The Impact of Gun Violence and Mass Shootings on Student Mental Health

Olivia Pennelle
Calendar icon Last Updated: 07/8/2022

Reading Time: 42 minutes

school kids running to recess

Gun violence is a national public health epidemic in the United States, as the nation experiences more school shooting incidents and mass shootings than any other country. With an unprecedented number of shootings each year, gun violence is taking a substantial toll on the mental health and well-being of Americans, leading many to question: how do we solve this problem?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 124 people die each day from a firearm-related injury, creating a death toll of 45,222 in 2020. In terms of mass shootings, according to the Washington Post, data from the Gun Violence Archive reveals since January 2022, there have been:

  • Over 250 mass shootings
  • 39 of which were school shootings

female grade school studentWhile gun violence is a tragedy for any life lost, it is especially traumatic to see the news of shootings in our schools, taking the lives of children and the educators trying to protect them. The aftermath of shooting incidents is far reaching, impacting the long-term mental health of students and grieving communities.

Gun violence is also an issue that appears to be dividing the country. On one hand, advocates to keep our schools safe have been calling on the nation’s leaders for meaningful actions and stricter gun regulation. On the other hand, while not opposed to some stricter regulation, many Americans largely attribute gun violence to the shooter’s mental health and want to uphold the right to bear arms.

However, with the increase in mass shootings and gun violence in schools in recent years, it brings into question whether, as a nation, America is preserving life, liberty, and property — the very values underpinning the second amendment — or perpetuating violence and mass trauma for students, educators, and parents by not acting.

This article aims to critically examine the complex and interacting factors related to gun violence, including:

  • Key facts about child-related gun violence and school shootings
  • School shootings and their impact on student mental health
  • How the public understand gun violence and how it is defined
  • The role of mass media and social media, their influence, and the consequences of reporting misleading information about gun violence
  • How mass shootings fall into the broader picture of gun violence
  • Addressing the trends in frequency of school shootings
  • Leading causes of school shooting incidents
  • How active shooter drills impact student mental health
  • The role of the school counselor in mitigating violence
  • Available mental health resources for students
  • Plans to prevent gun violence in schools

School Shootings and Student Mental Health

In examining mass and school shootings and how they are portrayed in the media, it’s important to first define acts of gun violence, as definitions vary, affecting data, research, and even expert opinion.

Research organization, RAND Corporation explains:

“There is no standard definition of what constitutes a mass shooting, and different data sources – such as media outlets, academic researchers, and law enforcement agencies – frequently use different definitions when discussing and analyzing mass shootings.”

Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on keeping our schools safe by ending gun violence, has created a broad definition to understand school shooting incidents:

  • School shooting: A school is defined as elementary, middle, and high schools (grades K-12) and colleges and universities. A school shooting is defined as any time a gun discharges a live round inside or into a school building, on a school campus, or on school grounds.
  • Mass shooting: A mass shooting is defined as a gun being discharged and killing three or more people.

Another important factor to note is that when shootings are grouped together, such as shooting 3-4 members of a household, motives, and drivers for carrying out the violence may differ.

The Impact of School Shootings on Student Mental Health

A growing body of evidence demonstrates the myriad ways gun violence and school shootings have wide-ranging impacts on students, educators, and communities, which can worsen existing health disparities. In a recent study linking gun violence to childhood distress, lead author, Eugenia South, MD, MSHP, an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine and Faculty Director of the Penn Urban Health Lab told Penn Medicine News:

“Symptoms of mental health distress in children appear within days of being exposed to a single shooting. What’s more, in Philadelphia and other cities across the United States, gun violence disproportionately affects Black children and families, adding to existing health disparities.”

Some of the ways gun violence and school shootings impact students, include:

  • Compromised safety, directly impacting students’ learning outcomes and their emotional and social development
  • Direct impairment of students’ ability to pay attention, impulse control, and cognitive functioning.
  • Significantly decreases enrollment of students and lowers performance on standardized tests.
  • Causing higher rates of mental health emergency department visits among children.

Aditi Vasan, MD, MSHP, instructor of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine and a pediatric hospitalist and health services researcher at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia stated, “Gun violence affects the whole community, beyond the victims who are personally injured.”

Vasan went on to say that the findings underscore the need for action.

“Now that we have confirmed exposure to shootings negatively impacts the mental health of children, we can work to develop ways to provide preventive and responsive support for children and families exposed to neighborhood gun violence.”

However, some of the ways schools are intervening with preventative efforts are also adversely impacting students’ well-being. A study from Georgia Institute of Technology’s Social Dynamics and Wellbeing Lab found that preventative actions like active shooter drills, are associated with:

In reaching these findings, the study analyzed social media conversations on Twitter and Reddit for 90 days after a school drill to examine their effectiveness. Researchers found lasting emotional and physical harm. Social media posts containing words like blood, pain, clinic, and pills raised concerns of death by 22 percent.

While the study suggests shooter drills are detrimental to student mental health, it also questions the broader impact of social and mass media. Meaning, it’s important to critically examine the role of the media and social networking sites in terms of:

  • The source and accuracy of the information presented.
  • The role of technology plays in the information we see.
  • How the media may influence how gun violence is perceived, understood, and even perpetuated.
  • The political affiliation of the news outlet.
  • If the information being shared via unregulated social media has been verified as accurate.
  • Whether stories are being sensationalized but only highlighting one aspect of a much broader issue.

The Pros and Cons of Mass Media

typical American high schoolWe live in a digital world where information is available at the click of a button, leaving behind the days of walking to the store to pick up a newspaper. Today, mass media is available online, on the television, through news apps, and via social media. Keeping fully informed of current events digitally has never been easier and the benefits are far-reaching:

  • Realtime information: News is published in free online media sites throughout the day, often in real-time (meaning, as they unfold).
  • Automated news: Through technological innovations, articles are automatically cross posted to news apps and social media feeds, which then send push notifications directly to your phone, computer, and email, alerting you to unfolding news.
  • Information for law enforcement: Real-time news provides helpful information that can be used in threat assessments and the work of law enforcement.
  • Increased connection and resources: Media fosters connection to the rest of the country (and the world), allowing almost immediate mobilization of resources to help.

