A Washington Post analysis found that more than 150,000 students attending at least 170 primary or secondary schools in the United States have experienced a shooting on campus since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, which is sometimes cited as the first in a string of modern mass school shootings.
What happens to these survivors a year, or two, or three later? Is their schooling affected? How have they developed emotionally?
As this Daily Beast piece notes, there is far less research on the psychology of the survivors of mass school shootings than there is on the motivations of the shooters “though the rate and increasing population of subjects means that it is a burgeoning field.”
Below is a post about one research effort to look at the educational experience of survivors, which found that enrollment fell and standardized test scores dropped, too.
This was written by Daniel Willingham, a well-regarded psychology professor at the University of Virginia who focuses his research on the application of cognitive psychology to K-12 schools and higher education. He was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Board for Education Sciences, the independent and nonpartisan arm of the U.S. Education Department, which provides statistics, research and evaluation on education topics.
He is the author of several books, including “Why Don’t Students Like School?” and “When Can You Trust the Experts?” He also blogs here, and his posts have appeared frequently over the years on The Answer Sheet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow him on Twitter @DTWillingham. This appeared on his Science & Education blog, and he gave me permission to republish it.
By Dan Willingham
Not long ago, a friend told me he was going across country to visit his friend who had lost his wife six months previously. He mentioned he had not gone to the funeral. “I don’t get that much time off so I can only go once. Everyone’s at the funeral. Somebody needs to be there six months later.”
It is important to keep this perspective in mind as we continue to process the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Fla. Just as my friend knew losing your spouse is not resolved in six months, we might guess that the trauma associated with attending a high school where murder took place would have long-term consequences.
In fact, Louis-Philippe Beland and Dongwoo Kim have examined the educational consequences for survivors. Using the Report on School Associated Violent Deaths from the National School Safety Center, they identified 104 shootings categorized as homicidal and 53 as suicidal. (Shootings took place on the property of a public or private U.S. school, or while a person was attending or on their way to or from a school-sponsored event.)
School performance data were obtained from each state’s Department of Education website. The researchers used other schools in the same district for comparisons, on the reasoning they would be roughly matched for demographics. (I wonder about the soundness of this assumption.) The researchers examined three main outcomes.
First, they examined whether enrollment in a school would go down after a shooting. (Note: All of the effects described apply to homicidal shootings. There were no effects of suicidal shootings on any of the outcomes.) They found it did decrease, presumably as parents who could selected other schools. This effect was only observed in 9th-grade enrollments, however. Perhaps families with children already attending a school felt more committed to that school.
Second, they tested whether deadly shootings lowered test scores in later years. They found they did.
Based on the first result, it could be that lower scores are a consequence of the opt-out; maybe it is the most capable 9th-grade students who choose not to attend the school where the shooting took place. So to test the possibility, researchers examined a subset of the data from California schools, where they could access student-level data. The effect replicated. In other words, it is not due to changes in the population. When researchers examine test scores of individual students year to year, those scores dropped after the shooting.
Third, the researchers examined behavioral outcomes including graduation rates, attendances and suspensions. They observed no effects.
On the one hand, it may seem unsurprising that school shootings affect academic outcomes three years later. On the other hand, there is a rich research literature showing we often overestimate how long we will feel distressed in the face of a negative event. In this case predictions of negative consequences are accurate. Attending a high school where a homicide takes place prompts trauma, and that impacts students school experience and achievement.
The needs of the students who remain at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School may be deemed less urgent than those of the immediate families of the slain. That is a fair assessment.
But the needs of the survivors are real, and we must ask how we can address them. And we must not forget the students who attend these schools where murder took place within the last three years:
- Marshall County High School
- Aztec High School
- Rancho Tehama Elementary School
- Freeman High School
- North Park Elementary School
- Townville Elementary School
- Alpine High School
- Jeremiah Burke High School
- Antigo High School
- Independence High School
- Mojave High School