The nation’s most recent school shooting — which left 19 fourth-graders and two teachers dead in a Texas classroom — has again forced parents to question their children’s safety. While gun violence has become a near-universal fear for Americans, children from underrepresented backgrounds often are most susceptible.
Capital B spoke with Charity Brown Griffin, a researcher at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina and a licensed psychologist who works with children, about the effects of school shootings on children’s psyches and how race and class can impact the ways children heal. The conversation below was lightly edited for clarity and length.
Capital B: When a child experiences something as traumatic as a school shooting, what long-term effects does that have on their development?
Charity Brown Griffin: It has huge implications. When we think about whether or not you have the direct experience or vicarious trauma — which means you hear about it or you see it experienced by someone else, even if it doesn’t happen directly to you — we know, from research, it has implications for impacting disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder.
And if you think about PTSD, what some of those symptoms are, you’re thinking about avoiding certain locations and thinking about where the particular trauma may have happened. So if it happened at school, the anxiety that you may feel about going into a school building, you may now avoid certain places or things that may remind you of it.
They may be on high alert, very jumpy, very easily angered because of having experienced or witnessed or observing the trauma. We also sometimes see students becoming emotionally numb. So that includes feelings of hopelessness, you can see depression, and sometimes, for some students, just sort of a more general self-destructive outlook as a result of experiencing or witnessing trauma or hearing about it.
Not every child will experience a school shooting, but they do hear about it in the news. Their teachers or their parents may bring it up or sit down and talk to them about it. There are students who are now going through drills in classrooms on what to do if a school shooter appears. Could that also affect a child’s development?
If kids are chronically exposed to this type of stress where they’re heightened, they feel jumpy, they are seeing these images. They’re really fearful about entering their school building or the school spaces. It can certainly have a neurological impact.
There’s been research documenting changes to several regions of the brain that are involved in learning and behavior. I now have to practice this drill where I have to then think about not just my learning, but if someone comes into the building with a gun, how am I, as a child, supposed to respond.
The most recent school shooting, which took place at Robb Elementary School in Texas, is an area where the vast majority of the student population is Hispanic. Most of these students come from an economically disadvantaged community. What additional obstacles do marginalized students have when it comes to processing trauma, compared to their white peers?
What we see is too many young children who are Black and brown are disproportionately experiencing poverty. And when we think about the intersection of that marginalization, because of their race or social class, there is the potential then for them to be exposed to a host of adverse factors.
[Black and brown] communities can also be disproportionately affected by gun violence. They don’t have the particular resources needed to help provide the goods and services for the residents of the community: access to health care, particularly mental health care. They’re not centered on policy issues at the local level. Their thoughts and voices are often not valued in the same way as their white counterparts.
Black children are more likely to be killed by a gun than any other racial group in the U.S. A recent Washington Post analysis found a 39% jump in gun deaths for Black youth in 2020 — and another 13% increase in the first 10 months of 2021. How do we explain just how susceptible black children are to gun violence?
When we think about Black people in our country, they do bear the brunt of the gun violence epidemic. And I think we have to look at the disparity. This disparity is a result of centuries of oppression and disinvestment. So when we think about gun homicides, assaults, police shootings, all of these things occur at a disproportionate rate in historically underfunded communities.
We know that crimes are often crimes of proximity. So when we think about what poverty has done, and what divestment in certain communities has done again, when people don’t have access to a living wage, they don’t have access to opportunities for community improvement, health care, mental health care — we see this multilayered level of oppression, right?
What can parents do to be on the lookout for their child? What sort of signs of mental duress should they be looking for?
Keep the line of communication open with your child. “What made you sad today, or did anything make you sad today? What made you angry today, or did anything make you angry today?”
As your child gets older and begins to have more of an online presence, it is important to be attuned to what your child is being exposed to. Having that conversation about mental health can help destigmatize it. Your child may want to talk to somebody about what they’re experiencing. Kids are facing real issues in their school building and in the community. It may require the support of a mental health professional to help them navigate that, and that’s fine. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad parent and that you can’t do your job as a parent. Because it does take a village. And your child may need multiple support systems in place to help them thrive.