Technologically has undoubtedly made news more convenient than ever, with most people being able to access reporting of events in real time just about anywhere in the world. However, news outlets and social media also has some drawbacks relating to gun violence:

  • Risk of spreading misinformation: Given the need for real-time news, information is often posted quickly and while efforts to verify the information may be made, sometimes inaccuracies happen, and outlets may unintentionally spread misinformation. For example, a news outlet may report multiple shooters when there is a single shooter, which can directly impact law enforcement strategies and delay intervention.
  • Technology alters your news feed: Through artificial intelligence and algorithms, apps and marketing companies note browsing habits and automatically curate your news feed, thus limiting alternative perspectives, or broader issues.
  • Can be used for disinformation and hate: Some outlets are politically motivated and may publish biased information with direct implications, including:
    • Distorting the perception — versus reality — of gun violence in America
    • Promoting political agendas, for or against gun regulation by spreading propaganda
    • Minimizing the issue of gun violence to rogue individuals rather than the broader issue of easy access to powerful automatic guns
    • Fueling the sense of threats and fear, and the public’s need for a villain to fight
    • Dividing society into camps of for or against rather than togetherness to solve the problem of gun violence
  • Enables perpetrators of violence: Social media is largely unregulated, giving almost anyone the ability to post anything they want. That includes active shooters posting a video of their violent attack. While networking sites may attempt to safeguard members by verifying news and taking down violent content, the sheer volume of members means it can take hours to take posts down.
  • Increases notoriety among offenders: Violent content, especially videos, are more likely to be sensationalized by news outlets, garnering more attention. The more popular a video, the more likely it is to go viral — spreading rapidly across the Internet — appearing at the top of everyone’s social media feed within minutes of being posted. This level of attention fuels perpetrators’ notoriety, power, and potential to cause more harm.
  • Attracts copycats: Media coverage of active shooters may attract future aggressors who have a grudge and want to capitalize off the same attention and notoriety. Additionally, covering details of the shooting provides potential offenders with tactical information copy. For example, the 2008 Northern Illinois University shooter copied the tactics of Virginia Tech’s shooter a year earlier who chained the doors of an exit.
  • Exacerbates trauma: Researchers have found that students reading social media about gun violence and possible interventions — such as random shooter drills — are linked to increases in depression, stress, anxiety, and other health problems.
  • Diverts resources: Inaccurate information can lead law enforcement to believe they need to send resources to one location, when in fact they have been misled, wasting time, and increasing the potential for more fatalities.

Mass Shootings Are Only a Small Fraction of School Gun Violence

As mentioned earlier, the United States experiences more school shootings than any other country. Research shows that American students are 13 times more likely to be shot than children attending school in a Scandinavian country. However, what we see in the mass media may not represent the whole picture of gun violence. Oftentimes, stories of gun violence are focused heavily on mass school shooting incidents, even though they only represent a small fraction of gun violence.

Key Facts About Gun Violence in Schools

Research shows that between 2013 and 2019, there were 549 incidents of gunfire on school grounds. Of those shootings:

  • 3 percent occurred at elementary, middle, and high schools
  • 6 percent happened at colleges and universities
  • 2 percent were in daycare
  • Shootings in K-12 resulted in 129 deaths and 270 people were wounded. Students accounted for 60 percent of the people affected.
  • Mass shootings at schools account for less than 1 percent of all school gun violence. However, these incidents account for 25 percent of the overall deaths and people injured from school gun violence.
  • Students, teachers, and communities face an unprecedented amount of trauma after experiencing gun violence, significantly impacting physical and mental health.

Types of Gun Violence

As mentioned, mass shootings account for a fraction of gun violence in schools. What is important when considering school shootings is the different types of injuries and the intent of the shooter.

The CDC categorizes firearm injuries as:

  • Gun homicides and non-fatal gun assaults: Acts of interpersonal violence using a firearm that can either kill or cause a non-fatal injury.
  • Unintentional shootings: Includes fatal and non-fatal firearm injuries caused by accident, or without intent to harm.
  • Mass shootings: A gun being discharged intentionally, killing three or more people.
  • Suicide deaths and self-harm: Self-inflicted injuries by firearm in an attempt to cause fatal injury, but may result in survival and non-fatal injuries.
  • Undetermined: Includes firearm injuries where there is not enough information to determine intent, injuries caused by law enforcement, or injuries from interpersonal violence.

In terms of intent, the majority (58 percent) of gun injuries in elementary, middle, and high schools were homicides / non-fatal assaults and mass shootings (10 percent). Suicide and self-injury accounted 1 percent of injuries. Unintentional gunfire incidents (13 percent) occurred because of disputes that escalated, like parking lot altercations, domestic violence, arguments that had escaped, or a robbery close to a school. And other events, like legal interventions, accounted for 9 percent of gun injuries.

The Frequency of School Shootings is Increasing

high school students studyingWhile it may seem school shootings are a recent phenomenon, gun-related violence dates back centuries and has increased dramatically throughout history to the present day. To understand gun violence and take preventative actions that make schools safe, researchers have sought to understand the commonalities among attackers, the state of their mental health, and their motivations.

The History and Rise of School Shootings

Research by Allison Paolini, PhD, assistant professor of Counselor Education at Kean University, shows that gun-related violence in schools dates to as early as 1764, when 10 children were killed in the Pontiac Rebellion School Massacre.

Since then, Paolini reveals that gun violence has continued to escalate throughout history:

  • 19th century: 49 school shootings occurred
  • 20th century: 207 incidents of gun violence in schools
  • 21st century: school shootings increased a further 19 percent

Even though school shootings are rare — compared to the broader picture of gun violence in the United States, recording 681 deaths since 1970 — the trajectory of school-related gun injuries continues to accelerate. The year 2021 was the most violent year of school shootings, with a 29.5 percent spike in firearm deaths and 193 people fatally injured or wounded. So far in 2022, there have been 39 incidents of gun violence on school campuses and 145 victims.

