Student Well-Being What the Research Says

Gun Violence Leaves a Lasting Imprint on Survivors. How Schools Can Help Students Recover

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 26, 2022 3 min read
Illustration of child holding missing adult hand.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Days after an 18-year-old shot and killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School, the local district and the Uvalde, Texas, community have poured out support for the survivors. But research suggests the school’s students and staff will need long-term support beyond the immediate trauma counseling and medical care they’re getting now.

These survivors are far from alone. School shootings are rare events—averaging about 20 to 30 incidents a year, depending on how they are defined—but the fear, grief, and trauma ripple out to the school community as a whole, and the effects can last for years. A Washington Post analysis finds some 311,000 children have attended a school during a shooting since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.

Research suggests the effects of the trauma and the supports needed can change over time. That means any planning to help students, staff, and families recover may require a district- or community-wide approach, as children age into different grades and schools that may be less familiar with the trauma they’ve experienced.
Studies of the long-term effects of school shootings both in the United States and internationally highlight ways school and district leaders can plan for survivors’ needs.

Academic, mental health needs continue in later grades

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.

It is helpful for educators to take long-term mental health issues into account when planning other safety measures after a shooting. For example, active shooter drills have become as common as fire drills in many schools, but studies suggest the drills can heighten stress chemicals for those who have experienced violent situations.

Girls, older students may be at more risk

In 2007, a shooter at Jokela High School in Finland killed six students, two staff, and himself. Students returned to school a week later, after crisis interventions from health-care workers, psychologists, and volunteers, among others, while the school planned longer-term supports on site through the school nurse, mental health workers, and a social worker.
But researchers found that four months after the shooting, half of the female and a third of the male students had post-traumatic stress, with 27 percent of the girls and 7 percent of the boys showing stress high enough to predict a post-traumatic stress disorder. Older students, girls, and those who reported less family support at home were at significantly higher risk of PTSD.

Push back against a ‘social climate of fear’

The Texas school shooting came 10 days after a separate shooting that killed 10 and injured three in a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store. A 2021 study of public mass shootings found that while media coverage of a mass shooting does not create an immediate “contagion effect” inspiring other killings, it can create a “social climate of fear,” which can raise the risk of such killings in the long-term.

“The public’s obsession over rare, although dreadful, events can serve as a constant reminder for angry and dispirited individuals that the standard course of action in response to profound disappointment and sense of injustice is to pick up a gun and open fire on those perceived to be responsible,” the study found.

A separate analysis by the Violence Policy Center found that a mass shooting can create a negative association with the school or community, hurting enrollment or investment. Economic research following the Columbine High School shooting similarly found heightened anxiety after that mass shooting even reduced shopping and investment. Over time, this can mean greater financial instability and higher mobility for students in the community.

A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 2022 edition of Education Week as Gun Violence Leaves a Lasting Imprint On Survivors. How Schools Can Help Students Recover

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being In Their Own Words These Students Found Mental Health Support in After-School Programs. See How
3 students discuss how after-school programs benefit their well-being.
6 min read
Vector illustration of a woman sitting indian style with her arms spread wide and a rainbow above her head.
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Cellphone Headaches in Middle Schools: Why Policies Aren't Enough
Middle schoolers' developmental stage makes them uniquely vulnerable to the negative aspects of cellphones. Policies alone won't help.
6 min read
A student holds a cell phone during class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
A student holds a cellphone during class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Student Well-Being Teachers Want Parents to Step Up to Curb Cellphone Misuse. Are They Ready?
A program from the National PTA aims to partner with schools to give parents resources on teaching their children healthy tech habits.
5 min read
Elementary students standing in line against a brick wall using cellphones and not interacting.
iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Schools Feel Less Equipped to Meet Students' Mental Health Needs Than a Few Years Ago
Less than half of public schools report that they can effectively meet students’ mental health needs.
4 min read
Image of a student with their head down on their arms, at a desk.
Olga Beliaeva/iStock/Getty