Mental health affects students long after school shootings occur

Zoe Touray speaks at the U.S. Capital, advocating to pass gun safety laws, in 2022. Photo courtesy: Zoe Touray

Oswego N.Y. – Where gun violence seeps into schools throughout the U.S., it can oppress the minds of students who experience it. 

There have been at least 98 active shooter incidents and 397 people killed in school shootings since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, according to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security

Fred Guttenberg, gun safety advocate and father of Jaime Guttenberg, a victim of the Parkland high school shooting, believes that experiencing a massive tragedy can impact students in powerful ways.

“There is nobody in your [Gen Z] generation who hasn’t grown up with the idea that ‘I could be killed in school,’” Guttenberg said. “When you are always having to think about that, that’s always something that is impacting your ability to learn calmly and peacefully.”

Survivors of these shootings may experience PTSD and survivor’s guilt, which can last months or years.

“My son was in the same school where my daughter was killed,” Guttenberg said. “PTSD is an absolute real thing… wondering why it was somebody else and not ‘me.’” 

SUNY Oswego psychology professor Victor Licatese says that psychological triggers include smells, pictures and sounds. 

“The moment that something happens, it starts making everyone look over their shoulder,” Licatese said.

Zoe Touray, Oxford High School shooting survivor, talks about the aftermath of the Nov. 30, 2021 shooting and the effects it had on her.

“Being freshly out of a school shooting, my grades weren’t the best,” she said. “My mood changed very rapidly out of nowhere, where I would get mad at someone or heated.”

Gun violence can weigh on students’ mental health, but there are other factors to consider, following the incident itself.

“What people say and what people do on social media can be helpful, but it can also be hurtful,” Guttenberg said. “Traditional media in the aftermath of violence can disrupt communities in the effort to find news.”

Physical infrastructure of the place where a shooting has happened can impact students’ mental health in the aftermath of gun violence. 

Schools who were involved in active shootings typically begin reconstructing the building’s structure and decor, in an attempt to eliminate psychological triggers for their students and faculty, but some do not, leaving some students to suffer.

“When we had our school shooting, we didn’t switch schools and we didn’t change much about the decor or the way that the school looked, which could be very tripping at times,” Touray said. 

Parts of Oxford High School were remodeled nearly two months after the shooting, according to WXYZ News in Detroit. The school was repainted, given new ceiling tiles and carpet and new murals, but the layout remained the same.

“There would be a moment where I’d be sitting in fifth hour, which is when the Oxford High School shooting happened, and we’d sit there, talking or learning something and everything would come rushing back,” Touray said.

“In Parkland, the building where my daughter was killed is about to be finally torn down in a few months,” Guttenberg said. “A replacement building has already been built.”

According to Touray, some teachers tried to desensitize themselves for their students, following the tragedy she experienced. 

“After everything happened, a lot of our teachers, I think, tried to be strong for us, but I think when you resonate and connect with your students, it makes it all the more better,” she said. “We were grieving with them and not necessarily that we were the only ones grieving.”

Licatese says that educators and mental health professionals can collaborate to create a supportive environment for students impacted by school shootings.

“Every counselor can be a teacher and every teacher can be a counselor,” he said. “Schools should offer workshops, presentations and make educators aware of the triggers by having trauma specialists work with staff.”

Touray, Guttenberg and Licatese all say there are some common misconceptions surrounding the psychological impact of school shootings on students.

“There’s a mentality from a lot of people who haven’t lived through it,” Licatese said. “There’s a lack of empathy, a sort of ‘you’re not tough enough, get back up on the horse’ attitude.”

“One of the biggest misconceptions that I’ve seen is that all students grieve the same,” Touray said. “I saw that some students didn’t cry and haven’t cried until this day, while other students cried immediately and are still crying to this day.”

“That it’s short term,” Guttenberg said. “That you come in, you provide the support for a couple of weeks and everybody can just move on.”