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.