The mass shooting at Robb Elementary comes as communities are witnessing more shootings at K-12 schools nationwide, and these events are coming with a growing number of injuries.
The Naval Postgraduate School's Center for Homeland Defense and Security compiles annual data on any reported incident in the U.S. where a gun is brandished or fired at a school or if a bullet hits school property. Last year, the center recorded 249 shooting incidents. In 2010, there were 15 incidents.
Based on this data, the three-year average of school shooting fatalities is about 30 people in 2022, whereas it was seven in 2010. And the FBI recently announced that the number of "active shooter" incidents in the U.S. has risen dramatically.
For adults trying to explain why horrific acts of violence occur, the first step is checking in with yourself, said Maureen Brogan, the statewide director of the Traumatic Loss Coalitions for Youth Program (TLC) at Rutgers University.
“Even if you don't have answers, are you at least in a good place to have conversations with kids?” Brogan said. “Because I think as adults, we have to keep in mind that children are very, very in tune with what we may not be saying verbally. The vibes we're giving off.”
When a traumatic event such as the loss of a student or teacher happens in New Jersey, Brogan’s organization will send trained counselors to the community to promote healing. Their teams go to any county in the state, providing trauma response assistance via trainings or meetings with school staff, community leaders or anyone else in need.
Brogan described it as providing psychological first aid and walked through the approaches they take during these moments. Her interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
If you’re a parent or a teacher, where do you start with discussing an event like the Robb Elementary shooting?
The first thing I always tell people is, “Hey, start by checking in with yourself.” Where are you at? Have you been able to process? Even if you don't have answers, are you at least in a good place to have conversations with kids?
Because I think as adults, we have to keep in mind that children are very, very in tune with what we may not be saying verbally. The vibes we're giving off. What is our body language saying?
So we have to make sure we're in a good place to have a calming presence. The last thing we want to do at times of tragedy is to add anything that could become more traumatic. We want to give that sense of security and safety.
When you begin the conversation with a child, start by asking “What have you heard?” rather than “How are you feeling?”
We want them to share, what are their thoughts? What are they thinking? I sometimes stay away from the word "feeling" because some kids — especially adolescents — tend to respond with, “I am not talking about my feelings right now.” Starting with language that's more like, "Hey, what have you heard? What are you thinking?" can keep things more concrete.
Also, follow their lead. A conversation you have with a 7- or 8-year-old is going to be very different than what you have with a teenager. But if you start off with open-ended questions like what did you hear? What are you thinking? You can follow their lead.
So it’s really just about listening rather than projecting?
As adults, sometimes we do more of the talking when we really need to do more of the listening. I encourage people to really get a sense of where's your classroom at? Where are your students at? Listen to what they're saying their concern is.
And don't project your own concerns onto that. Don't necessarily fill in blanks that weren't asked to be filled in. Answer the questions that they have to the best of your ability, but don't go off and provide more and more information when they may not need that. They may not want that.
That’s because repeated exposure to information about mass shootings can cause social trauma, right? But the news cycle and social media will be discussing these events for days if not weeks.
How do we keep kids in the loop responsibly without traumatizing them? Or what if they have more questions over time?
I always caution people, don't over-talk. I think it's our own anxiety. We have so many thoughts running around in our heads, trying to make sense of things that don't make sense.
If they ask, why did this happen? It's okay as an adult to be like, “I really don't know why this happened. I'm right there with you.”
We have to keep in mind that the mission of the conversation is to not come up with all the answers, but to really come up with the reassurance and that sense of safety. How do we make our kids feel like they're connected and they're safe?
Of course, that also means don’t lie and say “oh, this will never, ever, ever, ever happen here.” Don't make promises. But talk to them about what efforts are being made to keep people safe, and again, really follow their lead.
Don’t let them be overwhelmed and inundated with this.
Teenagers are a little bit more difficult to navigate because with their phones, they’re exposed to so much more information on TikTok and Instagram and all of their other social media platforms.
