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
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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

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