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How Schools Can Respond When Kids Are Too Scared to Come

For two agonizingly long days last week, the residents of Lewiston, Maine, and surrounding communities went into lockdown in their homes while police searched for agunman who killed 18 people in their close-knit city. When the suspect’s body was discovered, the community breathed a collective sigh of relief. But it’s likely that residents remain on edge; among them are school-age children.

In rare instances, a mass shooting in a community can render its school-age residents too frightened to return to school or other public places—despite the statistical unlikelihood of such incidents, let alone recurrences. Approximately 54 million children attend K-12 schools in the United States. As of this reporting, a total of 34 on-campus school shootings this year have resulted in injuries or deaths, according to an Education Week analysis. Nevertheless, heightened anxiety or even school avoidance after a tragic act of violence demands attention from educators and school administrators, especially as the number of mass shootings continues to tick up. By September 19, the United States had surpassed 500 mass shootings for the year.

Scott Woitaszewski, a professor of school psychology at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and a co-chair of the National Association of School Psychologists’ school safety and crisis response committee, shared his expertise on this subject. He explained which students are most likely to experience trauma after a mass shooting and, potentially, show a strong tendency toward school avoidance. He pointed to signs that may suggest students aren’t coping well. And he offered best practices for how educators should respond to students when tragedy strikes at or near a school.

Risk factors predisposing children to trauma

Three factors are most likely to predispose children to trauma after a tragic incident such as a mass shooting, Woitaszewski explained.

Physical proximity to the violence is the most important predictor of psychological trauma, Woitaszewski said. And while almost everything in a relatively small community like Lewiston can feel “close” to community members, physical proximity in this context refers to those people who were actually near where the incident occurred—in the same block, building, or neighborhood.

Having a relationship with people who were at the scene is the second biggest predictor of trauma, said Woitaszewski. These can be relationships of any kind: friends, families, church members, etcetera. The relationship doesn’t necessarily have to be directly with the victims, he stressed.

The third most common predictor of trauma triggered by a mass shooting is pre-existing vulnerabilities, such as exposure to previous acts of violence, abuse or neglect, or struggles with other challenges such as anxiety or depression.

Be proactive

After an incident that may be traumatizing to children, it’s best not to wait and see who is struggling, explained Woitaszewski.

“You want to actively triage and check on students with those risk factors,” he said. “It shouldn’t be: ‘Come on down to the office if you need something.’”

Not all children who are traumatized will refuse to go to school or other public places. Their trauma may manifest in other ways. Generally, educators can expect developmental differences in how children respond to crises. Younger children may revert to having toileting problems. An uptick in substance use could indicate trauma among adolescents or teens.

“Those are the kids I’m checking on right away, regardless of age,” Woitaszewski said.

What to say after a tragic incident

Soon after a tragic incident occurs and students have returned to school, administrators may be inclined to avoid discussing what happened. While not easy, it’s important to address the issue in a setting such as a classroom meeting, Woitaszewski advised.

Key to such meetings is that they are conducted by an adult who can model calmness and composure, and use honest but reassuring language. These meetings are the time to share facts about what happened (in a developmentally appropriate manner), and to dispel rumors. Projecting a message that the school is “united” is important, too, Woitaszewski suggested.

Students may ask questions like, “Is this going to happen again?” Avoiding difficult questions like this is not advisable, Woitaszewski warned. But, he added, educators are on a slippery slope if they say outright that it’s not going to happen again. Instead, he suggests pointing out all the concrete ways the school is working to keep students safe.

Said Woitaszewski: “Schools are generally some of the safest places we can be in America.”

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