We as adults want to make sure we're monitoring and trying to pull back how much exposure our kids have to these events. Again, never, ever denying that it happened and never, ever denying that this was a tragedy. But don’t let them be overwhelmed and inundated with this.
Given that concern, should teachers broach the topic with their whole class? Or just wait for students to raise it one-by-one?
There is something to be said about collective healing. A lot of New Jersey schools have a morning check-in meeting where they either do a mindfulness activity or something like that.
That would be a great opportunity to be like, “Hey, I don't know if any of you have heard what's going on in the news …?” and then you open the door for them to share first.
If they have no idea what you’re talking about, then just say “I want you to be aware that unfortunately, there was another school shooting, and I’m just telling you because chances are you're going to hear about it from other classmates, your friends or social media.”
And then reaffirm that adults are here for them. Set the tone that they’re supported.
How do we know if a child is struggling with this news and needs more help or attention? What are some signs?
If your child starts talking in ways that suggest intrusive thoughts. Like, "I'm really having a hard time focusing now because all I can think about is what happened."
These are just warning signs that need further exploration. It does not mean they need a diagnostic code assigned to them. It's really just saying, “Hey, maybe we should have a further conversation.”
With young children, if they're having some type of traumatic reaction, it's gonna be verbalized more in their body. For example, they might say that “I have headaches or my heart hurts or my stomach has been bothering me and I just don't know why.” Or if you have a child that typically sleeps through the night but is now not sleeping, it might be something to keep on the radar depending on how long it occurs.
For these kids, anything traumatic will be stored in the body, and the body keeps the score of traumatic events. All of this comes down to having the conversations and making sure there's a safe place to have the conversations.
Some experts say adults should emphasize to children that school shootings are rare. But the nation is seeing more of them over time. Do we need to tweak the advice?
Honestly, that used to be one of my things; to say, "you do know that school shootings are very rare. And in the big scheme of things, when you talk about how many happen, they're still on the rarer side.”
But kids nowadays are more likely to respond with "Well, this is the third one I've heard of." You don't want to set yourself up to sound like you don't know what you're talking about.
Part of me says, yeah, pivot a little bit. But try to focus on what people are doing to keep them safe during potential shootings. Teachers might want to refer back to drills they’ve conducted or specific measures their schools have taken to increase public safety.
Again, we're staying away from promising that it can never happen here because we don't know. But we can look at what’s been done to promote their sense of safety. Part of creating safety is setting in an environment where the students feel like there is a trusted adult that they can turn to – in their school community, their extended family or their household.
In our area, one-off shootings involving children are more common than mass shootings at schools. Does this change how New Jerseyites or New Yorkers should talk to our kids about these incidents?
In response to this mass school shooting, you're going to have kids that might live in cities where their reaction might actually be one of anger. “Wait, why are we paying a lot of attention to this, when I’ve lost six friends in the last year?”
We have to be aware of that, of what's going on in our community. What can we share with our students knowing that, for many, this school shooting will not be what they're reacting to. This school shooting activates all the losses that they might have experienced in their own lives.
That also applies to adults. That’s why I'm telling adults to check in with themselves. Have you had recent losses? Because this will activate some potentially strong reactions for you.
Your organization primarily works in New Jersey, but can New Yorkers call you for advice?
Yes! We can't send our trauma coordinators out of state, but we are here to answer questions about resources in people's areas.
We also recommend that parents and teachers visit or contact the National Child Traumatic Stress Network if they're looking for resources. The network has an incredible website, and many of its resources are multilingual.
Finally, how are you holding up?
People laugh because I say I have the best job in the whole wide world.
I'm surrounded by people that just want to help. Bad things are gonna happen. I know that I can't undo things that have happened, but I get to be part of the healing process.
When you get to be part of the healing, there's something that, in and of itself, increases your own sense of gratitude. I'm surrounded by so much loss that I've learned to appreciate every day. Because every day is not promised.