One Year After Uvalde, a Reminder That ‘Trauma Has Tentacles’

School Safety

One Year After Uvalde, a Reminder That ‘Trauma Has Tentacles’

By Emily Tate Sullivan     May 22, 2023

One Year After Uvalde, a Reminder That ‘Trauma Has Tentacles’
A memorial at Robb Elementary School dedicated to the victims of the May 24, 2022, shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

This week marks one year since an unspeakable act of violence was carried out in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

One year since a gunman stole the lives of 19 fourth graders and two teachers at Robb Elementary. One year since the name “Uvalde” came to represent much more than a town, added to a list that no one wants to be on. One year since a community in southern Texas was marked forever.

There is no easy way to honor an anniversary like this one. But it feels important to remember and reflect.

So this week, we are remembering what happened in Uvalde and reflecting on what has — and has not — happened since.

As part of that process, we invited Pamela Vona and Beth Cooney from the Center for Safe and Resilient Schools to talk with us about what it’s like responding to school-based tragedies, how students and educators process these events, and what they make of the unyielding epidemic of gun violence in this country, especially now that firearms are the leading cause of death for children and teens.

Vona is co-founder of the Center for Safe and Resilient Schools, an organization that helps schools develop prevention and intervention strategies as well as long-term recovery approaches following traumatic events, such as a mass shooting or a natural disaster. Cooney is a licensed social worker who provides on-the-ground training to school-based counselors and other mental health professionals.

Since its founding in the late 1990s, staff at the Center have responded to a number of the school-based crises that, for many Americans, are recognizable by only a single name: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland and, most recently, Uvalde.

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: Walk me through what it looks like when you go into a school community following a traumatic event.

Pamela Vona: It looks different almost every time. The community itself, the unique needs of the community and — I want to stress — the unique strengths of the community will affect how we intervene. I would say 90 percent of the time, we are not going in because of one specific event like [what took place in] Uvalde or Newtown. We’re more often responding to communities when there's been a growing kind of critical mass of violent events. As these violent events recur and affect more and more students, then there's a recognition that we really need to do something for these students.

That need could be amassed because of community violence or because the community may be affected by something like the opioid epidemic or a natural disaster, where you have students and families reeling.

It’s not always one-size-fits-all, [but] the goals are always the same. What we want to do is create some immediate stabilization, and then we focus on long-term recovery. When we're focusing on immediate crisis response, we use concepts from what we call “psychological first aid,” and that's where we really emphasize establishing a sense of safety, predictability and consistency. And that's true for the adults and the students. It's at that time that we really emphasize the importance of connection, relationships and community healing.

Then after we work to get a community stabilized, that's when we can go in and do an assessment of who may need some additional support, like our mental health interventions. In the weeks and months following an event, educators may notice that some students remain symptomatic, and they're still having difficulty. That's where we'll send many of our trainers out, and they'll train personnel in the school to deliver our evidence-based interventions, such as CBITS (for sixth through 12th grade students) or Bounce Back (for kindergarteners through fifth graders).

It’s been about a year now since the massacre in Uvalde, Texas. What was it like helping school communities process that tragedy?

Vona: The request came into our Center in June, and there was a particular interest in the Bounce Back intervention, to support students who were significantly affected by that event. And then we were able to send Beth and another trainer out in August to train [staff] in that intervention and support the social workers.

Beth Cooney: My co-trainer, Maria, added a lot. She's a native Spanish speaker. We both have a background in gun violence and community disasters. But we didn't make any assumptions going in. We really just tried to prepare as much as we could. We did meet with some counselors from Sandy Hook to get some guidance from their experiences. We know when communities experience that kind of emotional overwhelm, they're often looking for tools.

We went in over the summer and provided Bounce Back training. We tried to do it in a really culturally sensitive, trauma-informed way, just so they could feel like it wasn't so insurmountable to return to school for the new year. Then we started consultation in October, meeting with them monthly, sometimes twice a month.

Through the interventions, we really were able to connect with the providers — these school counselors and social workers. They talked about kids who had trouble sleeping, who were having intrusive thoughts and nightmares. The counselors and social workers, through giving them space and time and working with them on these tools, offered students support. And ultimately these kids were healing — having less nightmares, things like that.