The only brief reprieve in escalating gun violence throughout history was during 2020, the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, when schools were closed. However, school shootings have nearly doubled since students returned from remote learning, according to data collected by Everytown For Gun Safety.

Pre-Attack Behaviors and Mental Health

With the frequency of school shootings increasing, researchers, policy makers, advocates, and psychologists are keen to understand why incidents of gun violence in schools are increasing.

To answer these questions, and to advance preventative measures to reduce gun violence, Dr. Paolini conducted a comprehensive literature review looking for common pre-attack behaviors and motivations.

Paolini found that, for the most part, the answers existed in a report conducted by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education, The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States.

The Safe Schools Initiative report highlights that most attackers in schools were mainstream students who were academically successful. Prior to their attacks, the shooters didn’t appear to have disciplinary problems and there were no significant changes in their performance, friendships, or interest in school. However, they did display certain suspicious behaviors, such as:

  • Posting inappropriate messages on social media
  • Acting in a socially withdrawn manner
  • A special interest in violent movies, games, or books
  • Displaying bizarre behaviors that caused concern in others, and showed a need for help
  • Having very few close friends
  • Demonstrating extreme ways of thinking
  • Showing narcissistic tendencies
  • Experiencing and/or displaying rage
  • May have acted violently before the school shooting event

There were also some similar mental health characteristics among perpetrators of gun violence in schools. Researchers found that among attackers:

  • 78 percent had a history of suicide attempts or suicidal ideation and a history of extreme depression or feelings of desperation before their attack
  • 34 percent of offenders had received a mental health evaluation
  • 17 percent were diagnosed with a mental health disorder
  • 10 percent were receiving psychiatric treatment, but didn’t take their prescribed medication
  • 93 percent of the attacks were premeditated and the shooter intended to harm their victims prior to the attack

The Leading Causes of School Shootings

school closed due to shooting incidentIn terms of possible reasons for acts of gun violence in schools, researchers and the findings of the Safe Schools Initiative report suggest three main reasons:

  1. Bullying: Approximately 71 percent of attackers had been victims of severe bullying, leading to feelings of humiliation and the desire to either commit suicide or take revenge.
  2. Not taking psychiatric medication: Approximately 10 percent of perpetrators were receiving treatment for their diagnosed mental illness, but were not taking the medication prescribed due to adverse side effects.
  3. Medication withdrawal: In at least 27 school shootings that killed 72 students and wounded 162 students and faculty, attackers were withdrawing from psychiatric medication. There are 22 psychiatric medications that carry FDA warnings about side effects such as mania, hostility, and violence.

Research highlighted in Paolini’s report found other possible reasons for gun violence in schools, such as:

  • Trauma: Some attackers are survivors of trauma from living in a dysfunctional home environment where criminal justice involvement and substance misuse are prevalent.
  • Grief and loss: In 98 percent of cases, perpetrators experienced a personal loss before the attack.
  • Revenge: In 61 percent of cases, shooters carried out the attack as an act of revenge.
  • Grievance: In 81 percent of school shooting incidents, attackers held a grievance with someone at the school.

The Process of a School Shooting

While there is some variation in terms of reasons, the process of carrying out an attack has been defined by researchers Jack Levin and Eric Madfis. Their five-stage model, Mass Murders in Schools and Cumulative Strain, shows the sequence of events/experiences of shooters leading to the attack.

  1. Chronic strain: these are long-term frustrations experienced in early life that might lead to social isolation.
  2. Uncontrolled strain: lack of prosocial support systems.
  3. Acute strain: felt from the experience of a lack of social support, which leads to a real (or imagined) event which they find devastating.
  4. The planning stage: the acute strain initiates a planning stage whereby the attacker fantasizes about a violent event to regain lost feelings of control, and then concludes in taking action to ensure their fantasy becomes reality.
  5. The massacre: the attacker uses weapons to cause mass destruction in schools where students are concentrated and close together.

Why School Shootings Are on the Rise

While there is limited research in this area, there is some evidence that attributes the increase in school shootings to the following:

  • Availability of information: Information is available more readily on the Internet, which can be accessed on via social media, a phone, or a home computer.
  • Greater exposure to violence: Movies, media, and video games have become increasingly violent, and more children have access. Exposure to violence has been linked to aggression, and the desire to obtain and use a gun in real life.
  • Media coverage: Mass media focus on stories of the shootings, rather than the attacker’s history or familial responsibility for their child’s violence
  • Increased gun ownership: Gun sales have dramatically increased over the years, which has been attributed to an increase in mass shootings, public unrest, rise in gun manufacturing, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the pandemic, gun sales have nearly doubled.
  • Unsecured guns: Not all guns at home are securely stored, which is especially dangerous to children struggling with anger, depression, or resentment.
  • Lack of supportive networks: Attackers commonly have a lack of support and more antisocial relationships.
  • Untreated mental health disorders: Mental illness has increased among children over the years, with 1 in 10 students now struggling with their mental health. However, 75 percent of school children remain undiagnosed and untreated.
  • Schools cannot treat mental illness: As schools are not a clinical setting, they can’t provide treatment or refer students who are struggling with mental health.
  • Pandemic: The pandemic has increased social isolation, gun sales, and social and economic struggles increasing levels of stress, anxiety, depression and exacerbating other health conditions.
  • School shooter drills: While these drills are supposed to be a preventative measure, they have been shown to increase levels of stress, anxiety, and depression among students.

