May 24, 2022, was only weeks away from Asheville High School’s graduation ceremony. Most of the students who attended Georgette Blackford’s American History II classes that day were seniors, prepared to learn about this country’s history from the Reconstruction era through the present day.
But on that Tuesday morning, a mass murderer shot and killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. So during Blackford’s three 90-minute long classes that day, she put previous American history on pause in order to address the current American history unfolding — one where mass shootings can feel like they occur with heartbreaking regularity.
Her students had already lived to hear about numerous mass shootings in schools, such as the Parkland, Fla., tragedy in 2018. But she tells Xpress that Uvalde felt particularly impossible to process in part because the children killed were so young — fourth graders — and reminded students of younger siblings. “The Uvalde [shooting] shook me and shook my kids deeply. … We’re all crying. I’m crying. It was just devastating.”
School shootings rose throughout the 2010s, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database, an open-source research project that tracks such shootings as far back as 1970. (It includes all incidents “when a gun is brandished, is fired or a bullet hits school property for any reason, regardless of the number of victims, time or day of the week.”) Recent years have seen those figures more than double, from 114 to 250, between 2020 and 2021. And in 2022, the country experienced 303 school shootings — the highest ever recorded.
Asheville City Schools and Buncombe County Schools have not experienced an on-campus shooting in the past five years, according to previous reporting. Nevertheless, widespread access to the media and social media means technologically connected students and their peers can be exposed to any tragic occurance at any time. And a shooting in Texas or Florida can create terror and panic all the same.
Children who were directly impacted by mass shootings are the focus of most research on the adverse mental health effects of such events. However, Dr. Nick Ladd, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Center for Psychiatry and Mental Wellness at the Mountain Area Health Education Center, points to a 2021 study published in JAMA Network Open, a peer-reviewed, open access general medical journal, that found “greater concern about school violence or shootings was prospectively associated with increased odds of reporting generalized anxiety and panic symptoms 6 months later.”
Additionally, in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting in 2018, Pew Research Center found that 57% of teenagers 13- to 17-year-olds reported feeling “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about a shooting happening at their school.
Ladd tells Xpress that in his role at MAHEC he is seeing increased anxiety in children “as the frequency of mass shootings has increased.” However, he notes that anxiety isn’t increasing uniformly and occurs “at variable levels.” Ladd explains, “Some children, based upon genetics or lived experience, will be at more risk of anxiety or an anxiety disorder (anxiety that impairs functioning).”
Blackford, who left ACS in June after six years of teaching, says that on the day of the Uvalde shooting, she dedicated the first 30 minutes of each class to giving her students a writing prompt to express their thoughts and concerns, and then held small group conversations about their writing.
Her students’ writing gave her a window into their emotion, which she described as frustration that “this sort of thing keeps happening, and that this is allowed to happen.” Her students also expressed in their writing “frustration that people — by and large, young men — keep being able to access weapons with little to no barriers,” Blackford says.
School resources for anxiety
Both ACS and BCS have student services departments composed of licensed clinical social workers and licensed counselors.
In an email to Xpress regarding anxiety around mass shootings, Shanon Martin, assistant director of student services in BCS, writes that the district’s counselors and social workers work with students to “build resiliency skills to help manage difficult emotions.” Resiliency skills can include “breathing strategies, sensory fidgets or movement breaks …[which can]… calm anxiety and refocus the student’s mind back to learning and instruction,” she writes.
Martin also notes that the district employs social and emotional learning coaches who, according to information shared by BCS spokesperson Stacia Harris, help students “understand themselves and others while forming strong relationships and building decision-making skills.” Martin writes that SEL coaches also “help teachers have the resources they need to support students in their social and emotional learning.”
ACS spokesperson Dillon Huffman tells Xpress that the district’s mental health providers are finding that students’ anxiety is primarily related to peer relationships, family and community conflicts and academic concerns. “The majority of our students are not coming to them anxious about school shootings,” Huffman writes in an email.
Huffman continues, “We have had some parents, students and staff ask questions after incidents, like Uvalde, about our safety procedures and our response systems.” But the ACS counseling department hasn’t seen an increase in students voicing anxiety in the aftermath of mass shootings.
Huffman adds, “For many students, they voice that school is where they feel the safest.”
Mental health comes first
Anxiety manifests itself differently among various age groups. Elementary-school-age children might refuse to return to school, “cling” to a caregiver, have nightmares, scream during sleep or complain of physical ailments like stomachaches that have no discernible cause, Ladd says.
Adolescents experiencing anxiety may withdraw from family and friends, become startled easily or be preoccupied with the tragedy.
Ladd also notes that anxiety around mass shootings is “oftentimes not the presenting problem” — meaning the most visible reason for suffering — when a child is anxious. Instead, that specific fear may be part of a cluster of fears the child is experiencing, and children may need to be prompted to open up about it.
Many kids are attuned to the gravity of tragedy through the emotional reactions of adults in their lives. “It’s so important for the adults to take care of themselves and their own anxiety around these issues,” Erwin High School counselor Libby Wicker says. “Students pick up on adults’ reactions.” She advises that adults answer kids’ questions first, in order to directly address kids’ concerns, rather than provide explanations that may confuse or, worse, scare them.
Wicker explains, “Sometimes in our rush to reassure children, we run the risk of bringing up details that they hadn’t already known which can add to anxiety.”
Ladd adds that adults talking to kids about mass shootings should “highlight how other people are looking out for them.” (For example, ACS and BCS both have security protocols as well as state-mandated drills.) But he cautions grown-ups not to “automatically jump to dismissing [kids’ fears] or trying to change/fix them.”
Not every parent may feel prepared to have these hard conversations; the experts who spoke with Xpress cited many resources for assistance. And not every educator may be as comfortable as Blackford, the AHS history instructor, discussing tragic current events in the classroom in service of addressing students’ well-being. Yet she felt ACS was “supportive of teachers making choices in their classroom that would focus a lot more on building community and resilience.”
She continues, “If it meant that a lesson didn’t get taught that day, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Because the students and their mental health and emotional health came first.”