Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

After school violence, traumatized teachers need help

By Edward Mooney Jr., Special to CNN
updated 6:25 PM EST, Fri November 22, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Edward Mooney Jr.: After school violence, teacher trauma must be addressed
  • He says psychological help, community support crucial for these teachers
  • He says without treatment teachers' behavior can suffer
  • Mooney: Fostering strong school communities aids recovery in the event of trauma

Editor's note: Edward Mooney Jr. is an educator who has extensively researched school violence in his doctoral work at Northeastern University in Boston. He has taught high school in Southern California for 26 years.

(CNN) -- Americans have been repeatedly shocked by school violence this year-- first in Nevada, where in October a student shot and killed a teacher and wounded two students before taking his own life; then days later by the news that the body of a young teacher was found behind her school in Massachusetts. The images of traumatized parents and a campus surrounded by police tape shake us profoundly -- our hearts break for the families of those who died. For them, this is the beginning of an unwanted journey.

In my education research I have focused on the question of what happens in the lives of the people still connected to a school that has endured such a trauma long after the media and law enforcement move on.

School shootings affect teachers, school secretaries, maintenance people and anyone else on campus at the time. How the school, the community and families work together is critical to the long-term recovery of those who witnessed the nightmare.

Edward Mooney Jr.
Edward Mooney Jr.

It's important to consider two aspects of life after a school shooting. First, what do teachers go through as the days stretch on and, second, what can we learn from past shootings to help the educators in Sparks?

For teachers who witness school shootings, one diagnosis stands out, and it is well-known in the field of psychology: post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Teachers who see a shooting will experience the trauma of the activating event and a series of other emotions: pain, confusion, guilt, shame, a questioning of self-worth, fear, anger, depression, and, sometimes, acute anxiety. They may question their very sense of how the world works around them. They struggle to find a sense of safety.

Teacher slayings hurt view of schools as safe havens

If PTSD is not dealt with, the quality of the teacher's life can degrade rapidly. Psychiatric clinician Bessel van der Kolk has described how, left untreated, these changes can become permanent. Victims of untreated PTSD can degrade into rigid thinking, paranoia, defensiveness, over-reactivity and health problems.

Is change to gun laws possible?
Witness: Shooter yelled during rampage
2 dead in Nevada school shooting

This can have serious ramifications for students in their classrooms. They might find their teacher more and more withdrawn, less willing to engage intellectually or emotionally, defensive, sarcastic, inflexible and perhaps emotionally unstable. Teacher absenteeism -- meaning more substitute teachers -- might become a problem.

What can we learn from previous shootings that might help the educators in Nevada? The most important factor in recovery is quick access to professional crisis counseling.

Crisis counselors must discern how each individual witness deals with PTSD. In their trauma research, psychologists James Fauerbach and John Lawrence found that adjustment to trauma is a dynamic process influenced by the intensity of the incident but also by pre-trauma factors -- for example family stability, socioeconomic status. Personal resilience, which is effected by such things as social support, personality and native coping abilities, plays a role.

This is why past experience teaches us it's important to get quick professional psychological treatment, tailored to each individual. More severe PTSD symptoms, such as recurring nightmares, can arise over time; it's crucial that counseling continue to be available and actively offered.

After the first few weeks have passed, witnesses still need support. One of the worst things anyone can do is pressure the witness to "just get over it." Past experience suggests that teachers who witness shootings and who have these layers of support from family and community recover more fully and quickly than those who are more isolated.

And then there is time. Each person heals at a different pace. There will be teachers who will be able to return to their duties in a week or so; some may need months or years of support and therapy.

In my own study I compared two teachers recovering after witnessing a school shooting. One was able to return within a week and had extended support from district and local mental health professionals for some time. A mental health professional checked in on him weekly, even a year later. The other teacher had no such support. She was not even offered counseling. Her world, demonstrating van der Kolk's assertions, descended into defensiveness and health problems. She was unable to function after a month back on the job.

School administrators should understand that a teacher going back into the classroom may be an unknown; their post-shooting self may still be struggling in many ways. Unfortunately a 2005 study found that 75% of school districts affected by campus shootings did not require counseling for teacher witnesses.

Coordinating a re-entry plan with a professional psychologist can be fundamental to restoring a witness to a productive and healthy life.

Finally, research indicates that the more connected a witness feels to the school, to his or her family, and to the community, the better the possibility for long-term healing. School administrators, by routinely fostering relationships through off-campus faculty parties, softball games and other group activities, could be setting up a safety net that could smooth over a transition for future trauma victims.

One of the participants in my study regularly went on recreational events with co-workers. He mentioned how these same people felt connected to him and were there for him after the shooting. They knew him, knew when he needed alone time and when he needed to be around people. While this cannot prevent a tragedy, it can set up mechanisms to assist in healing.

In the weeks and months that follow, administrators, community members, family members and colleagues should be sensitive to events, objects and other factors that may cause heightened anxiety and panic attacks. To guide teachers, administrators will need professional advice from psychologists.

Beyond these things, what can the rest of us do to help? First of all, be a part of your local school. Teachers, students, administrators and other school workers need to feel valued and respected. Be a part of the process to find ways to make schools safer. Secondly, encourage your local school leaders to develop school morale, to develop crisis management plans and to foster a community feeling around the school.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward Mooney Jr.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT