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Long-term healing after a school shooting: How LE can assist

After a school shooting, the community’s guard is up and calls for service increase for disturbances and suspicious activity


People react outside the unification center at the Alamo Gym, following a shooting at Santa Fe High School Friday, May 18, 2018, in Santa Fe, Texas.

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Long after the national attention fades and the news media packs up and leaves, trauma from a school shooting lives on for students, teachers, school administrators, parents and first responders. What role should officers and agencies play in the aftermath of a school shooting? How can officers best help the community heal?

Ensure the community and students feel safe

After a school shooting, police across America receive an influx of calls concerning questionable social media postings and reports of students who meet the profiles of the latest shooter. The community’s guard is up. Calls for service increase for disturbances and suspicious activity. Be ready for those calls. Staff accordingly.
Proactive policing and increased patrols through affected neighborhoods need to be the standard. Traumatized citizens desire to see an active police presence, which can be healing and comforting. Officers should stop to talk to the people on their beats. Fostering police/citizen trust is paramount. Citizens tend to come forward with tips when they personally know the officer working their neighborhoods.
Nearby agencies must continue to offer mutual aid to ensure that municipal and school district officers have time off to decompress and rest.

Attend to officers’ emotional healing

Law enforcement administrators must diligently monitor for signs of emotional burnout as officers provide security for funerals, victim’s families, and the return of students and teachers to school.
School and law enforcement administrators must foster environments where raw feelings can be expressed without judgment or repercussions.
Officers should be encouraged to talk to trained peer supporters. If an agency does not maintain a critical incident stress management team, request one respond from another agency.
Agencies have a responsibility to educate officers on how to heal their emotional wounds in the wake of a traumatic community event. Tips for officers following a school shooting can be found here.

Survivors and officers are witnesses

Officers must offer guidance and support to help survivors/witnesses through the investigation and the criminal justice system.
Requiring survivors – students, teachers, police officers and other first responders – to retell and relive their story over and over should be minimized.
Avoid re-traumatizing survivors/officers and provide grief and emotional support during court proceedings.

Prepare for long-term emotional support

Law enforcement agencies should team with community resources and school district counselors to prepare for long-term emotional and psychological support for residents, students, teachers, parents and officers.
Emotional trauma from a violent act can leave survivors with shattered assumptions. In our society, a sacred trust exists that others won’t hurt us. When that assumption is shattered, the ability to trust gets shattered as well. Students may look at other students and wonder if one of them will show up at school with a weapon and kill them. Officers must be sensitive to this fear and to their own reactions as they have been reminded that anyone can be a threat – even a child.
Law enforcement and school district administrators must enact programs that reach out to students, teachers and first responders to prevent them from feeling isolated or alone.
Trauma can show up months and years later. Plans need to be in place to support students, teachers and school district officers when they return in the fall for the next school year. Programs to address traumatic reactions need to be ongoing and preventative.

Riding the grief roller coaster

Everyone grieves differently. Grief comes in waves. One day a person can have it all together and the next break down as if the loss happened in that very moment.
We grieve for more than the fallen. We grieve the innocence that was taken from us; the loss of a sense of security in a place where students and teachers are supposed to feel safe. We grieve for the loss of fundamental assumptions about life, society, and a safe, just world.
Officers struggle with grief and emotions because their job requires them to be devoid of feeling. Witnessing death and tragedy over the course of a career desensitizes officers to turn off the grief emotion.
In the case of a mass school shooting, when officers have been exposed to a gruesome crime scene involving children, the power of grief can and will win out.
Viktor E. Frankl, a holocaust survivor and the author of “Man’s Search for Meaning,” said: “But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man has the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”
Officers and their community must unite in their suffering to heal each other and to acknowledge each other’s pain.
The hard part is finding meaning in the suffering, pain and grief.
Law enforcement officers should help the community organize ongoing events to memorialize those who lost their lives, to recognize those injured, and acknowledge the ongoing pain of the survivors.
Joanne Cacciatore wrote a healing book, “Bearing the Unbearable,” about her grief journey after losing her daughter, Cheyenne. She created the MISS Foundation, which provides support services for bereaved families and the Kindness Project, which advocates for survivors to perform a random act of kindness, then hand out a card bearing the name of the deceased that states the act of kindness was performed as a remembrance.
The Kindness Project helps survivors find meaning in their loss and grief.
Officers should consider spearheading a Kindness Project in their communities.
In addition to Cacciatore’s book, the following resources can provide healing and comfort:
The Department of Justice, in conjunction with the Community Oriented Policing Services and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, developed a publication for police chiefs titled “Preparing for the Unimaginable: How chiefs can safeguard officer mental health before and after mass casualty events” available here.
If you need immediate support, email me here.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara A. Schwartz. All Rights Reserved.
Barbara A. Schwartz has dedicated her life to supporting the brave officers of law enforcement.

Schwartz is certified as a first responder peer supporter by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) and the Law Enforcement Alliance for Peer Support (LEAPS). She maintains specializations in grief, injured officer support, suicide prevention, and traumatic stress injuries.

As a Police Explorer scout and reserve officer, Schwartz served in patrol and investigations. Her articles and book reviews have appeared in American Police Beat, The Thin Blue Line, Command, The Tactical Edge, Crisis Negotiator Journal, Badge & Gun, The Harris County Star, The Blues, The Shield, The Police News, and Calibre Press Newsline.

Schwartz was instrumental in securing the passage of the Blue Alert legislation in all 50 states. She is proud to be a founding member of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Foundation.

She maintains memberships in the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) and the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA).