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Teaching in the Age of School Shootings

Teaching in the Age of School Shootings by Jeneen Interlandi (nytimes.com)
What happens to teachers who are forced to act as first responders?
Jeneen Interlandi in The New York Times. All annotations in context.

Teachers were the first responders. Before police officers and medics arrived, they gathered sobbing, vomiting, bleeding kids into the safest rooms they could find, then locked the doors and kept vigil with them through the stunned and terrified wait. They shepherded the injured to hospitals in their own cars. And they knelt on the ground with the ones who were too wounded to move, stanching blood flow with their own hands and providing whatever comfort and assurance they could muster.

How do we prepare teachers (and students) for this sort of trauma? How do we prepare teachers (and students) to be first responders? Should we have to worry about this?

It’s important to think about the stats of these events.

For all of the fear they inspire, school shootings of any kind are technically still quite rare. Less than 1 percent of all fatal shootings that involve children age 5 to 18 occur in school, and a significant majority of those do not involve indiscriminate rampages or mass casualties. It has been two decades since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold ushered in the era of modern, high-profile, high-casualty shootings with their massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. According to James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, just 10 of the nation’s 135,000 or so schools have experienced a similar calamity — a school shooting with four or more victims and at least two deaths — since then. But those 10 shootings have had an outsize effect on our collective psyche, and it’s not difficult to understand why: We are left with the specter of children being gunned down en masse, in their own schools. One such event would be enough to terrify and enrage us. This year, we had three.

It’s important to recognize the trauma that exists even if there is only a “threat” or a “hoax.”

Teachers are at the quiet center of this recurring national horror. They are victims and ad hoc emergency workers, often with close ties to both shooter and slain and with decades-long connections to the school itself. But they are also, almost by definition, anonymous public servants accustomed to placing their students’ needs above their own. And as a result, our picture of their suffering is incomplete.

We know that the trauma that teachers experience after a school shooting can be both severe and enduring. “Their PTSD can be as serious as what you see in soldiers,” says Robert Pynoos, co-director of the federally funded National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, which helps schools coordinate their responses to traumatic events. “But unlike soldiers, none of them signed up for this, and none of them have been trained to cope with it.” We know that teachers who were least able to protect their students in the moment tend to be especially traumatized. “For teachers, the duty to educate students is primary,” Pynoos says. “But the urge to protect those students is deeper than that. It’s primal.” And we know that their symptoms can include major sleep disturbance, hair-trigger startle responses and trouble regulating emotions.

Perhaps the roles and relationships of teaching are also changing.

Jenny Darnall decided to re-evaluate her understanding of what it meant to be a teacher in the first place. She had never been particularly compassionate with the students. The way she saw it, her job was to educate them, not give them advice they should be getting from their parents. But now, she felt as if God were telling her to step up and do more: Call parents more and tell them the hard truths she might normally expect them to discover on their own. Talk to the kids more too. Tell them that they are loved, even when they’re being terrible. Those things did not feel like part of her job. But maybe now they would have to be.

Many questions exist about how to follow-up after these events. Perhaps we have the wrong goals.

From the inside, a mass shooting can feel distinctly unchartable. But Reed — and Pynoos, and Melissa Brymer, his colleague at the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress — say that while each school shooting is different in its particulars, several features are common to all. For example, Brymer says, it can be the secondary trauma that undoes a school’s recovery. “After a shooting, everyone wants to talk about how to find the next shooter so that this doesn’t happen again,” Brymer says. “But that’s not what the school itself needs to focus on. We’ve had suicides, car accidents, overdoses.” For a school that’s already traumatized, she says, these follow-up events can be incredibly devastating.

Brymer advises schools to conduct mental-health screenings before anniversaries, to find the people who are struggling most and help them. The hierarchy of hurt can split in surprising ways. For the most part, people closest to the carnage are the most traumatized, and people farther away are less so. But any teacher might be plagued by any number of things, including what they saw and how they responded in the moment. One educator might flee the building in a panic, leaving his students behind, only to be devastated by guilt afterward. Another might behave heroically, then seethe with resentment over not getting enough recognition. Each will need counseling and support to fully recover.

Teachers (and students) need to recognize that they are struggling and in trauma.

Brymer advises schools to conduct mental-health screenings before anniversaries, to find the people who are struggling most and help them. The hierarchy of hurt can split in surprising ways. For the most part, people closest to the carnage are the most traumatized, and people farther away are less so. But any teacher might be plagued by any number of things, including what they saw and how they responded in the moment. One educator might flee the building in a panic, leaving his students behind, only to be devastated by guilt afterward. Another might behave heroically, then seethe with resentment over not getting enough recognition. Each will need counseling and support to fully recover.

A common lament among educator-survivors is the way that personal boundaries shift within the school community. Abbey Clements, who taught second grade at Sandy Hook, says that after the shooting, she would take her entire class to the bathroom at the same time, so that no one would have to leave her sight. But as they drew their students close, she says, she and her colleagues distanced themselves from one another. “You’re afraid that if you start talking about your own trauma, you might trigger someone else’s,” she says. “You’re also afraid of looking weak or unstable, afraid you’ll be asked to leave or take leave if you admit how much you’re struggling.”

As a result, many teachers bury their fear and anger and guilt, until it changes into something else entirely. The question of where to erect a memorial, or when to take one down, can create fierce divisions. So might similar questions about how long to allow comfort dogs on campus, or what to do with the mountain of gifts and condolences that pile up. Students may come close to blows over whether to discuss the shooting during class time. Teachers may feel close to doing the same. “It’s not all ‘Kumbaya,’ ” Clements says. “When the system is cracked by a trauma of this magnitude, a lot of stuff leaks out. It gets messy. And it can change relationships.”

Some real answers.

Matthew Mayer, a professor of educational psychology at Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education, says that among experts the best solutions to school shootings are not really in dispute: basic gun control, more and better mental-health services and a robust national threat-assessment program. We also need to help educators create an atmosphere where students who hear about a potential threat feel comfortable sharing that information with adults. (Many student shooters, including Gabe Parker at Marshall County, hint about their plans to at least one other person or tell them outright. Getting those others to inform teachers is one of our best options for preventing shootings from happening in the first place.)

In February, Mayer and his colleagues circulated an eight-point document titled “A Call for Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States of America,” which summarized these and other key actions needed to reduce the risk of school shootings. So far, 4,400 educators and public-health experts have signed it. But political will is still missing. “We keep revisiting the same conversations every five or six years without learning or changing much of anything,” Mayer says. “Armed guards and metal detectors make it look like you’re doing something. You get far fewer points for talking about school climate and mental health.”

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