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How Communities Can Begin to Heal in the Wake of a Tragedy: A Three-Step Plan for School Administrators, Teachers and Community Members

  • Practice

As acts of mass violence in schools become all too common, USC professor David Schonfeld shares his insights into how best to facilitate recovery for young people who have been affected by tragedy.

March 19-23 is National Youth Violence Prevention Week, a time dedicated to understanding the causes of violence among children and its impact. With last month’s shooting in Parkland, Florida, now added to the growing number of school shootings in the United States, child mental health professionals are searching for the best ways to help the students and teachers impacted by these tragic events.

David Schonfeld, a professor of practice in social work and pediatrics at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician who serves as director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement (NCSCB). His Center seeks to accelerate the recovery from these violent incidents for the students and teachers involved.

Schonfeld outlined a number of steps for schools to follow to help their communities recover from traumatic events. Here’s what he recommends:

Step 1: Balance Grief Support with Trauma Support and Offer Both Broadly

In the immediate aftermath of a school shooting, the most outwardly apparent reaction of survivors is often their reactions to the trauma they experienced from the event. But it’s important to remember that many of these students are also dealing with grief from the loss of peers and/or educators.

“In the wake of school shootings,” says Schonfeld, “the media usually talks a lot about trauma. What I found unique with the shooting in Parkland, FL was that there was a lot of discussion about the grief these students experienced and how the survivors are channeling their grief into advocacy. Usually, I don’t see as much awareness of the grief these students face.”

Indeed, trauma tends to be a more immediate reaction, while the effects of grief can unfold over several months or years as children and youth start to understand all that was lost after the death of someone they care about. The key to addressing both, Schonfeld believes, is consistent support.

“Many schools will use a medical model to address students’ needs after a shooting,” says Schonfeld. “They’ll screen kids for mental health issues and refer them to treatment — which is valuable — but emotional support, assistance and academic accommodations provided by all adults in the school is just as important. Schools need to do both.”

Step 2: Recognize That There Aren’t Always Easy Answers

After a school shooting, the community will often feel an intense pressure to look for “red flags” or “missed signals” that might have alerted them to the motives of the shooter. But, as Schonfeld warns, this approach is not always productive when it comes to moving forward in the wake of tragedy.

“Sometimes there are red flags, and sometimes there aren’t,” Schonfeld says. “It’s nearly impossible to predict accurately the one student who will do something like this, but it is possible to identify a broader group of students who are experiencing distress and to intervene earlier and on a more macro scale.”

Instead of simply backtracking and combing over missed warning signs for answers, schools should redirect their attention and resources to providing consistent and sufficient support for children with mental health issues.

“People with depression and other mental illnesses tend to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators,” he says. “We need to invest in better treatment — not with the intention of preventing mass shootings, but simply because they’re in need of help.”

Step 3: Provide Adequate Resources for Faculty & Staff

Schonfeld points out one striking discrepancy in the healing process in many schools following a tragedy: while students are provided outlets for their grief and resources to address trauma, teachers and staff are not provided with this same level of support. In fact, faculty members are understandably often tasked with helping students cope, rather than simply working through their own trauma and loss.

“Often, the primary goal is to prepare students to return to school, while teachers are expected not only to return to school, but to be prepared to teach while also helping support their students. Teachers play a critical role in the recovery process, but we need to recognize that it’s a lot to ask. It’s important to remember: they’ve been traumatized too, and are just as in need of support as their students,” Schonfeld says.

One of the goals of NCSCB is to provide support for teachers and staff over the long-term — support that often continues long after any students who experienced the event have graduated. By focusing on staff members’ adjustment and providing them with training and support, Schonfeld believes that his group can equip teachers and administrators to more effectively address the needs of their students.

More resources and information on how best to support students and staff in the wake of a tragedy can be found at www.schoolcrisiscenter.org; resources for helping grieving students can be found at the Coalition to Support Grieving Students.

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