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News and notes on guns in America

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Townville Elementary students in a bus following a shooting at their school in October 2016. [AP/Katie McLean]

What One Reporter Learned About How Kids Process Trauma After School Shootings

Earlier this week, a student opened fire in a high school in Rockford, Washington, killing one student and wounding three others. The scene quickly unfolded into now-familiar vignettes of panic: parents rushing to the building, some abandoning their cars on the highway to get there; students huddled on a classroom floor, or standing outside in tears.

The roughly 300 students of Freeman High School join more than 135,000 American children who have been exposed to a school shooting since 1999. That stunning statistic comes from the second installment of an ongoing series examining gun violence from the perspective of children by Washington Post reporter John Woodrow Cox. The story, which came out in June, explores how the shooting death of first-grader Jacob Hall at Townville Elementary School in a small South Carolina town affected four of his classmates — Collin, Siena, Karson, and Ava.

The Trace spoke to Cox about how children process school shootings.

What did you learn about how violence changes the way a child views the world?

When a kid goes through a moment of trauma like that, it frames so much of their world because they have really limited life experience. So much of the world became dangerous to them. One of the girls, Siena, became a different kid in her parents’ eyes. She just became deeply paranoid, and often at home. She would lock the deadbolt all the time. She would run inside anytime there was a car she didn’t recognize.

For all of these kids, noises became a point of obsession. I was interviewing Karson at a park and this pickup truck drove by pulling a trailer. It hit a pothole and kind of made this crashing noise, and his head just jerked around. And his mom right away looked at me, like, “This is life now.”

Among the students you interviewed, did any of them surprise you in how they were coping?

When you talk to experts about this topic, they can’t predict how one kid will react versus another. Some kids get hit with it decades later.

Collin was really interesting because he was actually shot, but he was the most matter-of-fact about what had happened. He’d basically seen his friend die, plus he got a bullet hole in his own foot. And he was okay about it. Not that he was uncaring, he was just processing it in a way that was surprising. There was one moment when we were in his room and he reached into his toy bin and turned around [with a plastic pistol] and said, “This is what the gun looked like.” It was gutting for me.  

And then almost the opposite of that was Ava, who is unusual relative to every other kid who I’ve interviewed, because she is so introspective. She was in love with the kid who died, so she was dealing with real loss on top of everything else. Her intelligence in some ways has made this a much more difficult experience to go through because she just replays it and thinks about it and analyzes it and deals with guilt, some pretty adult issues. She still to this day won’t say or write the word “gun.”

We often hear this idea that kids are resilient, that they’ll bounce back after violent events. Do you agree?

I think there’s truth to that but there’s a lot of nuance there too. When I got to Townville eight months after the shooting, the teachers and the principal and the superintendent all said a lot of the people in or around the community had grown a little impatient, like, “Hey, is life back to normal now?” Like, no. It’s not normal and it’s never going to be normal, ever.

The “kids are resilient thing” — I think some of that comes from that kids just have a hard time saying, “I’m struggling,” or “I’m sad” or “I’m depressed because of this incident.” After experiencing childhood trauma there will be symptoms that people don’t identify with that trauma. The research shows that really any time those kids will go through another life change — when they are done with elementary school, start middle school, go to college, get married —  all of those are opportunities for the trauma they experienced at 6 or 7 years old to pop up and affect them.

That’s not to say that kids aren’t really tough. I think the fact that their brains are developing, there are some advantages there. But it’s a little bit dismissive, I think, to just say that kids are resilient, they’ll get over it.

Once a kid lives through a school shooting, or violence in general, what do you think they need?

I can’t overstate how important it is for these kids to have access to therapy. Especially in school shootings [like Townville], it goes beyond the witnesses on the playground. Kids all over that school who didn’t see a thing or hear anything were traumatized. And they’re going to be dealing with that on some level for years. That’s why that 135,000 number is relevant, because a significant number of those kids are still dealing with what they went through. The trauma extends well beyond just the people who were physically affected.

ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) studies have consistently found one of the key factors for kids who make it through childhood trauma is having at least one adult who cares. So consistently, that’s the difference. And certainly all of the kids I’ve dealt with, they all had that.

Why did you want to look at gun violence through the eyes of children?

I think we as journalists really never give kids enough credit. One thing that drew me and my editor to this series is just how seldom kids’ voices are represented in stories. Even when bad things happen to kids we go to the adults and say, “Tell me what happened to your kid.” Obviously you run into the challenge of whether their memories are reliable, so you have to go through the process of confirming everything that they’re telling you. But one of the really rewarding things about interviewing kids is they don’t have filters, they don’t know how things are supposed to sound, they don’t know how to frame their comments or memories, they just tell you how they’re feeling in that moment. And it can be brutal.