What Happens to Graduating Seniors After a School Tragedy?

Picture of Mary Kate McGrath By Mary Kate McGrath

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graduating seniors after a school tragedyIn February of 2018, a former student entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, with a semiautomatic weapon and opened fire on teachers and students. The attack killed 17 students and teachers, leaving 17 more people injured, making it one of the deadliest school shootings in the history of the United States, as reported by NBC. Student survivors went on to change the national conversation on school safety and gun regulation. However, the trauma from the shooting continues to have lasting impact on graduating seniors and other survivors, and the situation emphasizes the importance of providing the appropriate support for the community following a school tragedy. 

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, students channeled their grief into activism. Stoneman Douglas students visited the Florida statehouse and traveled to Washington D.C. to discuss the events with legislators. The teenagers also met with communities impacted by gun violence across the United States and organized the “March For Our Lives” in Washington as part of an extended series of protests, which included school walkouts and rallies. Today, members of the graduating class from the school continue to advocate for increased school safety measures and gun legislation, but the community also continues to reckon with the scope of the life-altering tragedy.

One year later, many survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas continue to struggle with trauma from the event. In March, a recent graduate Kelly Plaur reported withdrawing from a paramedic program she enrolled in. Plaur also reported frequent nightmares, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as being triggered by loud sounds, or something as simple as the sight of window blinds which resembled those on the interior of Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

In February of 2019, several more current students and graduating seniors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas discussed life after a school tragedy, as per The New York TImes. Their experiences varied - but many revealed a similar story to Plaur, with ongoing trauma preventing them from engaging in normal young adult life as they once knew it. Anthony Borges, a 16-year old who was shot five times, told the publication that he intends to be homeschooled because he feared the school had not adequately implemented new security measures, and that he was unable to return to many of his old hobbies, such as soccer. 21-year old Jammal Lemy said that a year later, he still hasn’t figured out how to adequately process the trauma, even amid being a leader of the school’s advocacy efforts. 

Nearly all the students interviewed cited anxiety about the anniversary of the shooting. Much like those from Parkland, Florida, graduating seniors who have lived through a tragedy, whether they are the survivors of a school shooting, a severe weather event in the community, or any other life-altering situation, are likely to struggle to move forward. The last year of high school is a time where students are meant to look toward the future, and feel optimistic about, their potential and goals, and experiencing a tragedy can be a devastating blow to these plans. Local officials and administrators have a responsibility to provide the appropriate support system in the weeks, months, and years after a traumatic event, since students are likely to struggle to understand the tragedy, even long after they've graduated.  

How To Support Survivors After A School Tragedy 

In the past year, several tragic deaths have emphasized the extended toll these events have on an entire community. In March, Sydney Aiello, a 19-year old recent Parkland graduate, took her own life, as per the New York Times. She struggled with PTSD and survivor’s guilt following the shooting, which killed her best friend, Meadow Pollack. A week later, Calvin Desir, a 16-year old boy who survived the Parkland shooting, also took his own life. During the same month, Jeremy Richman, a resident of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, was also found dead in an apparent suicide. Richman’s death came almost 6 years who lost his daughter Avielle in the mass shooting at the town’s elementary school that left 27 children and teachers dead. 

It’s important to remember that the impact of a school tragedy is not over after the assailant is reprimanded or local leadersmake vows to rebuild - these tragedies reverberate through the community long after the news cycle ends. Often, following a tragedy, a community will make an immediate investment in mental health intervention to handle the trauma, bringing in therapy dogs and triaging counseling appointments in the first few weeks. Unfortunately, students may be too shocked to take advantage of these resources in the early days or months following the event, and it may be more valuable for school leaders to look toward sustainable care for students as well. 

Investing in long term mental healthcare for students is a critical school safety practice in every community, no matter what challenges students or teachers have faced. Mental health services can become overwhelmed after a traumatic event, and the school district should plan to bolster these services and effectively communicate to students, teachers, and staff that resources to seek help are available. 

For example, Broward County, Florida opted to continue the operations of a “resiliency center” for Parkland, Florida community for the 2019/20 year. The center operates out of three schools and a local park, offering trauma focused counseling for students, parents, family members, and faculty, according to the Broward County Public Schools website. Services are made available to community members for free, and recognize the ongoing reckoning with the tragedy within the school community. 

If graduating seniors are planning to attend a higher education institution, it’s important to communicate to these individuals that counseling and health services will be available to them on campus. In general, friends and family should be sure to have frequent check-in’s with loved ones impacted by a tragic event at school, even as the individual moves on to the next phase of their life. Many individuals may feel unable to open up about their ongoing struggles, and providing a safe medium for them to do so is essential. 

Increasing awareness about mental health resources is also important in these communities, and schools should find ways to encourage students, parents, teachers, and staff to take care of these resources as needed. A school notification system can be a valuable way to communicate counseling center hours or other wellness support services. Reaching the community where they are via text, voice-message, or e-mail can be a way to raise awareness and help individuals take the first step toward healing. Reports show that mental health professionals and other wellness care is under-utilized, and especially following a trauma, some people may not even be aware that it is possible to reach out and seek help. 

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Mary Kate McGrath

Written by Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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