Mental Health Tips for Schools After a Violent Event

Ronald Lee, Psy.D., School Outreach Consultant - CSSRC, 5/25/2022 -- This has happened too many times. It’s the morning after another school shooting and you need to reassure your workplace that it will be okay. In my career as a psychologist and education administrator in various public-school settings, I have faced the days after a violent event countless times, with the challenge to hold, honor, and contain the collective emotions of a school community’s lost innocence. What follows are some tips for school leaders on how school communities can psychologically ground and re-focus their place of work following a high-exposure violent event.

  1. Acknowledge your own feelings. As a parent, the spouse of a teacher, and a community member, I personally have deep feelings about violence towards children at school, especially very young children. It activates the protective papa bear in me. It is important to acknowledge those feelings of shock, anger and sadness - not set them aside. You are a human being with expected reactions. Rather than block that out, reflect on where you are in this moment and then let that perspective fuel your actions.

  2. Reach out to those who you know will be triggered. There are different ways that people are affected by a violent event, but some have more impact than others. Before you consider the majority of your teachers and staff, be mindful of those who may need immediate attention and reach out to them. What teacher grade levels or specialist teams may be most affected? Who recently had a loss? Who has been touched by violence of a similar nature in their past? Who may emotionally relate to this event by location, grade level, or even a social/family connection? If you don’t have the time to check-in with these individuals personally, delegate some trusted co-workers who can.

  3. Assemble your leadership and safety teams. No one in your work setting can get centered unless your leadership and safety teams are grounded. Your whole staff will look to you and your team for modeling and guidance. Give this team some space to vent, ruminate, and air out their feelings without filters. Listen to your security staff, mental health/counselors, and academic administrators about what they are most worried about in the days ahead.  Then slowly get them stabilized enough to start making safety plans for the days ahead. Have your leader teams, mental health and counselors clear their schedules so they can be responsive to individuals who need extra support.  Talk to your school co-leaders about the pros and cons of asking local law enforcement to provide extra presence at school for the days ahead (you ultimately want to reassure people, not alarm them).

  4. Communicate with your whole staff and stakeholders and provide resources. Messaging to your staff and eventually your community of stakeholders in a timely manner during this time will be very important. Let them know that you share their reactions of shock, anger, and distress. Reassure them that for potential scenarios like these, you already have safety plans and practiced safety procedures in place at school. Give them resources both at school and the community for how they can get mental health support if and when they may need it.  Remember to include your employees and families who are working from home. My agency at CSSRC has posted on their public website several links to resources and guidance for adults on how to talk to children about violent events, reminders to limit media exposure, and practicing self-care. Parents and teachers appreciate tips on how to talk to their children about unimaginable events like these, especially if they are differentiated by age groups and developmental levels. Sharing documents with language translations to connect with your non-English speaking families is always a good consideration. Provide teachers with scripts or choice phrases on how to respond to potential student questions and comments in class. Finally, remind your community of the need to be on the alert and the importance of reporting any suspicious activity in the days and weeks ahead.

  5. Review with your staff your current universal safety procedures. This should include visitor check-ins, the need to keep unsupervised external doors shut and locked, reporting suspicious items, persons or activities, and everyone’s role in lockdown and secure perimeter procedures.

  6. Remind them that schools are still one of the safest places to be. While the recent event was devastating news, schools remain one of the safest places to be. A recent NYT article reminds us that children are more likely to die from a car accident on the way to school or from a natural disaster, rather than from a school shooting. Urge stakeholders to keep these events in perspective. While they could happen, it is highly improbable that school shooting actually will happen.

  7. Practice self-care. Some basic things will help us to get through trying times like these. Eat regular meals, drink plenty of water, and keep a regular sleep routine. Limit watching news coverage of this event, reduce screen time in general, and avoid unhealthy activity like high caffeine intake or substance use. Meditation, exercise, and connecting with friends and family are always healthy choices. And never go through this time alone! If you feel empowered to do so, exercise your right to contact your state or federal government representative, share what you feel about the recent violent event, and advocate for how this official can make sure that the same kind of violence will never happen in your local schools.

  8. Review warning signs of threats and be on the alert for copy cats. Studies show that following mass shootings, there is a heightened risk for copycat incidents in the 10-14 days that follow. Review your warning signs information, share it with your staff and community, and remind them about your reporting procedures (both during and after school office hours).

  9. Acknowledge the violent times we live in. While we always want to be reassuring, especially at school, it’s important to temper that positive outlook with the reality of the situation. The media, social network, and conversations with peers will bombard us with information (some true and some fiction) about the violent event that just occurred. While we want to reassure that it is highly improbable, we also need to acknowledge that violence can happen in every school. That is why we have safety plans and why we take the practice of safety procedures very seriously.

  10. Read your school emotionally and consider the timing of the school year.  Given that it is late May, your schools may be winding down from an exhausting school year. So, your timing of how and when you do things may be tricky. It is said that during stressful times, it is easiest to do the same things, harder to stop doing something, and hardest to try something new. Help get your community emotionally and psychologically regulated before you try to reason with them. If your staff and families continue to be in a state of distress, consider bringing in extra mental health professionals for guidance and support. Review your current school safety procedures. Reassure your community that you have structures and supports that make school a safe place to be. But save new procedures and new learning for next August or September. There is a reason why schools tend to  avoid staff professional development at the end of the school year. Help your community wind down this time with support and gentle reminders. Stay present, engaged, and save the major next steps for later when your staff are stabilized and refreshed to start anew.

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