Child Related Gun Violence and School Shooting Stats

From 1970 to 2022, there have been 681 total recorded deaths from school shootings, of which 441 victims were under the age of 20. Since the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School killing 20 children and six adults, family members who lost loved one’s during the shooting at the school started a nonprofit — Sandy Hook Promise — to highlight the rise in child related gun violence by revealing some rather sobering school shooting stats, including:

  • Guns are the leading cause of death among children in America
  • There have been 948 school shootings since 2012
  • Each day 12 children die from gun violence

States With the Most School Shootings

The Department for Homeland Defense and Security’s K-12 has recorded school shooting incidents — killing or wounding at least one victim — since 1970 in the School Shooting Database. Data reveals that some states have experienced more school shootings than others.

States were ranked as follows:

RankStateSchool Shooting Incidents
1stCalifornia157
2ndTexas126
3rdIllinois84
4thFlorida74
5thMichigan66
6thOhio57
7thPennsylvania56
8thNew York53
9thMaryland49
10thTennessee45
11thLouisiana

Alabama

Georgia

39

39

39

14thNorth Carolina36
15thMissouri35

The Number of Students Exposed to Gun Violence

Since the attack on Columbine High School in 1999, approximately 300,000 students were on school grounds during school shooting incidents. The count now stands at more than 311,000 children at 331 schools, according to an article in the Washington Post.

As previously noted in this article, exposure to gun violence in schools deeply affects students and severely impacts their long-term well-being. And it changes the culture of education. Speaking to the Washington Post about school safety and gun violence, Psychiatrist Bruce Perry said:

“It’s no longer the default that going to school is going to make you feel safe. Even kids who come from middle-class and upper-middle-class communities literally don’t feel safe in schools.”

However,  journalists have dedicated the years since Columbine to trawling articles, open-source databases, law enforcement reports, and calls to schools and police departments to track how many children have been exposed to gun violence. During their analysis, the most important findings made by the Washington Post revealed that at least 185 children, educators and other people have been killed in assaults, and another 369 have been injured. They also showed racial disparities among perpetrators and victims.

Racial Demographics of School Shootings

In terms of racial demographics, data from Everytown for Gun Safety and the Washington Post found that:

  • In 70 percent of cases, mass school shooters and attempted mass school shooters were white males who had been students or former students at the school.
  • 64 percent of school shooting incidents occurred in majority minority schools, and 36 percent in majority white schools.
  • Students of color are disproportionately impacted by shootings. Black students make up 16.6 percent of the school population, but they experience school shootings at twice that rate.

School Shooters’ Access to Firearms

Research from the National Threat Assessment Center shows that between 73 to 80 percent of school shooters obtained the gun(s) used in their attack either from their home or the homes of relatives or friends rather than purchasing them. In 48 percent of cases, the guns used were not stored securely.

Key Warning Signs of Potential School Shootings

As highlighted in the Safe School Initiative report, there is evidence that many attackers display certain suspicious behaviors or warning signs before they carry out gun violence (in 93 percent of cases). In a follow up study, the National Threat Assessment Center determined that there were warning signs exhibited by the attacker in 100 percent of school shooting incidents.

Additionally, in 77 percent of school shooting incidents, at least one person — such as a friend — knew of the attacker’s plan.

The Problem With Active Shooter Drills in School

child boarding school busAs school shooting incidents have increased over the years, so too has public fear, motivating schools and policy leaders to implement safety and security measures in schools. Some of these school interventions are district-led and some are mandated by states, such as school shooter drills, with research showing various levels of effectiveness.

The National Education Association, however, warns about the potential impact of some of these measures.

“If schools are going to conduct drills, they need to take steps to ensure they do more good than harm,” says NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia.

What Are School Safety Measures?

According to a report by National Center for Education Statistics, Indicators of School and Crime Safety, 100 percent of students have experienced at least one school safety exercise or measure at their school, including:

  • The requirement for visitors to sign in
  • Personnel monitoring the hallways
  • Locked entrance and exit doors during the day
  • Metal detectors
  • The presence of police and security personnel
  • Security cameras
  • Student codes of conduct
  • Requirements for students to wear badges or picture identification
  • Locker checks
  • Arrests on campus for homicide, sex crimes, illegal weapon possession, drug, and liquor law violations
  • Active shooter drills

Research suggests that some of these school-based interventions can be effective tools for addressing school gun violence. One of the more contentious safety and security measures, however, is the use of various lockdown and evacuation drills.

What Are Active Shooter Drills?

Active shooter drills are proactive — and often unannounced — school safety measures that prepare staff and students for school shooting incidents.

There are three main types of active shooter drills used in schools to prepare students for the likely event of needing to lockdown in the event of an imminent threat:

  1. Lockdown drills: These measures may be used when a crisis occurs outside of the school and an evacuation would be dangerous, or a crisis inside the school where movement needs to be restricted to protect students. In lockdown drills, all exterior doors are locked, and students and staff stay in their classrooms.
  2. Evacuation drills: These procedures require all students and staff to leave the building and involve various scenarios, such as a brief evacuation or evacuations where students must be relocated for a longer period. Relocation sites may involve the use of emergency shelters, such as nearby buildings that can be converted into a shelter, community centers, religious institutions, businesses, or other schools. Evacuation also includes a “reverse evacuation,” meaning a defined procedure for students to return to the school if an incident occurs while students are outside.
  3. Shelter in place drills: Like lockdown drills, these require students to remain on the school premises. Shelter-in-place drills are designed to use a school or facility and its indoor atmosphere to temporarily separate people from a hazardous outdoor environment. While inside, staff close all windows and doors and shut down the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system preventing any outside contaminants from getting inside the building.

Most schools across America have some kind of drill in place. Research shows:

  • 95 percent had drilled students on lockdown procedures
  • 92 percent had drilled students on evacuation procedures
  • 76 percent had drilled students on shelter-in-place procedures

Some of these drills involve a simulation of an attack, called ALICE drills, which stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter, and evacuate. ALICE drills involve a pretend intruder, the firing of blank ammunition, the use of fake blood, and simulated deaths. ALICE drills have come under intense scrutiny because of their effects on students’ mental health and well-being — we’ll explain more about this negative impact below.

