a long time to play out.
"It's going to be a long road, and what we've seen is there tends to be lots of support in the first couple of months. And then the supports leave, and the school is left to deal with the long-term aftermath," said Melissa Reeves, the past president of the National Association of School Psychologists and a member of its school crisis team.
"It's really important that there's a continuity plan, that you have mental-health professionals and school administrators working together on what these supports are going to look like in one month, two months, six months, or even a year down the road," she said.
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the Broward County school district opened three grief counseling sites for Douglas students and community members, a hotline, and a separate counseling center for staff, which effectively served as the triage point to assess needs and to begin to help survivors develop coping strategies—an important first step in dealing with trauma, school psychology experts said.
Often, simply reconnecting students, teachers, and families with their natural support systems is the most powerful approach to handling a traumatic event, they said.
For teenagers, that usually means being with other teenagers, which can help them realize that reactions, such as having flashbacks, nightmares, and trouble sleeping, are common and shared by friends, said Thomas Demaria, an adjunct professor in the clinical psychology doctorate program at Long Island University.
No 'Handbook for This'
Effectively, that network of #NeverAgain activists has doubled as a support system for students, noted David Schonfeld, the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. What's more, he said, one of the best ways to recover from disasters is to have a sense of agency or purpose.
"They are doing it in a very mature and helpful way, and they are doing it together, which is unusual," he said. "I don't see them doing this to deny their feelings; it's not that they're ignoring their grief."
Still, as students return to school this month or next, there are no cookie-cutter paths forward for them or for Stoneman Douglas teachers.
Anna Fusco, the president of the Broward Teachers Union, has consulted with teachers who experienced school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.
"They said, 'We're going to be real. There's no handbook for this,' " Fusco recalled. Among the teachers' pieces of advice: Don't try to move too quickly through the recovery process.
As Broward County hones its longer-term support plan for students, the biggest mistake to avoid, Reeves said, is using a "one size fits all" response, such as requiring all students or teachers to talk through what they experience.
"We don't ever want to impose a direct crisis intervention onto someone who is not wanting, or ready, to talk about it yet; we can do more harm than good," she said.
Research indicates that students can feel the emotional and academic effects of traumatic events for months and even years after. Research published in 2005 conducted on a representative sample of public school children in New York City following the events of 9/11 found that, nearly six months later, more than a quarter exhibited a symptom consistent with a psychiatric disorder.
And a 2016 study published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis found that students who remained enrolled in a high school following a school shooting scored lower on math and English test scores for up to three years after the event.
The experts noted, too, that trauma and grief are two separate things—and can interact in difficult ways. Unlike depression, grief tends to come and go—during a sporting event, a final exam, or study hall. But for many students who lived through the shooting, grief will be difficult to process because it's intricately linked to a violent experience.
"Traumatic grief is an unnatural process—it was grief that was put upon you by violence. You weren't prepared for it," Demaria said. "For these students in the school, their memory of a loved one lost is clouded by the distraction of the traumatic experience. It's hard to go back and think of that person without also going back and thinking about the bullets flying."
Memorializing the tragedy will be part of the grieving process, too. Both Superintendent Robert Runcie and several key lawmakers have said that the county should demolish the building at the high school where the shooting occurred. Some want it to be the site of a new memorial to the shooting.
The conversation has echoes of the decision made in Newtown, Conn., where 26 students and staff were killed in 2012, to raze and rebuild Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Whatever the Parkland community decides, students should be front and center in the process of commemorating and remembering those lost in the violence, Demaria said.
Vol. 37, Issue 22, Page 15Published in Print: February 28, 2018, as A Long Journey Ahead Seen for Survivors of Shooting