There is an idea forming in the minds of our children. As students are living though the horror of one mass school shooting after the other, the idea of a school being a safe place is slowly dying, and in its place is a growing uneasy feeling that it’s just a matter of time before it happens in my school; that nothing can stop it from happening in my school, to me or my friends.
Not long ago, some would have argued that this statement is a bit of an exaggeration, in spite of the fact that there have been 18 school shootings since the beginning of this year. Today, another drill is being added to schools’ safety practices, and it’s not as routine as a fire drill. It’s called a “lockdown”, practice for what could realistically happen at any time.
Mass shootings causes mass trauma. Mass trauma occurs when a community of people fall victim to events that breed horror and overwhelm their collective and individual ability to cope. The event happens unexpectedly and has catastrophic impact. It involves devastating loss, serious harm to life or limb, or death for many members of the community. Feelings of helplessness, fear and uncertainty follow, and the survivors endure flashbacks - images of death and horror that recycle repeatedly in their minds. The images cannot be erased even when the victims are being comforted. Normal life ceases to exist. The psychological and emotional wound that comes with trauma is deep and lasts for days, weeks, or months. For some, the wound continues to create severe anxiety for years, even after the events that caused it have become history. People who are affected by trauma will struggle to come to terms with the fact that this terrible thing has happened to them and to their community. Feelings of anger will follow because, although they try to forget and “move on”, it is not quite that simple.
There are two types of mass trauma: natural and man-made. Hurricane Katrina caused mass trauma and was an act of nature. Man-made mass trauma has typically been associated with wars and war atrocities. In today’s world, civilians in countries dealing with terrorism are falling victim to mass trauma. The atrocity of genocide, such as that which occurred in Darfur and Nazi Germany, is another form of mass trauma. Victims of school shootings can attest to the many ways trauma has affected their family and their school community.
I have often been told by people who are dealing with trauma that it is something no one else, with few exceptions, can understand unless they have experienced it. In the case of mass trauma, social media may have possibly changed that. Cell phone videos of children fleeing the school, the sound of rapid gun fire on the other side of a locked door to a classroom, children crouched on the floor, and the rawness of emotion as teens who are compelled to tell their stories are thrust before cell phone and television cameras, have brought the world into their horror in real time. It is our worst nightmare. Anyone who feels connected to victims of the school shooting at Douglas High School in Parkland Florida will feel deeply affected, even if they do not personally know the victims or their families. The images of what happened at Douglas High are real and frightening to anyone who has children. For adults, our collective consciousness informs us that the threat remains “out there”, but we find ways to cope with it, and get on with our lives. But, can we say as much for our children? What has been the true impact on their collective consciousness of the school shootings? How has this awareness changed their perceptions? We don’t have answers to these questions, yet. What we do know is that normal life has undergone change because lockdowns are now a part of the school’s safety plan.
The day after the shooting at Douglass High School I was asked by a parent, “How do I talk about school shootings with my children? What should I do?” He said, “My son asked me to put additional minutes on his phone so that he can get in touch with me if there’s a shooting at his school.” This was the first time anyone had asked me this question.
Here are a few suggestions:
1. Limit your child’s viewing of school shootings on television and the internet. Schools are conducting “lockdown” drills and that’s as much reality as your child needs at this time.
2. Maintain a normal routine. Routine makes life feel normal and helps us cope with uncertainty.
3. Show interest in your child’s interests and pursuits. Children appreciate positive attention from the people who care about them. It is reassuring to them.
4. Make time in your busy life to spend time with your child or children and remember to turn off the cell.
5. Tell them you love them.
6. Recognize that their need to talk about what the children are saying at school is a normal response. Show interest in their thoughts and try not to give into your own fears by minimizing their concerns. Talk about your concerns with the adults in your family and your friends. Do not worry alone.
Today, the children who survived the shooting at Douglas High School are planning to march on Washington on March 24 because they have grown impatient and they are filled with dread of another school shooting. There is nothing more frightening to a child than the loss of security, and to have their world change from safe to not safe in a matter of minutes. This causes trauma. The ability to act with agency to deal with this problem in America, to talk about the indignation of watching a friend die, of seeing dead bodies as students scrambled out of school, will help them work through their feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. The support they are receiving to do what they feel compelled to do will help restore their confidence and belief in the world. They instinctively understand that mass trauma, which is man-made trauma, is preventable. For many months they will continue to remember what happened in their school and at other schools around the country. Some will not be able to walk through the doors of DouglasHigh School ever again. Their parents will remember that day and many of them will deal with feelings of guilt and frustration, grief and sadness. Their neighbors will remember February 14, 2018 as well. And people in school communities throughout the country and around the world are waiting to see what happens next.