In January 2013, students had barely returned to class in Newtown, Conn. public schools following a deadly, mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Survivors from the school itself were being shuttled to new temporary classrooms at a school in a neighboring town. These children, their families, and the community were layered with counseling, therapy, and other academic, mental health, and social supports.
Michele Gay’s youngest daughter, Josephine, a 1st grader, was among the 20 children shot and killed in the tragic event. But in the midst of the return to school, Gay, her husband Bob, and her surviving older daughters Sophie and Marie had to leave behind those layers of support because of a preplanned family move.
A decade later, after another family move to Baltimore and with her now-grown daughters’ transitioned to college, Gay, a former elementary teacher turned survivor advocate who co-founded the nonprofit Safe and Sound Schools, said ongoing academic, mental health, and social supports from schools remain crucial for survivors even years after a tragedy—but for many, the onus remains on the survivors to reach out and coordinate help. Her message especially resonates now as educators plan how to help the young children who survived an eerily similar school massacre last week in Uvalde, Texas.
“With each move,” Gay said, “setting that support infrastructure up each and every time has been a lot of work, but it’s been something that’s critically important to us.”
Gay and other advocates for school shooting survivors say more awareness and coordination from schools can do a lot to ease students long-term recovery, whether the surviving students are coming to new schools or simply aging into new grades, with fewer educators who know their history.
It’s something the children attending Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School will have to face in the years ahead, for sure. But the need to plan for long-term trauma support and recovery may reach far more schools over time; one Washington Post analysis finds some 311,000 children have attended a school during a shooting since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.
Gay said the most crucial help administrators can give to both students and their families is to ask for students’ backgrounds explicitly from the beginning, and then bring together students and parents, as well as multiple agencies, to talk through supports.
“Some of the things that we adults thought would be so helpful were annoying or not necessary, or the wrong things,” she said, “so it was really important for the girls to be involved in those conversations and letting us know what their needs were.”
For example, “we all had assumed that, you know, hearing a fire alarm or having to do drills of any kind would be a potential trigger and the girls would need advanced notice and a little preparation, right? They did not, and they did not appreciate [adults thinking] that,” Gay said.
Active-shooter drills did spark anxiety, but Marie and Sophie “liked to have evidence that the adults had a plan,” and were happy to talk through their roles with a teacher privately, outside of participating in a simulation.
It can also be helpful for district leaders to coordinate with local law enforcement and social services agencies. For example, Gay noted that she had to alert local police as well as school officials to her daughters’ history, because survivors of school shootings can become the targets of separate bullying or stalking as a result.
“Our families were very much harassed by conspiracy theorists, and the things they were saying were some pretty scary stuff—in addition to everything that our kids were dealing with in terms of trauma” from the shooting, she said.
It’s more than locking doors or cameras
Gay said she’s learned the value of schools providing more holistic, long-term academic, mental health, and social supports to survivors. For example, the Rebels Project, a charity founded by survivors of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, noted that widespread mental health and counseling services for survivors often run out by the first anniversary of an incident, but symptoms of depression, isolation, and post-traumatic stress may increase after the first rush of support is gone.
“It’s been a positive thing to see people look at school safety with a broader view and not just think about security, locking doors or cameras. All of those things are important and can be very helpful tools, in terms of securing the building, but it’s so much more than that,” she said. “It’s a lot about how we talk about these things with students and staff, how we prepare for safety and recovery.”
After a mass shooting in Norway in 2011, researchers from the University of California, San Diego, and others found that in the short term, survivors’ grade point averages fell significantly compared to matched peers who had not experienced violence. Survivors also were nearly five times more likely than their peers to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder, and also had significantly more medical visits than their peers.
In the years to follow, survivors completed less schooling and were less likely to be employed. Their siblings and families also had higher rates of mental and physical health problems.
“As my girls were hitting different developmental phases of life, their needs were changing, their understanding of what happened was changing,” Gay said. “The depth of experience for processing things as a 9th grader, as opposed to 5th grader—it’s almost like taking it all out of the box again and understanding it as a new person with a different brain.”
“I know that it’s hard for folks to wrap their heads around,” she continued, “but there’s not going to be this defined period where you get to say, oh, phew, we’ve got her through high school, so, you know, we’re done now.”