On Wednesday, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, will return to classes for the first time after the horrific Feb. 14 school shooting that killed 17 people and injured others.
Returning to the scene of a shooting, particularly one that was so graphically covered by media and had such a devastating, violently fatal impact, is going to be difficult, to say the least. But doing so could be the best thing for students and their teachers, said Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist at Duke University Medical Center who specializes in helping children and adults recover from traumatic events.
“It’s important that they return,” Gurwitch said, remarking that going back would be an important first step in the healing process. “To be able for students to see that I can go back, I can continue to put one foot in front of the other—even though it’s a different path they’re taking.”
The idea of the school as a safe space has been destroyed for these kids; re-establishing it as one is the first step in their recovery. “A school shooting turns that safety and security assumption [associated with school] upside down,” Gurwitch said.
The return to school experience also will be colored by each student’s perspective: whether they are the survivors, the injured, or those who had friends who were killed.
Research shows that returning to the scene of a traumatic event is especially important and helpful. A 2016 study in Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy shows that those who are suffering from trauma find a sense of “closure and moving on” when they return to the site of that event.
The first days back will be especially instrumental for students and teachers alike. Two things in particular will be important for the initial return, Gurwitch said: one, that the first day be kept brief (Tuesday, the first day back, was a half day, according to the Miami Herald); and second, that the first few days be gentle on the academic front, not as heavy on the curriculum as would be normal.
Teachers will also have to be aware that while they too are recovering from the effects of the shooting, they’re going to need to be available for students and not necessarily be directing them to guidance counselors or psychologists—even if they don’t feel as comfortable in those roles. That’s because students will want to connect and reach out to these adults to process what they are going through. “Students might seek out their history teacher for support, but if that teacher sends them to a guidance counselor, they’ll shut down. It’s important for teachers to have the support and skills for students,” Gurwitch said.
Another important part of the first days back will be parents. While these students are high schoolers who would otherwise roll their eyes at having to share their airspace with their parents, having them around not only at home but also at school will be instrumental. “Children will have heightened worries and anxieties as they take that first step into school grounds,” Gurwitch said, pointing to how a parent’s presence can provide comfort for a grieving child as well as allowing the parents of these children to bond and connect over this singular experience.
Because the aftereffects of school shootings aren’t well understood and haven’t been studied extensively, it’s hard to predict exactly what the emotional and mental recovery trajectory of students will be, particularly given the levels of exposure they might have had to victims, the event, and the alleged shooter himself. Gurwitch said many school shooting victims mimic stress reactions, which include challenges to falling or staying asleep, inability to focus or concentrate, and feeling intellectually foggy.
“Students sometimes see that they are not learning as easily or picking up information as readily as before,” she said. That makes it much more important that the first few days are focused on easing back into the school environment instead of on academics. “Is it critical for students to do 50 problems as opposed to 25?” she asked. “Modifying those assignments as students come back to school will be important.”
It’s too early to say whether these teens are going to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but certainly they’ll be facing some “post-traumatic stress reactions,” Gurwitch said. Coupled with grief, the reactions can be very complicated, and kids might not even have had time to process what’s happened to them. Increasing this resilience will require students knowing they have supportive adults around them—“whether that’s the bus driver or the principal,” Gurwitch said—which makes returning to school a key to recovery.
The good news? As the activism of the student survivors has shown, these kids are incredibly resilient. “Most are able to recover and do very well,” Gurwitch said, speaking from her experience working with children recovering from other traumatic events. They’re able to recover, able to make school feel like school and not a crime scene again.
But Gurwitch said it’s important to keep an eye out for students who might be in denial or still processing their feelings, and who might start feeling overwhelmed and distraught maybe in a week, month, or months from now. “There has to be a mechanism set up for students to seek support,” Gurwitch said. “There’s really no one size fits all solution."
One way to make sure no student falls through the cracks, she said, is to create small group settings where teachers and students gather to chat through how they’re doing. “Not over the PA system—in a small group,” Gurwith emphasized. That way students won’t feel that the school and administrators are trying to blanket treat symptoms of stress and emotional disturbance, and instead are being guided personally through healing.
The most important thing for students, their parents, and teachers to do, however, is already being done on Wednesday. “Going to school sends the message that they can do this,” she said. “Yes, this horrific tragedy occurred, but they can recover.”