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Section 8
The Effect of Trauma Following a School Shooting

Question 8 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the last section, we discussed three factors that may prevent children from reporting threats from another student to adults.  These three factors are violent language and the presumption of innocence, the adolescent code, and perceptual frames.

In this section, we will discuss four stages of early community recovery from a school shootings tragedy. These four stages are closing ranks, cracks in the foundation, healing at different speeds, and the impact of shooters' families.

4 Stages of Early Community Recovery

♦ Stage # 1 - Closing Ranks
A first aspect of early community recovery is closing ranks. As you know, when a community is affected by a traumatic event, residents frequently turn to each other for solace and comfort, and many community members experience a closeness unlike anything they have previously experienced. As numbness, grief, and anger flow through the community, disagreements and conflict may be set aside.

Before the Westside shooting just outside of Jonesboro, Arkansas, ministerial groups had been in deep conflict over whether or not the town should remain a "dry" county. After the shooting, these groups put aside their differences and committed themselves to organize a memorial for the victims.

An important element in this growing closer was the presence of a new common enemy, the media. Within ninety minutes of the shooting, out-of-state reporters began arriving. At the peak of the media frenzy, seventy news organizations sent more than 200 personnel to cover the event, including teams from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan. These news teams staked out not only the school, but the local courthouse and barbecue. Reporters were aggressive

In both Heath High School and Westside High School, reporters followed grieving families home, entered hospital rooms under false pretenses, and waylaid children without parental consent. One Heath student reported being chased around the outside of the school by a reporter looking for an emotional interview with a child witness. The reporter did not give up the chase until the boy found a security guard on the other side of the building. This media feeding frenzy not only strengthened the community’s sense of solidarity, but led to community members banding together against "outsiders."

Even school life improved in communities affected by shootings.  Incidents of bullying and cliquishness were greatly reduced. One student at Heath High School reported that the incidence of fist fights decreased from one a month to one a year following the shooting, and stated "People learned that if you’ve got a problem you can talk about it. 

"You don’t have to keep everything in. Everyone has the same problems... it’s better to go through it together than just trying to go it alone." This may have been due in part to the early media tendency to blame the shootings on bullying. As a result, many students felt guilty, and worked hard to cut down on harassment.

♦ Stage # 2 - Cracks in the Foundation
A second stage of early community recovery is cracks in the foundation. As you might expect, these feelings of solidarity did not last, especially within the school system. As time passed, the school atmosphere returned to normal, and the bonds that had brought different groups into each other’s good graces faded. Even the churches who had bonded together returned to old conflicts.

Values and convictions, masked temporarily, did not seem to have changed. Would you agree that this is due in part to the fact that old sources of friction became sharper under the stress experienced by the community?  Not only did old frictions return, but the shootings themselves created new sources of tension. Different ways of dealing with the tragedy separated the communities into different emotional camps. Clearly, differing views of who was most protected spurred territorial battles over ownership of the tragedy.

♦ Stage # 3 - Healing at Different Speeds
In addition to closing ranks and cracks in the foundation, a third stage of early community recovery may be healing at different speeds. Family Life Minister Ron Deal made an analogy between the school shootings tragedies and earthquakes, stating that those closest to the "epicenter" of the incident have the greatest psychological, emotional, and social impact on their lives, and are left with rubble and ashes.

Those on the outskirts may experience a few "cracked walls," but although the ground moved, they can quickly move back to their normal lives. As you would expect, children directly exposed continued to suffer symptoms of post traumatic stress such as startle responses. One teacher from Westside described a softball trip that students from Westside had taken with a neighboring school.

During the trip, a car backfired, and all of the Westside students got down on the ground, while the students from the other school remained unaffected. Other students reported that more than a year after the shootings, they still routinely checked new buildings for escape routes.

♦ Stage # 4 - Effect on Shooters' Families
A fourth stage of community recovery is the effect on the shooters' families.  Clearly, these families experience significant guilt, grief, and emotional disruption, but there is also the concrete physical disruption caused by police investigations.  For the first month after the shooting, Mitchell Johnson’s family was not allowed to touch anything in his room, which as you can imagine severely impeded the family’s chance to heal. 

There was understandably a large aspect of shame involved.  Many community members avoid the families of shooters out of fear of community stigmatization, and shooters' families often lose lifelong friends. Interestingly, this taboo did not extend to those families who had had a family member killed or injured in the incident; They were usually immune to criticism to extending a hand to the shooters' families.  For the siblings of shooters, interacting in the community is especially difficult.  Monte Johnson, who had been close to his older brother Mitchell, was terrified to return to school following the incident. 

Although many Westside students and staff made special efforts to welcome Monte back, others were extremely uncomfortable due to the close resemblance of the brothers. Eventually, Monte moved away to live with his biological father. Clearly, for school staff, there is a special challenge involved in meeting the needs of a sibling uninvolved in the shooting while meeting the recovery needs of the rest of the school community. 

In this section, we have discussed four stages of early community recovery from a school shootings tragedy. These four stages are, closing ranks, cracks in the foundation, healing at different speeds, and the impact of shooters' families.

In the next section, we will discuss three conflicts that impact early community recovery following a school shooting. These three conflicts are getting stuck vs moving on, who owns the problem, and who are the "real" victims.
Reviewed 2023

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Markey, P. M., Ivory, J. D., Slotter, E. B., Oliver, M. B., & Maglalang, O. (2019). He does not look like video games made him do it: Racial stereotypes and school shootings. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Advance online publication.

Raitanen, J., & Oksanen, A. (2019). Deep interest in school shootings and online radicalization. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 6(3-4), 159–172.

Wozniak, J. D., Caudle, H. E., Harding, K., Vieselmeyer, J., & Mezulis, A. H. (2020). The effect of trauma proximity and ruminative response styles on posttraumatic stress and posttraumatic growth following a university shooting. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(3), 227–234.

What are four stages of early community recovery from a school shooting tragedy?
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Section 9
Table of Contents