States Requiring School Safety Drills

Since the Columbine Shooting in 1999, active shooter drills have become common practice across the United States, with at least 40 states requiring drills today, according to a survey Everytown for Gun Safety. The only states that don’t require drills are:

  • California
  • Alaska
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Arizona
  • Wyoming
  • South Dakota
  • Nebraska
  • West Virginia
  • Massachusetts

The Effectiveness of School Safety Drills

empty school during safety drillSchool lockdown and evacuation drills are widely reported to be controversial, with some experts claiming they can be an effective measure, but others warning they are ineffective and have a negative impact on students’ mental health.

Advocates for drills, however, believe that they harden schools and equip students with skills to escape and defend themselves against an attacker by learning how to jump out of windows, how to move furniture to barricade themselves in a room, use a door stop device, and how to be resourceful in distracting the attacker.

Thomas Ristoff, the director of Syracuse City School District’s department of public safety in New York believes they can be effective if done properly and in conjunction with training.

“The lockdown drills provide us with an opportunity to train our staff and students, to build their personal confidence in their ability to respond in an actual crisis,” he stated.

Ristoff went on to emphasize the purpose of the drills and their importance. “Our main objective is to build that ‘muscle memory’ with our students and staff so that they can respond by rote in a stressful situation, in part due to the repetitive training and drills,” he said.

However, public safety experts, advocates, parents, and educators have publicly condemned active shooter drills, saying they are detrimental and an unproven safety tactic.

Advocacy organization, Everytown for Gun Safety and educators at the National Education Association and the American Association of Teachers have raised specific concerns:

  • The use of drills
  • Over reliance on preparing for rare events
  • Feasibility of students retaining information
  • The long-term effects on students
  • Whether it is counterproductive to share information and procedures with students as many mass shooters are students, or former students, at the school
  • The risk of inducing trauma
  • The cost of active shooter drills
  • A lack of evidence to support the effectiveness of drills

Unfortunately, there is extremely limited research available on drill effectiveness. Syracuse City School District surveyed 10,015 sixth grade students after they completed a lockdown drill and found that while some students reported feeling more prepared, they felt unsafe. Researchers noted:

“Though feelings about emergency preparedness may have improved over the course of the project, perceptions of safety in the schools did not. Specifically, students taking the survey at the end of the project were significantly less likely to report feeling safe at school or in various parts of the building.”

Everytown for Gun Safety and the American Federation of Teachers concluded in their recent report on the effects of active shooter drills that “there is almost no research affirming the value of active shooter drills for preventing school shootings or protecting the school community when shootings do occur.”

The Negative Impact of School Safety Drills on Student Mental and Physical Health

crying female studentMental health experts, educators, and advocacy organizations have pointed to research showing the negative impacts that active shooter drills are having on students’ mental and physical health, including:

  • Causing trauma and triggering past traumas
  • Overwhelming fear
  • Increased stress and anxiety
  • Higher levels of depression and suicidality
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Struggling to cope
  • Irritability
  • Fear about the future
  • Physiological health problems
  • Concerns of death
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Greater levels of social concerns
  • Diminished perception of safety at school
  • Concerns about work
  • More requests for help
  • Higher levels of stress and anxiety in communities
  • Long-term impacts on the wellbeing of entire school communities

The National Association of School Psychologists have noted that some lockdowns may produce anxiety, stress, and traumatic symptoms in some students or staff, as well as loss of instructional time.

Janet Shapiro, dean of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research at Bryn Mawr College further described the psychological toll of school drills as significant. Shapiro explained that young children have difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality, especially when stressed or anxious, and so these drills are extremely upsetting to children. She told NEA Today:

“Which is why you hear about many younger students crying inconsolably during drills. Even second and third graders can regress under the stress of a lockdown drill and the fear and anxiety they may cause — the drill itself calls attention to the possibility of a mass shooter in the school, and kids vary in terms of their ability to reassure themselves that the drill is not real.”

National Education Association President, Lily Eskelsen García echoed the concerns of mental health professionals and how these form part of her everyday experience. “Everywhere I travel, I hear from parents and educators about active shooter drills terrifying students, leaving them unable to concentrate in the classroom and unable to sleep at night,” she explained.

Teachers have also spoken openly about the harm caused by drills. A K-12 teacher told Everytown for Gun Safety:

“I can tell you personally, just as an educator, we were not okay [after drills]. We were in bathrooms crying, shaking, not sleeping for months. The consensus from my friends and peers is that we are not okay.”

Other teachers have been in the line of fire themselves. As part of a school drill, staff at Meadowlawn Elementary School in Indiana were shot in the back with pellet guns and were told “this is what happens if you cower and do nothing,” explained a teacher. She continued, “I was hit four times. It hurt so bad.”

Students have described overwhelming emotions after a shooter drill, such as immense fear and anxiety Following a drill at East Orange middle school, a student mentioned they wondered if they were going to “finish the day alive.”

An eighth grader explained how drills are difficult to process and that she feels a sense of hopelessness:

“That drill made me get mad at the school and everything. It really made me angry and sad and feel kind of trapped, because what am I supposed to do?”

Parents have also shared about the devastating effects drills are having on their children. One parent took to social media and Tweeted:

“My kindergartener was stuck in the bathroom, alone, during a drill and spent a year in therapy for extreme anxiety. in a new school event, she still has to use the bathroom in the nurse’s office because she has PTSD from that event.”

Another parent expressed their anguish about their child’s mental health, blaming school drills:

“I hate that my adult children have so much anxiety. I wonder if ‘active shooter drills’ since kindergarten have something to do with that?”

One mom recalled the details of her kindergarten son describing a school drill:

“Mom, I was really worried though, because the [classroom] baby chickens will chirp and tell the bad man that we’re in there.”

Horrified by the incident, she joined Moms Demand Action, “because my son shouldn’t be worried about the chickens telling the bad man where he is.”

These drills also affect communities for prolonged periods of time, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, requiring continued support to process the negative impacts.

