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Valentine’s Day and School Violence: Grief and Reflection

I have struggled with Valentine’s Day for the last 12 years. While I love celebrating the holiday with my spouse, it holds a more somber tone for me. This Friday marks the 12th anniversary of the fatal shooting at Northern Illinois University, my Alma Mater. On February 14, 2008, a gun man opened fire with a shotgun and three pistols in a large lecture hall, killing five people and injuring 17 others. The gunman, who eventually killed himself, was a former student of the university and would have been there when I was enrolled. He could have been my student when I taught courses as a graduate student, or he could have been my client when I was a student therapist at the two counseling centers on campus. Many of my colleagues were first responders after the shooting, providing crisis services and mental health counseling to the student body, staff, faculty, and the larger NIU community. It especially hit home in my household, as my husband went to Virginia Tech and had just experienced a similar shooting a year previous when the place he loved and learned had also been traumatized.

Two years ago, I was teaching a course on Trauma and Resiliency (which I am teaching again this year) and I was preparing to discuss my own experiences with the NIU shooting on the 10th anniversary. Before I could get to class, however, my social media accounts were blasted with the news that there was another horrific shooting, this time at a high school in Parkland, Florida. On February 14, 2018, a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others. The gunman was eventually caught, but the casualties continued a year later when two Parkland survivors killed themselves. As that day progressed, and as I processed this new shooting with my students and in my own head, new reports started comparing the Parkland shooting with the Columbine shooting that had occurred 19 years prior. Flashback to college, sitting around my living room with my housemates and friends, glued to the television watching the aftermath of the Columbine shooting. It was especially impactful because many of my friends were graduating in a few weeks and had plans to become high school teachers. I remember looking at one of my close friends, now a successful and amazing high school English teacher, and just seeing his face drain of all color when he realized that it could have been him.

According to the center for Homeland Defense and Security, there have been 504 shooting incidents that resulted in 226 deaths in K-12 schools since 2010. One hundred and 30 of these were an escalation of a previous disagreement, 50 were related to gang violence, and 40 were attempted suicides. Mental health or drug related issues were present in less than 20 of these incidents; however, in 104 of these incidents the cause of the shooting is unknown. The majority of the shooters were 18 years old or younger. Between 2001 and 2016, 437 people were shot in 190 college shooting incidents.

Research on the effects of school shootings on student and staff outcomes is prolific. Common reactions youth may have when they witness a school shooting include posttraumatic stress reactions, grief, fears of recurrence, and separation anxiety from parents and caregivers. Students may have flashbacks or intrusive thoughts or images of the danger situation, or they may mentally, emotionally, or physically avoid situations that remind them of the shooting. They may demonstrate heightened arousal, have trouble concentrating and sitting still, and be prone to panic. They may experience grief, depression, or symptoms that look like physical illness. They may also engage in risk behaviors, struggle with learning, and demonstrate increased aggressiveness (for more information, please see the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN).

In response to school shootings, many school districts have implemented more stringent safety measures. For example, I must show my state issued ID and my information is submitted to a visitor management system when I visit my children’s school. Some districts have increased the presence of law enforcement or school safety officers. In addition, most districts have implemented school lockdown drills, where students practice what they should do in case of an active shooter. Controversy exists about whether these lockdown drills do more harm then good. Zhe and Nickerson (2007) reported that students who underwent the training in lockdown practice retained that knowledge and could implement it later; they also found that those students who practiced the lockdown drill did not differ from students who did not do a lockdown drill on perceptions of school safety or anxiety. Schildkraut, Nickerson, and Ristoff (2019) assessed over 10,000 children in New York and also reported that lockdown drills and related training led students to feel more prepared for emergency situations. In contrast to Zhe and Nickerson, however, the students in Schildkraut at al.’s study reported a decrease in feeling safe after engaging in safety preparedness training. In addition, female students and students of color were even less likely than male and white students to report feeling safe in their school. Taken together, these studies suggest that while these lockdown drills may help students feel more prepared for threats, it may have a wide range of effects on their feeling of safety—which has implications for how students might struggle to focus on learning.

Teachers may also struggle, either after a school shooting or following intensive training in school safety efforts. Many teachers struggle because they are charged with the responsibility of maintaining calm and engaging in emergency response activities while also experiencing the traumatic stress of the shooting experience. Research by Ilk (2019) demonstrated that teachers who engage in emergency preparedness drills do find them helpful in making teachers feel better prepared to respond to threat. Ilk also reported that teachers did not report heightened anxiety or poor perceived sense of safety when there was frequent and open communication among teachers and administrators. In a study conducted on Penn State preservice teachers, over half of the preservice teachers felt somewhat prepared to deal with a school threat. Many of them had experienced training in their courses, field placements, or other work experiences. However, many reported that they felt they lacked the skills and experience to be truly effective and ready to deal with school threats (Hetzel-Riggin & Burke, 2016).

Thankfully, there are a lot of resources for individuals, teachers, administrators, and parents to help mitigate the impact of school shootings. NCTSN has fact sheets on how school districts, teachers, principals, administrators, and support staff for providing