Returning to Class the Morning After a Massacre

The school district that includes Las Vegas was back in session Monday, a decision that some criticized as insensitive but experts said was critical to help children heal.  

A young boy cries in a woman's embrace at a prayer vigil following the mass shooting in Las Vegas.
A 9-year-old boy attends a prayer vigil in honor of those affected by the shooting on the Las Vegas Strip. (Steve Marcus / Las Vegas Sun / Reuters)

Clark County School District, which serves Las Vegas and surrounding cities, held classes the day after the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. The attack killed 59 people at a country-music festival in the city, and injured more than 520 others.

“Law enforcement has cleared us to have school today, but students & employees directly affected by the tragedy on The Strip will be excused,” the school district tweeted just before 3 a.m. Monday, less than five hours after the shooting. A subsequent tweet acknowledged that some school buses would be running late because of road closures on the Strip.

Backlash was swift. In response to the district’s tweet, some complained that holding classes was insensitive; others said it was irrational. One Clark County student described the horror of not knowing whether her stepfather and mother had survived the attack. “The most terrifying thing wasn’t knowing that my stepdad had been shot; it was not knowing where they were,” she told me over the phone. She learned about the shooting around midnight, after getting a push notification on her phone. She says she couldn’t get in touch with her parents until 3 a.m.

“Is this the best course of action given that no one slept and no one feels safe?” another person tweeted in response to the Clark County School District announcement.

Children are especially vulnerable to the trauma caused by acts of community violence, which is particularly noteworthy when the trauma is all-encompassing: Even though Clark County’s roughly 320,000 students make it the fifth-largest school district in the country, every one of those students—and every one of its 41,000-plus employees—has in some way been affected by the carnage. The scale of the attack increases both the likelihood that any individual in Clark County has directly suffered a loss and the need for the community to grapple with what has happened.

Ensuring kids feel safe is the most effective means of ameliorating that trauma, according to Joel Dvoskin, a clinical psychologist whose expertise areas include talking to children about tragedy. And while every case is different, Dvoskin and other experts tend to agree that school is often the place best-equipped to do that.

“I think schools represent, for the majority of children, a very safe and secure and stable environment,” said Robin Gurwitch, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University who has conducted extensive research on methods for supporting children in the aftermath of trauma and disasters. “They’re also a place many parents turn to for information.” Jane Webber, a disaster-response crisis counselor in New Jersey and lecturer in the counselor-education department at Kean University, described schools as “an anchor for [students and families] in times of need.”

This rationale perhaps explains why many school districts in cities affected by mass shootings in the past resumed classes almost immediately after the given event. Schools were back in session the day after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, for example, which left 14 people dead and another 22 injured. Orlando-area public schools stuck to their original schedule of starting summer-school classes on June 14, just two days after the Pulse Nightclub massacre left 49 people dead and another 58 injured. Schools in Newtown, Connecticut, reopened one weekday after 20 children and six adults were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “The longer you keep them out, the harder it is,” one Newtown parent told The Wall Street Journal.

“Our goal was to provide our students with as much normalcy as possible,” said Melinda Malone, a spokeswoman for Clark County schools. “Giving students the opportunity to be around their teachers and classmates where they could express themselves and where they feel comfortable is what some of our students needed.” Approximately 88 percent of the district’s students attended classes on Monday, compared to an average of about 93 percent, according to Malone; any absences that day were excused.

“For kids to be home alone or watching TV over and over again with the news media on—that’s not a healthy thing,” Webber said. According to Webber, although adults are often tempted to treat a mass shooting like a mental-health catastrophe, that framing often reinforces rather than mitigates the trauma in part because it feeds into the emotional disarray. Resuming classes as quickly as possible “is the safest and best way to get children back on their feet,” she said. “It helps them to return to some stability even though things are chaotic all around, to bring them a sense of normalcy and remind them that life isn’t falling apart, that things aren’t turned upside-down. … Kids respond to structure.” Routine distractions such as art class or recess or P.E. can be especially helpful. After all, as Webber pointed out, “not much happens in your frontal cortex when you’re upset and confused—kids couldn’t add or subtract today even if they wanted to.”

What’s more, schools typically have staff who are trained in evidence-based practices to help children cope with and process a traumatic event and who are familiar with the range of emotions kids can feel following a horrific and confusing event, from rage to despair to paralysis. Young children, according to Webber, tend to blame themselves for what happened, particularly if they misinterpret negative messages from an adult in their life who’s likewise struggling to cope with his or her emotions; teenagers typically either explode with anger or retreat into denial. Trained counselors know how to navigate that emotional mayhem, how to target support at those most affected by the violence, how to be empathetic without overdoing it. They know how, as Dvoskin put it, to “be honest without flooding them with too much information.” They know how to deliver what experts often call “psychological first aid.”

Schools are also the gathering places for a host of caring adults whose familiarity with a given child’s life often rivals that of his or her immediate family members—coaches, custodians, lunchroom servers, and school-bus drivers, to name a few. “They’re the ones who know the kids best” and can provide their own form of psychological first aid, Webber said.

Of course, attending school can hurt rather than help. If the adults in a school feel unfit to provide the assurances children need, that unease will show and only amplify kids’ distress. “To the extent that adults in the [school] environment need time to care for themselves, to recover, to position themselves so they can truly convince kids that schools are normal and safe, that we’re here and we’re going to take care of you, the school should take a little bit of time” before resuming classes, said Stephen Brock, a psychology professor at California State University, Sacramento, who authored a crisis prevention and response curriculum and has conducted trainings with Clark County School District psychologists.

A school can also aggravate children’s trauma if it mishandles its response by, for example, sending mixed messages to students (which can erode kids’ trust in adults) or convening them in a large assembly to talk about the event rather than doing that classroom by classroom (which can create more chaos). And a classroom that goes overboard with its return-to-normalcy campaign—by, say, giving kids an algebra quiz on Tuesday or penalizing a student who can’t pay attention—will only exacerbate the stress and anxiety that accompany an event such as Sunday night’s massacre.

These caveats are real risks. School districts have made significant strides in their ability to respond to crisis, namely after a rash of school shootings in recent decades and the September 11 terrorist attacks. But devising a crisis response that’s appropriate for all children in a school district as diverse as Clark County—for children dealing with immense amounts of toxic stress as well as children who will all but forget the event in a matter of weeks—is complicated. And Gurwitch stressed that, generally speaking, school districts haven’t done an adequate job of ensuring teachers are trained in what to say and do when children ask difficult questions or express certain concerns. Such skills are especially critical because those questions and concerns will emerge at unpredictable moments and likely stretch over the course of the school year.

“The consequences of community trauma are not necessarily immediate and sometimes continue for months and even years,” Dvoskin said. “When we talk about post-traumatic stress disorder, the key word there is post. ... This event is going to affect Las Vegas for a long time.”

Isabel Fattal contributed research.