Mental Health Impact of School Shootings and How to Help Students Cope

School shootings impact the mental and physical well-being of students, causing higher levels of depression, anxiety, and a whole host of other psychological problems, leaving children feeling increasingly frightened and struggling to cope. While parents can’t take away the trauma their child experienced during a school shooting, there are strategies and tips that parents can utilize to help their kids cope

Tips to Support Your Child After a School Shooting

mother walks son to classMental health experts have several strategies and tips for talking to your children about tragedy:

  • Be consistent: Experts at the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) advise parents to try and keep to routines. This gives kids a sense of security and predictability can be soothing, especially to children who are experiencing lots of chaos from school shootings and other stressful situations like the pandemic.
  • Let them talk about their fears: The American Psychological Association says it is important to encourage your children to talk about their worries. By listening to them, you may be able to reassure them that even when bad things happen, there are good people in the world. Listening also allows parents to correct any inaccuracies and remind them of strategies in place to keep them safe.
  • Limit media: Following a school shooting, it’s important to limit exposure to news, TV, and social media to avoid triggering any additional stress and anxiety.
  • Be honest: ASCA advises that you should be honest with your kids about events and share as much information as you think they can handle at their age.
  • Validate feelings and provide a sense of safety and protection: When children are frightened or anxious, experts suggest validating their concerns while also reminding them that they’re safe at home and that school shootings are rare.
  • Understand sources of stress: Your child is exposed to several epidemics — like racially charged violence, mental health crises, and the pandemic — and the effects may be long-lasting, say experts at Boston University.
  • Be trauma aware: Mass shootings are a traumatic experience that could lead to PTSD in those directly exposed, especially in children, warns Jean Kim, MD, and Clinical Assistant Professor at George Washington University, and Medical Officer at the FDA.
  • Watch out for signs of distress: Difficulty sleeping, increased anxiety, nightmares, not wanting to attend school, depression, uneasiness, and poor academic performance are all signs your child might have acute stress disorder, cautions Melissa Dumaz, MS, LMFT. Dumaz suggests reaching out to a clinician with trauma experience if you notice one of more of these signs. However, it’s also important to note that it can take time for psychological injuries to appear.
  • Intervene early: If your child is exhibiting concerning behavior, like spending a long time on social media or message boards, intervene early, but intervene kindly say experts at Boston University Medical School. That might include consulting a mental health professional who can conduct an assessment and provide any necessary treatment.
  • Model resilience: Experts say that “parents are their kids’ most important teachers,” and they should try to model healthy coping strategies, which in turn, encourages their children to do the same.
  • Act: Even though parents might feel helpless, experts suggest that they can take certain steps like donating blood, giving to a victim’s fund, or demanding action from local and state officials.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has additional tips for talking to children about school shootings in their tip sheet.

Resources for Students and Parents

 

Resource

Organization

Link

Description

Webinar

American School Counselor Association

 

Effective Crisis/Trauma ResponseLearn how to respond to a crisis in your school.
Counseling Kids in CrisisHow to support students through a crisis.
Infusing a Caring Climate in Your School

 

How to improve school culture that promotes caring.
Supporting Students After Crisis and Loss

 

How to respond to and support student’s post-incident.

ASCA U

Trauma and Crisis Specialist

 

A podcast led by a trauma and crisis specialist that aims to share information, tips, and lessons with teachers and school counselors.

Coalition to Support Grieving Students (videos)

 

Death and School Crisis

 

This video emphasizes planning to meet the needs of student bereavement, how to handle death and inform relevant people, and how to support staff and students.

Talking With Children

 

Learn practical ways to talk to children who have experienced death.

Apps

Help Kids Copehttps://apps.apple.com/us/app/id1069028637Helps parents understand how children of different ages respond to different crises and provides sample language parents can use to talk to their children when in distress

 

Share 911

https://www.getshare911.comQuickly alerts employees and 911 at the same time
eMERGE 911https://emerge911.com/

Emergency app that increases the ability to be found during a serious incident

Events & community support

The Mental Elephant

https://www.thementalelephant.com/

Resources for students struggling with mental health challenges, including information on:

●    Anxiety

●    Mood disorders

●    Schizophrenia and psychotic disorders

Articles

American School Counselor Association

https://www.schoolcounselor.org/

A support website aimed toward school counselors. Members can find information about:

●    Armed assailant drills

●    Resilience in the aftermath of a shooting

●    Student threat assessments

●    Plans, processes, and procedures

Sandy Hook Promise:

16 Facts About Gun Violence and School Shootings

Contains critical facts about the unique nature of gun violence in America and its impacts.

Active Shooter Simulation Drills: Harmful or Helpful?

Explores the role and impacts of active shooter drills.

Washington Post

School Shootings DatabaseReveals real time information about school shootings in the United States.

School Shootings in America

An analysis of gun violence in schools.
How Parents Can Encourage Kids to Report Threats at School

Helpful tips and suggestions to speak to children about potential threats and when to seek support.

After School Shootings, Teachers Struggle for Years with Trauma

The impact of school shootings on teachers and how to access support and healing.

National PTA

Healthy Lifestyles: How Do You Prioritize Mental Health

Promotes the importance of self-care and mental health with practical tips and resources to make mental health a priority.

Reports on School Gun Violence & Shootings

Everytown for Gun Safety

 

The Impact of Shooter Drills in Schools

 

An analysis of research about the impacts of school drills and their potential harm.

Preventing Gun Violence in Schools

A thoroughly resourced multi-level strategy to prevent gun violence locally, at state and federal levels.

School Shootings and Mental Health

A comprehensive analysis of the complexity of gun violence and school shootings.

Research papers

Sage Journals

Perceptions of School Counselors Surviving a School Shooting

A study that addresses the lived experiences of school counselors who have survived a school shooting.

School Shootings and Counselor Leadership

Discusses four lessons school counselors have learned in responding to crises.

