The middle schoolers that Tara Kierstead works with are too young to go to a place like Club Q, the Colorado LGBTQ nightclub where a shooter killed five people and injured at least a dozen others this weekend.
But they are old enough to be shaken by the massacre, said Kierstead, a Maine counselor of the year, who works at at Hall-Dale Middle & High School in Farmingdale.
Even in middle school, students who are part of the LGBTQ community know there are supposed to be places in the world where they can feel secure emotionally and physically. News of the shooting shattered that sense of protection, said Kierstead, who has worked with LGBTQ populations in various roles for nearly two decades.
“They’re recognizing that as this keeps happening, that there really aren’t any safe spaces for them,” Kierstead said. “That’s just a sad realization, especially for kids.”
Police in Colorado Springs, Colo., are holding the suspect on murder and hate crime charges, per published reports, though the charges are preliminary and could change. Details of a motive are still emerging. (Even after six years, it is unclear whether the shooter who killed 50 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Florida, was motivated by homophobia. He was killed by police.)
Still, such massacres seem to put the phrase “it gets better”—something adults often tell kids in the LGBTQ community who are coping with the stress of growing as part of a marginalized community—in a darker perspective.
“This is hard for me as an educator because I always try to tell the kids that we as human beings are improving, and we are making progress, and things are getting better,” Kierstead said. “And then this happens, and it just kind of feels like ‘Yeah, well I told you all these things [but] oh yeah, I forgot to tell you that you [might] go to a club when you’re old enough and you could get shot and killed.’ ”
What educators can do
In helping students process the event, school staff members need to be careful not to dismiss their anxiety simply because middle and high schoolers are unlikely to find themselves in a nightclub in the immediate future, Kierstead said.
“Hold space for what their emotions are,” she said. “We have to make sure that even though these kids are not the same age as the victims, that we’re still validating that this is a very real thing, and it’s still happening, and they have a right to be afraid.”
There is both physical and emotional proximity to any traumatic event, said Amy Cannava, a nationally certified school psychologist in Northern Virginia.
“There is secondary trauma experienced by people who have an emotional connection to the event,” she said. “Even though students in Virginia don’t likely know the people who were directly killed or injured, as members of the queer community, there is the feeling that this could have been me, it could have been someone I know. And we need to be mindful of that emotional connection.”
That emotional connection, she said, can bring with it feelings of grief, shock, sadness, anger, and helplessness. And people are more likely to feel an emotional connection to far-off events today than they have in the past, said Cannava, because of TV and social media.
It’s important for schools to make time and space for students who are affected to meet and process their emotions, if they want, she said.
After the shooting, Cannava messaged all the students in her school’s Gender Sexuality Alliance, or GSA,club and notified them that there would be a place they could go during lunch to meet and talk. She set out art supplies so the students could make memorial ribbons and discuss what they were thinking with her and some of the school’s counselors.
“We talked about, do they want to write letters to their representatives in Congress, because we’ve done that previously to protest anti-trans policy, and they said no, because they don’t think anyone is listening,” Cannava said. “Then the discussion became, this is not political. People say that it is political, but it’s not. It’s about humanity and human loss. Students are very astute. They were saying that as a country, we hide behind politics as a means of not addressing hate.”
Although it’s important to provide safe space and time, Cannava said, it should never be a requirement for students to participate.
Adults also need to think about their own biases and perspectives, Kierstead added. “We don’t want adults to say things like, ‘Oh, I know how you’re feeling’ or ‘It will get better,’ because we don’t want adults to be dismissive,” she said. “If you don’t belong to that population, the LGBTQ population, you can’t possibly really understand the fear that is happening right now.”
LGBTQ youth fear gun violence
The tragedy marks a difficult moment for a group of students already under strain.
A majority of young people who are part of the LGBTQ community say that hate crimes and homophobia make them feel stressed or anxious “very often,” according to a survey of LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 24 conducted in the fall of 2021 by the Trevor Project, a mental health and suicide-prevention organization.
The same survey found that 72 percent of LGBTQ youth often feel stressed about gun violence, with 41 percent saying it makes them anxious “very often.”
What’s more, 32 percent of LGBTQ middle and high schoolers said they had seriously contemplated suicide, compared with 7 percent of their non-LGBTQ middle school peers and 8 percent of their non-LGBTQ high school peers, according to a survey released last month by YouthTruth, a nonprofit that surveys K-12 students and families for school districts.
Among transgender students, 48 percent of middle schoolers and 41 percent of high schoolers say they seriously considered suicide, the YouthTruth report found.
Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.