No More Empty Desks

by Robin Cogan MEd, RN, NCSN  @RobinCogan

Edited by Nikita Joshi MD  @njoshi8

Forced absence from gun violence has created a literal and metaphorical void in schools across our country that may impact students and staff for decades to come. The students are referred to as “Parkland kids,” “Sandy Hook students,” or “Columbine survivors.” These labels are sadly reflective of a new reality for American schools, as students, teachers, and staff no longer feel safe. America’s students feel vulnerable as the facade of schools as a safe place is no longer true. The Center for American Progress recent report revealed that 57% of teenagers now fear a school shooting.[1]

Often, perpetrators of gun violence leave a trail of “red flags” for years, as they are troubled youths. This was the case in the Parkland shooting. Tragically, multiple agencies failed to respond to the signs the troubled young man was leaving, including specifically writing online that he aspired and planned to be a school shooter.

In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida tragedy, parents and school districts turned to security experts demanding a plan of action. Sadly, the information provided was substandard and lacked evidence to support the strategies as efficacious. Lives weigh in the balance and there is no more tolerance for guessing.

Research is needed to guide the creation of evidence-based frameworks for school communities to address prevention as well as protection. Threat assessment teams are a strategy to assess for potential threats, but more importantly is that an intrinsic safety network is woven into the fabric of the educational system. Exposing the root cause of the contagion of violence impacting our youth is key.

School communities are looking for guidance, answers, and action to address the explosion of school-related violence, including mass shootings. We are grappling with questions of safety from mental health service availability, system strategies to best protect students and staff, and determining the root cause of this burgeoning public health crisis. There is an agenda to toughen up America’s schools by arming teachers and adding additional resource officers in a knee jerk effort to protect students, but do not prevent further events. These purposed reactive strategies lack scientific support.

To date, little to no data has been collected about the long-term impact of exposure to gun violence. We count the number of events, weapons used, number killed and injured, but we do not measure the outcomes of the collateral damage to the students, staff, parents, and society in general. Americans are living in the liminal space of these violent events,  waiting for the next one, which is the new sad reality. America is teetering between what was once safe and the realization that American students are now more vulnerable than ever. America is in the unchartered territory of gun violence, America’s schools are minefields. We must not look away from the fallout, instead we must study the direct trauma and the vicarious trauma of societal association, as all America is affected, especially our vulnerable children.

Children carry trauma in their genes, as stress of this magnitude can have life-long health impact. Exposure to adverse childhood experiences leads to toxic stress that changes our biology and impacts long-term health outcomes well into adulthood .[2]  Not all children who experience developmental trauma are impacted in the same way. We must examine these long-range health implications for those exposed to a life-threatening event such as a school shooting, as well as what makes them thrive.

Resilience, or the ability to bounce back, is a learned skill that facilitates the ability to emotionally circumvent present circumstances.[3] Gun violence research will inform prevention strategies that may facilitate resilience in children, but until an evidence-informed pathway for prevention is in place, we are simply reacting out of fear. We must act responsibly with our strategies to mitigate this public health crisis of gun violence. The dearth of research in all aspects of gun violence and the lack of an evidence-based framework for prevention has added to the intensity of the public health epidemic in which we find ourselves, and until this supportive science is in place, America’s students will continue to suffer.

The numbers are astounding, as 26,000 children and teens have been killed in gun violence between 1999 and 2016 (Ingraham, 2018). There are 26,000 desks that sit empty in schools across this country from deaths due to gun violence, forced absences. A void that students feel. Students have not forgotten their friends, and nor must we, as they are America’s fallen students. This number is rising and an emerging public health crisis is unfolding before our eyes and we must have courage of conviction to stop this through research-informed preventative strategies.

References

  1. Parsons, C., Thompson, M., Weigend Vargas, E. and Rocco, G. (2018). America’s Youth Under Fire – Center for American Progress. [online] Center for American Progress. Available at: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/guns-crime/reports/2018/05/04/450343/americas-youth-fire/ [Accessed 6 Sep. 2018].
  2. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2010). Early Experiences Can Alter Gene Expression and Affect Long-Term Development: Working Paper No. 10. http://www.developingchild.net
  3. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2018). Effects. [online] Available at:https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/trauma-types/early-childhood-trauma/effects [Accessed 30 Sep. 2018].
  4. Ingraham, C. (2018). More than 26,000 Children and Teens Have Been Killed in Gun Violence Since 1999. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/03/23/more-than-26000-children-and-teens-have-been-killed-in-gun-violence-since-1999/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6cc2298493c0 [Accessed 6 Sep. 2018].

Where We Need More Research

  • School communities need evidence-based preventative safety strategies that focus on psychological and physical safety initiatives.
  • Research is needed to understand short and long-term impact of exposure to gun violence and its potential effect on long-range health outcomes in students.

Robin Cogan MEd, RN, NCSN  @RobinCogan

Robin Cogan, MEd, RN, NCSN is a Nationally Certified School Nurse (NCSN), currently in her 18th year as a New Jersey school nurse in the Camden City School District. Robin is the Education Chair for the New Jersey State School Nurses Association. She is proud to be a Johnson & Johnson School Health Leadership Fellow and Program Mentor. She has been recognized in her home state of New Jersey and nationally for her community-based initiative called “The Community Café: A Conversation That Matters.” Robin is the honored recipient of multiple awards for her work in school nursing and population health. These awards include, 2018 NCSN School Nurse of the Year, 2017 Johnson & Johnson School Nurse of the Year, and the New Jersey Department of Health 2017 Population Health Hero Award. Robin serves as faculty in the School Nurse Specialty Program at Rutgers University-Camden School of Nursing, where she teaches the next generation of school nurses. She was presented the 2018 Rutgers University – Camden Chancellor’s Teaching Excellence Award for Part-time Faculty. You can find Robin on Twitter @RobinCogan or read her blog, Relentless School Nurse.