 

National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement

 

Guidelines for Responding to the Death of a Student or School Staff

 

How to support a student or member of staff through crisis and bereavement.

Talking to Children About School Shootings

 

Helpful tips and talking points to talk to children about terrorist attacks and school and community shootings.

National Education Association

School Crisis Guide

A step-by-step guide of what to do before, during, and after a school or community crisis.

National Association of School Psychologists

Culturally Competent Crisis Response: Information for Crisis Teams

How to develop a culturally competent crisis plan and response, the role of a crisis team, validating reactions to crises, using cultural brokers, and communications following a crisis.

National Association of School Boards of Education

Student Safety and Wellness

Explores how to foster student safety, and promote their physical, mental, social, and emotional health.

Kid Peace

Ways to Help Your Child Through Crisis

Practical tips to support your child through a crisis and suggestions on how to talk to them.

American Psychological Association

Managing Traumatic Stress

How to understand the emotions and normal responses after a disaster or traumatic event, and how to cope.

Building Your Resilience

Provides resources about how to successfully overcome challenges and adjust. Guides for parents, teachers, and students.

Managing Your Distress in the Aftermath of a Shooting

Talks about the emotions and mental health impacts following a school shooting and defines helpful tips to processing the trauma and seeking support.

Helping Your Child Manage Distress in the Aftermath of a Shooting

A supportive guide for parents to talk to their child about a community shooting, or incident in their school. Provides helpful tips and suggestions about how to provide safety and ease your child’s distress.

American Red Cross

Recovering Emotionally

Discusses emotional responses to stressful events and crises, when to seek help, and how to cope.

Department of Education

Tips for Helping Students Recovering from Traumatic Events

Tips for parents and students to process the traumatic event, how to cope, and ways to talk about it and seek support.

Creating Emergency Management Plans

A guide to creating emergency management plans in schools, using four defined stages.

Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center

Operation plans checklists for assessing school safety, improving security, and ensuring readiness for a shooting event.

Practical Information on Crisis Planning: A Guide for Schools and Communities

A guide for schools and communities that provides practical information on crisis planning, including mitigation and prevention, preparedness, and how to respond and recover.

National Association of School Psychologists

Talking to Children About Violence

Tips for parents and teachers to talk to children about violence depending on their age and developmental level.

National PTA

How to Talk to Your Kid about Gun Violence

A podcast with practical strategies to talk to your children about lockdown drills, school shootings, and emotions that arise in these events.

National Center for PTSD

The Impact of Disaster and Mass Violence Events on Mental Health

A comprehensive review of emotions that may arise after mass violence, the intensity of mental health reactions, and timeframes to expect.

The Child Mind Institute

How to Help Children Cope After a Traumatic Event

A comprehensive guide for talking to children of various ages about a traumatic event, how to help them recover in a healthy way, what teachers can do to support children, and signs of trauma to watch out for.

Going Back to School After a Tragedy

Tips and strategies to determine when a student should return to school and how to support that process.

PBS Kids

Helping Children with Tragic Events in the News

A helpful guide that helps you talk to children about what they see in the media about violence and how to process the experience.

SAMHSA

Coping with Grief After a Disaster or Traumatic Event

A tip guide about how to cope with grief, the grieving process, and what complications in the process of recovery.

Save the Children

How to Talk to Children About School Shootings

5 tips for parents to talk to their children about school shootings, and how to make them feel safe, and what signs to look out for.

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

A resource center packed with information for families and parents, including facts, medication guides, and a locator tool to find children and adolescent psychiatrists.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network

https://www.nctsn.org/

Provides information, tips, and resources to improve access to services for traumatized children.

National School Safety CenterFree resources

Provides free resources, tips for school readiness, information about national alert systems, how to talk about bullying, and how to create safe schools.

National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

https://www.ptsd.va.gov/

A comprehensive resource about PTSD, diagnosis, treatment, and resources.

Funding & financial support

The Office for Victims of Crimehttps://ovc.ojp.gov/

The Fund supports a broad array of programs and services that focus on helping victims in the immediate aftermath of crime and continuing to support them as they rebuild their lives.

Lack of Mental Health Resources is Contributing to Gun Violence

teacher consoles female studentWhile there are certain circumstances that differ among school shooters, there is one common theme: mental health. Specifically:

  • Crises: Most school shooters experience a noticeable crisis prior to their shooting, but there is a lack of mental health resources to support them.
  • Underlying mental health condition: Most attackers have mental health condition: research shows that 78 percent of shooters had a history of suicide attempts or suicidal ideation and had a history of extreme depression or feelings of desperation before their attack.
  • Untreated psychological and mental health disorders: Researchers have found that all three motivators for gun violence are mental health related:
    • Being the victim of severe bullying, feeling rejection, humiliation, and powerlessness. An attack is a way for perpetrators to regain power and seek revenge
    • Not taking psychiatric medication for a mental health condition
    • Withdrawing from psychiatric medication.

Despite psychological and mental health issues being a major contributing factor to gun violence in schools, research shows that only 34 percent of shooters had received a mental health evaluation. Of those who did find treatment, 17 percent were diagnosed with a mental health disorder. However, 10 percent of attackers receiving psychiatric treatment didn’t take their prescribed medication.

Experts say a lack of mental health resources is a significant contributing factor to escalating gun violence. Dr. David Thomas, a police veteran and professor at Florida Gulf Coast University who specializes in mental health, explained that school shooters don’t have the ability to process their experiences or seek support “They don’t know how to take their emotions or feelings and put them into a rational response,” he said.

Panelists at a recent Washington Post discussion — Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Miana Bryant, founder of Mental Elephant, an organization that raises awareness about youth mental health and give students resources and access to treatment, Anna King, president of the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA), and Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association (NEA) — talked about the urgent need to increase resources for mental health. They explained a lack of social support, racial unrest, widespread loss during the pandemic, especially among people of color, has caused major health crises among students.