The adult impact really stuck with me. I knew that was likely going to be a really big challenge for the counselors and social workers, because they had their own experiences in the community and their own close relationships [with those killed or affected by the shooting]. It was very difficult. We would check in with them and just say, ‘How can we support you?’ They would share how hard it was to be asked, ‘How are you?’ because they were really in it. They were carrying it day to day. They're really at risk for secondary traumatic stress, and that's something that we always have at the forefront of our minds as trauma-informed professionals.

In Uvalde, there were a lot of mechanisms in place to support their mental health professionals. I think they've done an amazing job with that. It’s still so hard though.

What short-term and long-term impacts does school-based violence have on children, educators and school staff?

Vona: From a research perspective, typically, we see a lot of folks who are symptomatic in different ways in the immediate aftermath of an event. But then we know that there are those who continue to have difficulties, and those difficulties really stem into a variety of areas.

For students, we certainly see issues with mental health: higher rates of depression and anxiety in students, symptoms of post-traumatic stress such as nightmares and intrusive thoughts.

Another thing we learn more and more is the way trauma affects our central nervous system and the way our brain functions. You have many students, then, who are experiencing a lot of cognitive impairments too: difficulty paying attention in class, focusing, problem solving.

And then the other thing you see is changes in their behavior. You might see more jumpiness in a student, or a student being more reactive to a seemingly neutral stimulus in the environment or seemingly innocuous events. We do see more aggression in students and more acting out. That can be true, too.

One of the important things that we know and we want schools to understand is that, when you put all of that together, it makes complete sense that trauma is directly related to lower grades, higher rates of dropout, attendance issues. Those are some of the short-term impacts on students.

What's really central to my work right now is the focus on educators — teachers who are supporting students in really highly impacted communities. They have higher rates of burnout and turnover. And when we think about how important it is for there to be a consistent, stable environment for students exposed to trauma, we don't want these caring and empathetic leaders to be leaving the profession. The burnout is, in part, often related to this phenomenon that we're understanding of secondary traumatic stress that Beth mentioned. And certainly we know that secondary traumatic stress affects mental health providers, but we understand more and more now that it actually can affect the educators themselves.

The other link to the burnout and turnover is the fact that educators often feel helpless in these moments. Educators are not trained to be first responders, yet in these incidents, they're being asked to be first responders. So that is one of the reasons our Center really focuses on training for educators, particularly psychological first aid and trauma-informed skills, because at a minimum, it gives them a toolkit to draw from, and that brings a sense of confidence and agency back to them.

Children at Robb Elementary were of course most acutely affected by the shooting in Uvalde. But what about kids at a neighboring school, or in another state? How does the violence affect them, when they inevitably hear about it?

Vona: We know that the closer you are in proximity to a particular event, the greater likelihood you have of developing these symptoms and the more disruption you're likely to see in the community — you know, the school routine is completely off, school is likely closed.

That's not necessarily true for those outside the region, right? But we know that vicarious trauma exists. Just because you weren't there doesn't mean you're not impacted. Trauma has tentacles. You may not have been there, but it could have been a family member or a loved one, and that means you may be significantly impacted. You may not have seen the shooter, you may not have been there personally, but someone you loved was. You can think about these concentric circles kind of stemming out from the site.

Cooney: Often there’s some fear, too. ‘Could this happen to me, where I am?’

And I think also, when we have tragedies like this, it reminds people of their own experiences, of their own losses. When we go into a school, there's a good amount of people who will be upset about what happened. But then there's the other group for whom it's really a reminder of what happened to somebody that they love. And so oftentimes people carry that and it comes back up at later times.

So there's the trauma reactions from those reminders of the event, and then there's the loss reminders of the loved ones. Sometimes those are both happening at the same time.

Grief is universal, and it's complicated and messy.

What effective practices have you seen educators and school staff use when helping students process their emotions in response to a violent event?

