School Climate & Safety

Guidance on Responding to Students’ Questions About Shootings

By Laura Baker — January 24, 2023 4 min read
People gather for a vigil honoring the victims of a shooting several days earlier at Star Ballroom Dance Studio, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Monterey Park, Calif. A gunman killed multiple people late Saturday amid Lunar New Year's celebrations in the predominantly Asian American community.
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High-profile acts of violence can undermine students’ and educators’ sense of safety and well-being far beyond where the tragedy takes place.

The back-to-back mass shootings in Monterey Park in Southern California, and in Half Moon Bay, Calif., south of San Francisco, together killed 18 people and injured many more. And on Jan. 23, an alternative high school program in Des Moines, Iowa, was the scene of the first fatal school shooting of the year—two students were killed and the program’s founder was injured. That incident also marked the sixth school shooting of the year in which someone was hurt or injured, according to Education Week’s school shooting tracker.

In the aftermath of shootings and other community violence, educators are called upon to help students manage their fears, and help them feel safe and ready to learn.

That work can prove ongoing and complex. Educators need to know that most states require lockdown drills or active shooter drills in schools, and that those may trigger fear or anxiety over school violence. Analysis of social media conversations spanning over 100 K-12 schools by Everytown Research & Policy, an advocacy group for gun violence prevention, and the Georgia Institute of Technology found that active shooter drills are associated with increases in depression (39 percent), stress and anxiety (42 percent), and physiological health problems (23 percent) overall for children from as young as five years old to high schoolers, their parents, and teachers.

How students understand these disturbing events and deal with them can also vary widely depending on their developmental level. The following is a list of age-appropriate steps educators can take to help kids feel safe, protected, and comfortable processing the feelings that surround school shootings and violence.

All grades

  • Emphasize that schools are safe. Review safety procedures and guidelines so that students understand the measures in place to keep the school environment safe.
  • Help students understand the difference between the possibility of something happening in their schools, and the probability of that happening at their school. The chances that a particular school will experience a school shooting in any given year are statistically very low.
  • Make sure students are comfortable in reporting potential problems or behaviors that make them feel uncomfortable or unsafe in their school. That may include:
    • Helping students understand that there is a key difference between telling (or tattling) on someone and informing adults.
    • Creating an anonymous reporting system in your school or school district.
    • Helping students identify at least one adult in their school or community whom they would feel comfortable talking to if they had questions or felt stressed or threatened.
  • If schools are going to conduct a lockdown drill, students should be informed of the drills in advance, and classroom check-ins should happen before and after a drill. Experts advise that drills should focus on basic lockdown procedures and not include the presence of a mock active shooter.
  • Help staff look for changes in behavior in individual students, after a high-profile violent event as well as before or after an active shooter drill that could trigger feelings of distress or anxiety.
  • Since not all students want to talk about their feelings, educators need to develop age-appropriate activities that help them surface their feelings such as drawing, writing, or composing.
A law enforcement officer exits the Starts Right Here building, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. Police say two students were killed and a teacher was injured in a shooting at the Des Moines school on the edge of the city's downtown.

Elementary school students

  • During times of stress, students may exhibit fear of going to school, sleeping problems, trouble paying attention, or aggressive behavior. Look for these type of behavior changes, and engage in conversations to understand the source of that behavior change.
  • When discussing a violent event or concerns over active shooter drills, elementary students need simplified basic information that is balanced with reassurances of their safety.
  • Educators can ask open-ended questions to understand what kids may or may not know or have heard, like “What did you hear?” or “How do these drills make you feel?” to help kids talk about any feelings.
  • Provide examples of school safety like exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.
  • Emphasize that emergency drills help keep children safe. Even as the drills may be controversial because of the lasting trauma they may trigger, states often require them to help kids feel supported and cared for.
People gather for a vigil honoring the victims of a shooting at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Monterey Park, Calif. A gunman killed multiple people late Saturday amid Lunar New Years celebrations in the predominantly Asian American community.

Middle and high school students

  • At older ages, students are likely to have more questions about events like the shooting in the Uvalde, Texas, elementary school that killed 21 people, or in lesser-known shootings or threats of shootings closer to home.
  • Students may have strong and diverse opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. Engage in conversation that is open and inclusive of all perspectives.
  • Help students understand that information can vary widely between different news sources, the information they get from social media, and peers. Help students distinguish facts from false or embellished information, and help them vet sources of information.
  • Talk about the role that students might play in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines, reporting strangers on campus, and reporting threats to school safety made by students or community members, communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.

SOURCES: American School Counselor Association, Common Sense Media, Mayo Clinic, and National Association of School Psychologists.

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