Murphy, who represents the school district including Sandy Hook – the site of a mass shooting ten years ago chilling 26 children — explained that children are going to school scared while their parents are also scared. Murphy called on lawmakers to do more.

“What are we doing? There are more mass shootings than days in the year… Our kids are living in fear…what are we doing?”

Thomas highlighted the need for a collaborative effort in seeking change locally, and at state level. NEA President, Becky Pringle echoed that course of action.

“We need more mental health professionals in our schools and to partner with those in our communities who are not only addressing academic and social and emotional learning, but also working on the housing and food crisis.” she said.

The NEA has acted by seeking to increase mental health resources across the country, including more counselors and school psychologists. They also negotiated for smaller class sizes and are working with the Biden administration to obtain federal funding to support mental health programs for students.

Senators Murphy Cassidy are also acting, by putting forward legislation to reauthorize mental health and substance use disorder programs as part of the Mental Health Reform Reauthorization Act of 2022.

The Plan to Prevent Gun Violence in Schools 

Everytown for Gun Safety partnered with several advocates and educators, including the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Students Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and the National Education Association (NEA) and devised a plan to address the problem of gun violence in schools. In their report, Keeping Our Schools Safe, Everytown has devised a comprehensive strategy for preventing mass shootings and ending all gun violence in American schools by highlighting the actions policymakers and schools can take.

The report highlights that to take meaningful action, it is necessary to first acknowledge there is a problem with gun violence, access, and a lack of mental health resources.

“Everytown, the American, and NEA firmly believe that any effective school safety plan must involve a proactive effort to enact meaningful gun violence prevention policies that enable intervention before a prospective shooter can get his or her hands on a gun.”

The plan seeks to provide interventions at every level, recommending the following multi-level actions:

  • Act on warning signs: States to enact Extreme Risk Laws which enable law enforcement, family members, and educators the right to petition a court to prevent a person they believe is at risk from obtaining a firearm. They also recommend training law enforcement on the existence and effective use of these laws.
  • Enforce secure firearm storage: States to enact and enforce secure firearm storage laws and suggests policy makers promote public awareness campaigns about secure firearm storage.
  • student sits alone after classRaise the minimum age to purchase a firearm: State and federal governments raise the minimum age to purchase or possess a firearm to 21, to reduce the risk of school age shooters from obtaining a gun.
  • Background checks on all gun sales: Only 21 states require background checks for handgun sales. They recommend that all states and the federal government should pass laws requiring background checks on every gun sale to reduce the ease of purchasing a gun.
  • Establish threat assessment programs: Schools create evidence-based threat assessment programs and have threat assessment teams within their school. Threat assessments should include identity threats, determine if a student has access to a firearm, and ensure there are sufficient mental health resources for students at the school.
  • Security upgrades: Reducing access to school grounds and ensuring there are interior door locks.
  • Emergency planning: Schools to work with law enforcement and create a plan in the event of a gun violence attack or active shooter incident.
  • Drills: If a school proceeds with active shooter drills, to follow specific guidelines to protect the well-being of their students:
    • Drills should not mimic an actual incident.
    • Schools should provide advanced notice when a drill is planned.
    • School personnel should help create appropriate drill content that involves trauma-informed approaches to address students’ well-being.
    • Create safe and equitable schools: by promoting internal and external supports that help students cope and resolve problems rather than using punishment.
    • Promote community: work with state and federal agencies to obtain funding to help schools partner with their community and stakeholders, especially in locations of high gun violence.
    • Use school resource officers wisely: ensuring they meet the unique needs of the school, are culturally supported, or make minority populations feel unsafe. Where a school deems a resource officer necessary, they should be fully trained, have a clear understanding of their role and responsibilities, and undergo regular evaluation.
    • Reject arming teachers: schools should reject any attempt to arm their educators and instead focus on evidence-based solutions to prevent shootings. Armed teachers increase the risk of shootings, could disproportionately impact students of color, complicate law enforcement’s response to any incidents, and could increase the school’s liability and insurance.

Everytown and its partners believe that using proactive evidence-based strategies, rather than reactive responses to gun violence, that are backed by experts constitutes meaningful action to effectively reduce gun violence and make our schools safe.

 

References

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Active shooter simulation drills: Harmful or helpful? — Sandy Hook promise. (2021, August 3). Sandy Hook Promise. https://www.sandyhookpromise.org/blog/advocacy/active-shooter-drills-harmful-or-helpful/

After a school shooting resources. (n.d.). American School Counselor Association (ASCA). Retrieved July 8, 2022, from https://www.schoolcounselor.org/Publications-Research/Publications/Free-ASCA-Resources/After-a-School-Shooting

Another school shooting: How parents can help kids cope. (2022, May 24). Psycom.Net. https://www.psycom.net/trauma/school-shooting-survivor-trauma

Asbury, N. (2022, June 20). After school shootings, teachers struggle for years with trauma. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2022/06/20/teacher-trauma-school-shooting-uvalde-parkland/

Beland, L.-P., & Kim, D. (2016). The effect of high school shootings on schools and student performance. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 38(1), 113–126. https://doi.org/10.3102/0162373715590683

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Dazio, S. (2021, April 20). Schools turn to apps, other tech to guard against shootings. Associated Press. https://apnews.com/article/north-america-parkland-florida-school-shooting-artificial-intelligence-mental-health-school-shootings-867814eff37a40b8b1c4f8e67486b2d8

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Grabow, C., & Rose, L. (2018, May 21). The US has had 57 times as many school shootings as the other major industrialized nations combined. CNN. https://cnn.it/2YJVYQI

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Laskowski, A. (2022, May 26). Tips for how to help your children cope in the wake of yet another school shooting. BU Today. https://www.bu.edu/articles/2022/tips-for-helping-children-cope-texas-school-shooting/

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(N.d.). Retrieved July 8, 2022, from https://www.pennmedicine.org/news/news-releases/2021/september/gun-violence-exposure-associated-with-higher-rates-of-mental-health-related-ed-visits-by-children

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