The aftermath of surviving a school shooting – what school personnel and students face

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The aftermath of surviving a school shooting – what school personnel and students face

Sadly, it’s happened once again.  Another deadly school shooting and this time in a city named the safest city in Florida just last year.  This latest school shooting was located in Parkland, Florida at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School where the gunman, a former expelled student, opened fire using an AR-15 style weapon killing 17 innocent lives and sending more than a dozen victims to area hospitals.

Now that several days have passed and funerals for the lost souls have begun, how do the survivors from this horrendous tragedy move forward?  How do the students, administrators, teachers, school secretaries, and maintenance staff, who were there witnessing the unfolding of this unforeseen nightmare, seeing, hearing, and smelling the chaos inside, deal with their raw emotions that will take a long, long time if ever, to heal?

There have been, unfortunately, enough of these tragic scenarios over recent years allowing us as medical professionals, to have a better understanding of the long-term effects on survivors of a school shooting.  No matter how many students were killed or wounded in such an incident, these traumatic events will profoundly change anyone who was present in several ways.

Impact on teachers and other staff

Let’s start with the effects on teachers.  Teachers have the responsibility of safeguarding their students in such an event.  Many schools across the nation hold “safety days” or “active shooter drills” similar to a tornado or fire drill to prepare staff and students in case of the real thing. Teachers are now trained to instruct students to stack chairs and desks against the classroom door or to scream and run around to distract a shooter if they are successful in getting inside a classroom.  Some have questioned these types of drills claiming they are provoking anxiety and fear in students while school administrators strive to find a balance without creating panic. 

But if and when the real thing happens, it is always better to have a plan than none at all.  For school personnel who survive these shootings, psychological problems afterwards can and do occur.  One that stands out is post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

Teachers witnessing a school shooting often suffer from emotions which include pain, confusion, guilt, shock, shame, fear, anger, depression, and sometimes acute anxiety. They may struggle to find a sense of security.

If PTSD is not dealt with, this can cause their life to spin out of control.  They may become more withdrawn, defensive, sarcastic, and perhaps emotionally unstable.  Their absenteeism and burnout rate increases, and they may find it difficult to feel completely safe again at school or they may feel a lack of support from the educational system.

It is crucial that all school staff involved in these shootings get quick, professional psychological treatment tailored to each individual. Even after several weeks have passed, they will still need support.  Past experience of teachers who witness shootings shows that they need continued support from family and the community to help them recover more quickly.  They should never feel isolated or cut off. 

Also consider that each person there at these shootings needs time to heal.  For some, they may recover within a few weeks, while others may need months or years of support and therapy. 

Impact on students

For the students who witnessed and survived a school shooting, depending on their age, often initially feel angry, confused and scared.  For most, these feelings will disappear over time, but for some, the feelings can continue and get worse.  These students can begin to have difficulties focusing at school or to participate in social activities which can impact them for years to come. 

Students, who personally lost beloved friends or family members, will usually have the most difficulty in adjusting back to a “normal” life.  Children can and do experience PTSD after such traumatic events.  Children and teens by nature, live their daily lives in a “bubble of invincibility.”  When terror bursts that bubble, it psychologically injures them as they viewed and experienced intense fear and helplessness. They may be haunted for a lifetime by these memories from the violence.  This is when they will especially require a loving, supporting and understanding family and social network to help maintain and restore that “bubble.”

It is important for parents, friends, and school staff to recognize symptoms of PTSD in children which can vary depending on their age.  Very young children may exhibit it by generalized fears, sleep problems, preoccupation with words or symbols, or losing acquired skills such as potty-training.  For elementary age children, they may show signs of reenacting the event or having an increase in playing violent or shooting games.  Teens and high school students may also reenact the event or show an increase in impulsive or aggressive behaviors. 

Surviving psychologically a traumatic event

Teachers, administrators, other school staff and especially the children will need time to heal.  The intense and painful feelings should begin to disappear within a few weeks of the event but may never completely go away. 

It is important to understand that every single person there at a school shooting, will go through the healing process at different rates. There is no correct answer or roadmap on how one is to grieve or cope with such a disaster. 

The best approach is for the entire community, including parents, neighbors, everyone to come together and be supportive of the children and school staff by exhibiting unwavering warmth and generosity. No one should be lectured on how they should feel; rather allow each individual to express themselves openly throughout the healing process.

The more the individuals who were cruelly caught up in an unpredictable tragedy, feel valued, respected, and cared for, the more they will know their community is wrapping their arms around them and not letting go.