How school shootings affect the students who survive - A Q&A

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What school shootings take from the students who survive

For every person injured or killed in a school shooting since Columbine, there were more than 600 members of the school community, including students and staff, who escaped physically unscathed. The scars these more than 300,000 survivors bear are long-lasting and vary, from symptoms of mental illness to worsened economic outcomes.

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One 2020 study found that communities that experienced a school shooting saw a more than 20 percent increase in prescription of antidepressants among young people in the immediate vicinity.

Another study compared schools in Texas that experienced fatal and nonfatal incidences of gun violence with other schools in the state that did not. It found that the students in the schools that experienced gun violence were more likely to be chronically absent and repeat grades, and less likely to graduate high school and college. In adulthood, they also had worse employment and earning prospects than their peers who hadn’t been exposed to gun violence.

Maya Rossin-Slater, an associate professor of health policy at Stanford University, has co-authored multiple studies that try to capture the impact of gun violence on students at these schools, including those cited above. She talked to Grid about her research and what it means for policies addressing gun violence in schools. This interview been edited for length and clarity.

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Grid: What has your research taught us about the impact that shootings have on people who are at school but may not directly experience or witness the gun violence?

Maya Rossin-Slater: In the [antidepressants] article, we focused on the 44 shootings that took place in the U.S. between 2008 and 2013. The main outcome that we were interested in was antidepressant prescription use. We found this large and persistent increase in antidepressant prescriptions — over 20 percent — amongst youth who are located in very close vicinity to the locations of fatal school shootings that had at least one death. This increase in antidepressant use persisted for two to three years or even potentially beyond, suggesting that there’s large and potentially lasting deterioration in mental health amongst exposed students.

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There are hundreds of thousands of students who thankfully survive, but still carry these kind of impairments that can really shape their well-being for the rest of their lives.

Maya Rossin-Slater

You don’t see this effect among students located a little bit further away [from a school shooting], say 10 to 15 miles. So it seems likely that it’s really being driven by the students who are actually at the school where the shooting took place, as opposed to kids in neighboring schools.

In [the Texas] study, we looked at all incidence of gun violence that took place at schools, including those that had no fatalities and in some cases that had no injuries at all.

We found these pretty big and long-lasting impacts on the educational as well as later economic outcomes of kids who were at these schools: Students were much more likely to be chronically absent. They’re much more likely to need to repeat a grade. They’re less likely to graduate high school. They’re less likely to go to college. They’re less likely to graduate from college. And then as young adults in their mid-20s, they’re less likely to be employed, and they earn on average less than non-exposed students.

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It’s not concentrated in some subgroup. It was very universal. No matter how we looked at the data, by gender, by race/ethnicity, by whether the kids were eligible for reduced or free lunch, the effects were still there. [Gun violence was] a pretty universal negative shock to these kids’ lives and later trajectories.

There are hundreds of thousands of students who thankfully survive, but still carry these kind of impairments that can really shape their well-being for the rest of their lives.

G: What is it about any incidence of gun violence in a school, even events with few or no casualties, that is so damaging?

MR-S: School might be a particularly traumatic place to experience violence because you sort of feel like this is a place where you’re safe, and you trust that you’re safe and because you inherently have a closer connection to other kids [and] teachers.

In our Texas study, we do find some evidence that teachers are more likely to leave in aftermath of gun violence, so you have less continuity of instruction, potentially changes in the quality of teaching, this disruption in the curriculum.

The other thing is that kids are very influenced by what their classmates do. In this case, everyone’s exposed to the violence at some level at school, so it has this amplification effect of the disruption and the loss of learning, behavioral issues and things like that.

G: Is there other research out there, beyond what you and your team have worked on, on the long-term experiences of people who experience gun violence in schools?

MR-S: In Norway, researchers looked at survivors of the Utoya massacre, which took place in 2011. … We compared our findings in Texas to those that they found in Norway. [Some of] the effects on later earnings, the effects on educational outcomes are actually quite similar in size.

It is kind of remarkable. [In the Texas study] we were looking at shootings that had at most one fatality, and in many cases no fatalities; they’re looking at the deadliest event in recent Norwegian history, this horrific traumatic massacre, and yet we’re finding similar-sized long-term effects.

Norway and Texas are very different places, but one of the things that stands out is that Norway had a very concentrated governmental response to the shooting in terms of provision of mental health support, access to mental health services, and financial resources to the survivors and their families. There was a concentrated effort to really help the survivors of this shooting, in large part of course because it was unprecedented in Norway and so large in scale. We don’t know of any types of these responses in the U.S. setting, at least not on any sort of systematic level.


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As we inevitably turn to a discussion of what to do to prevent these shootings from taking place in the first place, which is obviously an important first order priority, we also in parallel have to remember the kids that have already experienced the ones that have taken place, making sure that those kids are not forgotten.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.