Aftercare in the Wake of a School Shooting

Anna Lee ‘23

Opinions Editor

Photo courtesy of Eric Seals (Detroit Free Press)
High school community after a shooting at Oxford Township in Michigan

**TW: gun violence, suicide, mental health

NEWTON, Conn. — 20 year old Adam Lamza took the lives of 20 first-graders and six school employees before turning the gun on himself at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Seven years later, the father of a Sandy Hook victim took his own life. 

PARKLAND Fla. — 23 year old Nikolas Cruz pleaded guilty to 17 life sentences for the 17 lives he took at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. A year later, survivor Kelly Plaur withdrew from her paramedic training program after being overwhelmed with anxiety from transporting a gunshot victim. 

OXFORD TOWNSHIP Mich. — 15 year old Ethan Crumbley was charged as an adult after fatally shooting four students at Oxford High School. The survivors of this shooting may have up to a 28% chance of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and up to a third may develop acute stress disorder (McLaughlin and Kar 2019). This study does not take into account long-term disorders on the victims’ family members, friends, or others impacted by the tragedy. 

In the immediate aftermath of a school shooting, everyone wants to help. Counselors, therapy dogs, and armed soldiers flood school halls in an effort to make the environment feel safe. Politicians lunge at the opportunity to renew debates about gun reform or to defend the Second Amendment. The media is relentless with survivors and the victims’ families, smothering them with cameras and publicity. 

But then it ends. When the funerals, trials, and public interest in the tragedy are over, students are expected to resume life as usual. Some of the resources that were put in place in the immediate aftermath are no longer available. And by the time some students finally come to grips with the reality of the shooting or the shock wears off, they are expected to be fully-functioning and recovered. To those who are not, schools say it’s too late or that’s too bad—the resources were only there for the period that survivors were supposed to need help. 

All of this is to say that trauma is different for everyone. Mental Health America lists over five categories of trauma (acute, chronic, insidious, vicarious, mass, etc.) that can develop depending on each student’s individual experience. Thankfully, most survivors will recover over time and will not experience any lasting difficulties (Women’s Health Matters). 

However, it is still the responsibility of schools, community members, and other adults to make every effort in reducing long-term trauma as much as possible. Some officials respond to this offensively: former President Donald Trump proposed the idea that “schools could arm up to 20% of their teachers” as a retaliatory unit (CNN). Other defendants of the Second Amendment have fiercely defended possession of guns to dissuade school shootings as a way of suggesting “violence fights violence.” However, helping the survivors of these attacks cope with the aftermath of an attack is not to further traumatize them with the very weapons of the attack. Instead, one way to mitigate these numbers is not through acute and intense counseling and then leaving students to “deal with it,” but through continuous and long-term support. 

According to the American Psychological Association, there are three phases of trauma that can loosely be translated into someone’s experience. The acute phase (characterized by shock or denial) can be helped with resources and support. Dan Mosley, EdD, an American Red Cross volunteer stated: “Simply ensuring victims are aware that support is available. . . can help immensely.” The intermediate phase—characterized by anger, anxiety, and other intense emotions—can be helped with trauma-informed care. In other words, survivors can learn how to incorporate coping skills that will help them manage their distress in a non-destructive way. Usually several months after the event, survivors experience the long-term phase in conjunction with adjustment or relapse. This phase, clearly the longest one and hardest to treat, can manifest itself in feeling like everyone else has been able to “move on” while the one experiencing it has not. Though these phases are clean-cut and very exact, keep in mind that many (if any) traumatic experiences follow this timeline exactly. 

America’s “hardened” culture not only requires adults to follow a strict timeline of grief, it also requires that children in emotional distress, traumatized by a mass shooting, “recover” and get back to normal as soon as possible. But just like all other emotional responses, there is no “formula” for when and where to put resources. This links to a bigger issue of there being a lack of counselors, social workers, and mental health support among high schools in general. Putting more long-term measures into school systems may not only help students get the help they need, but may even give troubled students at risk of a shooting a healthy outlet to express their emotions. 

In particular, there should be a greater number and variety of counseling services. For cases that deal with PTSD in the wake of a school shooting, counselors should be well-informed about how to best treat those seeking help. For instance, if a counselor specializes in relationship counseling but has no background in trauma counseling, they won’t be that helpful. In addition, school shootings that especially target black and Latinx communities are often overlooked by the media. For these schools and just high schools in general, employing trauma-informed counselors who are also people of color can make opening up more comfortable. 

With the window of opportunity closing, those with administrative or social power in the Oxford community should consider implementing long-term methods to continually check in on their kids. Just like the schools of Sandy Hook and Marjory Stoneman, this massacre will impact the district permanently and leave communities reeling years, even decades, after the tragedy. Having failed many other survivors who took their own lives after school shootings, it is of utmost importance for schools and social services to make sure Oxford survivors do not feel the same way. 

The discussion about what to do to prevent these shootings in the first place is a much larger discussion. Though policy change is slow, every advancement in gun reform gets America closer to an environment where students can live and learn without fear. For if it wasn’t so easy for Ethan Crumbley to use the gun his father bought on Black Friday, Nikolas Cruz to buy a gun from Sunrise Tactical Supply without detectable warning signs, or Adam Lamza use his mother’s semi-automatic rifle, there’s a high chance such tragedies would never have happened. And likewise, I would never be writing this article.

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