Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

After school violence, traumatized teachers need help

By Edward Mooney Jr., Special to CNN
November 22, 2013 -- Updated 2325 GMT (0725 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Edward Mooney Jr.: After school violence, teacher trauma must be addressed
  • He says psychological help, community support crucial for these teachers
  • He says without treatment teachers' behavior can suffer
  • Mooney: Fostering strong school communities aids recovery in the event of trauma

Editor's note: Edward Mooney Jr. is an educator who has extensively researched school violence in his doctoral work at Northeastern University in Boston. He has taught high school in Southern California for 26 years.

(CNN) -- Americans have been repeatedly shocked by school violence this year-- first in Nevada, where in October a student shot and killed a teacher and wounded two students before taking his own life; then days later by the news that the body of a young teacher was found behind her school in Massachusetts. The images of traumatized parents and a campus surrounded by police tape shake us profoundly -- our hearts break for the families of those who died. For them, this is the beginning of an unwanted journey.

In my education research I have focused on the question of what happens in the lives of the people still connected to a school that has endured such a trauma long after the media and law enforcement move on.

School shootings affect teachers, school secretaries, maintenance people and anyone else on campus at the time. How the school, the community and families work together is critical to the long-term recovery of those who witnessed the nightmare.

Edward Mooney Jr.
Edward Mooney Jr.

It's important to consider two aspects of life after a school shooting. First, what do teachers go through as the days stretch on and, second, what can we learn from past shootings to help the educators in Sparks?

For teachers who witness school shootings, one diagnosis stands out, and it is well-known in the field of psychology: post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Teachers who see a shooting will experience the trauma of the activating event and a series of other emotions: pain, confusion, guilt, shame, a questioning of self-worth, fear, anger, depression, and, sometimes, acute anxiety. They may question their very sense of how the world works around them. They struggle to find a sense of safety.

Teacher slayings hurt view of schools as safe havens

If PTSD is not dealt with, the quality of the teacher's life can degrade rapidly. Psychiatric clinician Bessel van der Kolk has described how, left untreated, these changes can become permanent. Victims of untreated PTSD can degrade into rigid thinking, paranoia, defensiveness, over-reactivity and health problems.

Is change to gun laws possible?
Witness: Shooter yelled during rampage
2 dead in Nevada school shooting

This can have serious ramifications for students in their classrooms. They might find their teacher more and more withdrawn, less willing to engage intellectually or emotionally, defensive, sarcastic, inflexible and perhaps emotionally unstable. Teacher absenteeism -- meaning more substitute teachers -- might become a problem.

What can we learn from previous shootings that might help the educators in Nevada? The most important factor in recovery is quick access to professional crisis counseling.

Crisis counselors must discern how each individual witness deals with PTSD. In their trauma research, psychologists James Fauerbach and John Lawrence found that adjustment to trauma is a dynamic process influenced by the intensity of the incident but also by pre-trauma factors -- for example family stability, socioeconomic status. Personal resilience, which is effected by such things as social support, personality and native coping abilities, plays a role.

This is why past experience teaches us it's important to get quick professional psychological treatment, tailored to each individual. More severe PTSD symptoms, such as recurring nightmares, can arise over time; it's crucial that counseling continue to be available and actively offered.

After the first few weeks have passed, witnesses still need support. One of the worst things anyone can do is pressure the witness to "just get over it." Past experience suggests that teachers who witness shootings and who have these layers of support from family and community recover more fully and quickly than those who are more isolated.

And then there is time. Each person heals at a different pace. There will be teachers who will be able to return to their duties in a week or so; some may need months or years of support and therapy.

In my own study I compared two teachers recovering after witnessing a school shooting. One was able to return within a week and had extended support from district and local mental health professionals for some time. A mental health professional checked in on him weekly, even a year later. The other teacher had no such support. She was not even offered counseling. Her world, demonstrating van der Kolk's assertions, descended into defensiveness and health problems. She was unable to function after a month back on the job.

School administrators should understand that a teacher going back into the classroom may be an unknown; their post-shooting self may still be struggling in many ways. Unfortunately a 2005 study found that 75% of school districts affected by campus shootings did not require counseling for teacher witnesses.

Coordinating a re-entry plan with a professional psychologist can be fundamental to restoring a witness to a productive and healthy life.

Finally, research indicates that the more connected a witness feels to the school, to his or her family, and to the community, the better the possibility for long-term healing. School administrators, by routinely fostering relationships through off-campus faculty parties, softball games and other group activities, could be setting up a safety net that could smooth over a transition for future trauma victims.

One of the participants in my study regularly went on recreational events with co-workers. He mentioned how these same people felt connected to him and were there for him after the shooting. They knew him, knew when he needed alone time and when he needed to be around people. While this cannot prevent a tragedy, it can set up mechanisms to assist in healing.

In the weeks and months that follow, administrators, community members, family members and colleagues should be sensitive to events, objects and other factors that may cause heightened anxiety and panic attacks. To guide teachers, administrators will need professional advice from psychologists.

Beyond these things, what can the rest of us do to help? First of all, be a part of your local school. Teachers, students, administrators and other school workers need to feel valued and respected. Be a part of the process to find ways to make schools safer. Secondly, encourage your local school leaders to develop school morale, to develop crisis management plans and to foster a community feeling around the school.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward Mooney Jr.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT