When ‘Back to School’ Means Back to Mass-Shooting Fears

High-profile massacres have created ambient, worsening anxiety about gun violence on K–12 campuses.

A principal monitors the entrance of a California school that's adopted new campus-security technology to protect against a prospective shooting. (Richard Vogel / AP)

Phyllis Fagell, a counselor at the private K–8 Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., got an email from a colleague on Sunday that’s been on her mind ever since. The email itself didn’t contain any distressing information. It didn’t tell of a sick relative or a friend in need. It was a promotion for a new active-shooter training course at a nearby gym.

What struck Fagell was in large part the email’s timing: The message arrived at the end of a particularly deadly weekend that included two high-profile shootings—and just a few weeks ahead of the new school year. “There’s something wrong,” Fagel said, “when I’m getting an email offering a free course … learning how to pack wounds and apply a tourniquet.”

The United States has witnessed nearly 2,200 mass shootings since the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive, more than 250 of which took place this year alone. And while the rate of firearm-related homicides has dipped since its peak in the 1980s, incidents of gun violence in the U.S. have become more deadly over the decades. The majority of these deaths are from suicides or domestic violence, tragedies that barely register on the national radar. (The Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit formed in 2013 that vets and tracks data on such incidents, defines mass shootings as shootings in which at least four people, excluding the perpetrator, are shot or injured in a single spree and the same general location.) The resulting ambient anxiety leads many to fear being in all sorts of public places, from festivals to malls to, of course, schools. Gun violence is now the second-most-common cause of death for people ages 1 through 19.

Kids today “are growing up in an atmosphere of fear and anxiety that previous generations did not have to go through,” says Linda Cavazos, a former teacher who is a member of the board in Las Vegas’s Clark County school district and works as a family therapist serving gun-violence survivors and veterans with PTSD. The adults who care for these children, she says, must assuage their worries—often while dealing with their own stresses associated with gun violence. As a therapist she’s received record-high numbers of referrals in the past year or so for kids whom she’s diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. Cavazos, whose younger brother committed suicide with a firearm, attributes the trend in part to the gun violence that has afflicted her community in Las Vegas.

Fagell is well versed in how to help kids (and their parents and teachers) better cope with their fear of a school shooting, a threat that represents a “lack of control, a lack of agency ... this pervasive undercurrent of stress.” But this charge has felt more daunting than ever these past few days, not only because of how many high-profile massacres happened in such a short amount of time but also because of the context. Back-to-school season is a time when educators should be “focusing all of our energy on getting to know our students, on transitioning to the start of the school year, on setting up classrooms, on planning lessons and field trips, on greeting families,” says Fagell, whose new book, Middle School Matters, focuses on an age group that she notes is particularly vulnerable to this ambient anxiety.

Instead, Fagell says, she finds herself gearing up for what may be a strained start to the school year—for answering any questions confused young children at her school may have, for calming the older students’ distress and countering their fear of attending classes, for assuring parents that she’s doing what she can to help kids better manage their stress, and for supporting teachers who may feel ill-equipped to keep their students safe amid shifting campus-security protocols.

The atmosphere of fear has emerged not because mass shootings at school are particularly likely—they are not, at least not compared with other forms of gun violence. Rather, it’s emerged because, as the University of Montreal neuroscientist Sonia Lupien has written, they entail some of the key factors that provoke stress, including novelty, unpredictability, and a sense of lost control. On top of this, a parent’s anxiety fuels or otherwise reinforces his or her kid’s own fears (and vice versa)—an “emotional contagion,” as Fagell put it. It’s hard for adults to convey confidence in their safety when they don’t feel it, yet such normalcy is key to supporting kids’ own ability to cope.

That can be especially true for teachers, few of whom are trained in social work and self-defense tactics, but who frequently find themselves in the position of counseling their students and teaching them how to fend off a hypothetical perpetrator. Additionally, as schools repeatedly replace existing practices with new safety protocols, and as they simulate active-shooter incidents, they may actually contribute to rather than detract from kids’ fears. Shifts toward harsher student-discipline policies and armed teachers, too, may exacerbate the problems they’re trying to address by increasing the likelihood that kids will be exposed to violence.

Stacy, a high-school math teacher in Maryland who has young children of her own (and who was granted partial anonymity to protect her kids’ identity and to avoid any conflict between her and her school district), told me she began experiencing a more acute, visceral concern for campus safety when her school district adopted a new protocol that in certain emergency situations instructs prospective victims to flee the scene as quickly as possible if they have the chance to do so safely. For teachers of young children who may not be able to respond swiftly or strategically, that may require them to prioritize their own escape over staying in the classroom to protect their students.

Stacy says the stakes of safety procedures such as this one became especially apparent to her when her oldest child, now 6 years old, started attending school on another campus in her district; she gets overwhelmed just thinking about what would happen if an incident were to happen on that campus under the new protocol. Stacy wouldn’t be able to “protect [her] babies.”

Parents are hardly the only people to feel helpless, of course; this sense of vulnerability has become all but pervasive in the United States. It’s a reality Linda Cavazos knows all too well, as one of the volunteers who provided rapid-response mental-health services to victims of the 2017 Las Vegas massacre, in which 58 people died and more than 400 were wounded. Arriving at the scene early on the morning after the shooting, Cavazos was tasked with supporting survivors and the family members of those murdered as coroners sought to identify fatalities, sometimes using little more than the tattoos on their bodies. The shootings last weekend left Cavazos feeling entirely unnerved. She recalled the confusion she experienced upon seeing the first push notifications on Sunday regarding the Ohio news, initially conflating the updates with those alerting her of Saturday’s El Paso incident.

This confusion only magnified her pain. After all, Cavazos had gone through a similar thought process just a few days earlier, after the shooting that took four lives and wounded 13 others at a garlic festival in California, and the other shooting that same day in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, where a gunman shot eight people, six of whom died. She worries that she’ll only grow more overwhelmed as the tally grows. And like so many others, she’s scared of how much more pain that growing tally will inevitably cause for students across the country.