Vona: We talk about the practice of psychological first aid, and that is really an accumulation of a lot of what I call micro-interventions or mini-interventions to support students. So first and foremost, just being present and connecting with a student. There's actually neuroscience data that says connection calms the central nervous system and calms the survival brain. Another is reflective listening, which builds that sense of community, that sense of belonging and ultimately that sense of safety. Those are some of the soft skills that a non-mental health provider can utilize.

Cooney: We have communities that sometimes will already have this training before an event, and they feel like they can be prepared. CBITS and Bounce Back are both interventions that focus on coping strategies, problem solving and different ways to calm your body. We really just try to equip students to handle their emotions in different ways and teach them new ways to manage them. A big part afterward is really normalizing their reactions — giving them the tools to kind of normalize, ‘Oh, this is what's happening and why,’ giving them some understanding.

And being in a group setting is so powerful because it helps them not feel alone, and they kind of go through this beautiful process together to learn and share. There is something really great about having a skill building group at school, but there are clinical parts of it too. So it fits really well in school because of the way it's built to be like lessons, but also ways for them to share.

Vona: There’s also the trauma narrative piece, where you create a really safe space for a student to talk about what happened, with the tools that they've learned and with somebody that they've come to trust and feel supported by. As the student begins to talk about it, there's that sense of getting some ownership over what happened.

I always say the seminal aspect of a trauma is powerlessness. In any traumatic experience, if you think about it, you're inherently powerless to control that moment. And so I think what our interventions do is help you regain some power back over what happened or regain some power after what happened, and then you can talk about it in a way that you couldn't have before.

What do you think it would take to prevent future violence in schools? Who is responsible for the safety of our children and educators, and what should they do about this problem?

Vona: I think we all are responsible for the health and safety of our nation's youth. And I do think we should be supporting things that help equip schools with the necessary resources, whether that's financial resources or personnel, to make sure there are all kinds of practices in schools that speak to prevention, early intervention and then recovery.

We need to be training school leadership and educators, not just mental health providers, because the issue of gun violence is so prevalent right now, and there just simply aren't enough school mental health providers to really address the need right now. And so everyone on the school campus really needs to be equipped with an understanding of this and some tactics, some skills, that they can utilize. Identifying students who might be in need of additional mental health services and then providing support at all levels of the system, we know, can be really effective in changing the climate and reducing violence on a school campus.

Firearms are now the leading cause of death among children ages 1 to 18 in this country. What does that statistic mean to you?

Vona: What it means is that, really, there's no community untouched by this. The violence epidemic is so significant. There's no way our school systems aren't absorbing the effects of this community violence.

Schools are absorbing this reality, and often without the adequate resources or staff training or support systems in place. That's why raising this issue is so critically important, because I think school systems are starting to realize that this isn't another school system's problem or that it happens over there. These things are starting to affect everyone.

We know that the mission of a school system is to effectively educate students. We also know that violence impacts mental health, and mental health impacts students' abilities to learn. There's a direct relationship between violence exposure and schools meeting their academic goals and their ultimate mission.

How do you differentiate between gun violence against children in schools and gun violence against children outside of schools, when the latter is more deadly but generally receives less attention and public outrage?

Vona: I mentioned before that most of our work is with school districts impacted not because of one mass event, but because of dozens and dozens of smaller, violent experiences that unfortunately we've become desensitized to. You have these communities that are reeling from violence exposure, and oftentimes, because it's not of that nature where it's high profile, these communities get left behind or they go unrecognized and don't get all of the resources that some communities get when there’s a ‘large scale’ event.

But there is something to the chronic nature of their trauma. When you're in those chronically stressful environments, we certainly see higher rates of the academic issues we talked about, the emotional issues, behavioral issues. And when you go into a community that's sort of just like, ‘This is how it is,’ you don't necessarily engage in that immediate stabilization part, but you're just trying to provide those ongoing recovery interventions.

Cooney: When you have chronic community violence, it impacts everyone. People are losing their students, which makes teaching hard. One loss in a school building has such a ripple effect. And so when it's chronic, it's really a health risk — burnout, secondary traumatic stress, and ultimately why we're likely seeing people leaving after so many years, feeling like it's just too much emotionally.

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