Understanding and Addressing The Impact of School Shootings on College Students

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In just two years, between 2013 and 2015, there were 254 school shootings (defined as a gun being fired on school grounds) in the United States. Between 2000 and 2015, there were 15 active shooter incidents at higher education institutes – leaving 70 dead and 73 injured. Although there is debate about how to measure school shootings and concern over inflated statistics, there is no denying that the frequency and lethality of these events are a grave national concern.

Disasters hit close to home

Living in a community that has recently experienced a number of natural disasters, my peers and I know all too well that traumatic events can have wide-reaching, negative impacts – not only for those directly exposed, but also for people who live in the surrounding community. This past winter, many of us remained glued to TV or radio during the Thomas Fire and Montecito Mudslides. We were anxious, sad, worried, and afraid, even if we weren’t in direct danger. Although natural disasters are very different from school shootings, both exert an immense impact on the greater community.

The Isla Vista Tragedy took place at UCSB in May 2014, when a 22-year old man killed six students and injured at least 14 others in the Isla Vista neighborhood. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the Santa Barbara community came together for community events and vigils in memoriam of the victims. Many were deeply affected, and feelings of confusion, fear, shock, and sadness were extensive. My research group at UCSB has been studying the Isla Vista Tragedy to understand how individuals are impacted by these events and how to meet community needs after such a traumatic event. Here is what we’ve learned:

  1. Many UCSB students experienced heightened levels of distress after the Isla Vista Tragedy. In one study, we surveyed 1,189 first and second-year students three months after the Isla Vista Tragedy. Using the PCL-C, a measure of posttraumatic stress, we found students scored 31.48 on average, which is just below the National Center for PTSD-identified score of 33 indicating heightened levels of distress (scores range from 17 to 85).
  2. Universities responding to student needs after events like these may want to consider tiered services. Our results indicated widespread distress across the student body after the Isla Vista Tragedy. Therefore, a multi-tiered approach to providing services (similar to mental health service models in many schools) may be a good fit. In a three-tiered model, the first universal tier of services – available to everyone – might include resources about coping and recovery after an event of mass violence. Students still experiencing distress could be referred to a second targeted  tier of more intensive services, like support groups. Finally, a third intensive  tier of services could be provided for those at the highest levels of need (e.g., individual therapy).
  3. Students most likely to experience posttraumatic stress were those who saw the events occur or knew someone who was killed or injured. In our study, we also measured levels of exposure to the tragedy. For example, did students hear sirens? Were they locked down on the search for suspects? Did they witness injuries or deaths? Based on responses, we identified four exposure categories: 1) minimal exposure (low likelihood of having been exposed in any way; 55.5% of our sample), 2) auditory exposure (high likelihood of having heard sirens and gunshots during the event, low likelihood of having seen any direct violence; 29.4% of our sample), 3) visual exposure (high likelihood of witnessing frightening things on the day of Isla Vista tragedy; 10% of our sample), and 4) interpersonal exposure, including having feared for a loved one’s safety or known someone hurt or killed; 5% of sample). Based on responses to the PCL-C, students in the visual exposure (average score of 37.30) and interpersonal exposure (average score of 38.82) groups had scores indicating the highest levels of distress.
  4. Universities should account for whether students witnessed the event and/or whether they were afraid for a loved one’s safety or knew someone injured or killed. These students should be prioritized for counseling services. Additionally, universities should be aware that the types of services needed by these two groups might be different— individuals who were exposed visually might experience more traditional symptoms of posttraumatic stress like traumatic flashbacks, while those in the interpersonal exposure group might experience something closer to traumatic loss and/or complicated grief.
Final Thoughts

In an ideal world, institutes of higher education are places where students can learn and develop freely and in safety. However, episodes of shocking violence on college campuses do occur. Therefore, in addition to changing policies and practices to prevent these horrific events, university communities must be ready with interventions designed to help students recover and return to their trajectory of personal and academic growth.

About the Author

Sabrina Liu is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Sabrina’s research and clinical interests include resilience in youth exposed to adversity, and trauma prevention and intervention in culturally diverse communities. She is lucky enough to pursue this work with her advisor, Dr. Maryam Kia-Keating, and a number of talented fellow graduate students. Feel free to contact her at sabrina_r_liu@ucsb.edu or follow her on ResearchGate.

 

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