After last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Darlene Kriesel set aside her lesson plan and spent the class period talking about the tragedy with her high school English class. Some students confided that their parents were afraid to let them go to school, and the students had to reassure them that they would be okay.
At another high school, Peyton Holloway’s human geography teacher spent part of the class discussing the shooting with students. Holloway told the Lincoln Journal Star that he was devastated when he found out about the incident. “This happens so often,” he said.
Kriesel’s class is clear across the country in Santa Ana, Calif., and Holloway attends school in Lincoln, Neb. But in both cases, the teachers recognized the obvious: Students are acutely aware of, and affected by, mass shootings.
Kids see the headlines and social media posts pop up on their phones. They know these aren’t one-off tragedies. But somehow, they’re expected to compartmentalize the latest tragedy: to keep studying for tests and preparing for the college admission gantlet, while not losing their focus. Just two days after the Parkland mass shooting, my high school junior still had four scheduled tests — three of them in honors/AP-level courses.
Our kids are all too aware of the reality that these tragedies can and do happen anywhere, and with mind-numbing regularity. Both of my children have grown up with lockdown drills as a regular part of their schooling; they’re arguably more well-versed than I am on best practices for sheltering in place. And both have also experienced real lockdowns at their schools. (In my daughter’s case, her second-grade class was placed on lockdown just weeks before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.)
Even on days when mass shootings aren’t in the headlines, our students still contend with regularly scheduled lockdown drills that override lesson plans and cause panic. Worse, some of them are subjected to unannounced drills meant to minimize the freeze response. Some of these drills are so realistic that students and teachers fear for their lives.
At some point, we need to recognize the toll that mass shootings take on our collective psyche. In August 2017 — before last fall’s mass shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Tex. — the American Psychological Association conducted its Stress in America survey and found that “violence and crime” was one of the top five sources of stress.
For teens, the effects are even worse: In 2013, a survey of high school seniors found that almost 60 percent were concerned about a mass shooting in their school or community. What’s even more troubling is the effect this stress can have on teens’ still-developing brains.
Studies about children who have witnessed gun violence have shown that they’re at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder. And research that focused more specifically on kids who survive school shootings found that their academic performance suffered, with high school standardized test scores decreasing significantly. But what about the kids at nearby schools or those for whom a school shooting may trigger flashbacks? It isn’t reasonable to expect our students to tamp down any residual anxiety from the latest mass shooting and soldier on.
Even kids who may have no direct connection to the violence still bear the emotional costs of being part of the mass shooting generation. The day after the Parkland tragedy, schools from New Jersey to Texas were shut down because of copycat threats.
On March 10, less than a month after the Parkland shootings, many thousands of students around the country will take the SAT, which plays a crucial role in determining which colleges will accept them. Perhaps some students from Parkland will choose to postpone the test. It’s not yet known how many of them will be diagnosed with PTSD, making them eligible for testing accommodations. What we do know, based on research from previous mass shootings, is that post-traumatic stress symptoms are likely to be widespread, as they were after the Virginia Tech shootings.
Perhaps college admissions departments should get used to seeing essays from kids about what they learned by surviving a mass shooting. Or maybe we should acknowledge the lesson we’re teaching our kids: We care more about their right to bear an AR-15 than we do about their safety and well-being.
Lisa L. Lewis is a writer based in Southern California. Follow @lewislisal.