Many months, or even years, after two communities were rattled by school shootings, a string of suicides among those tied to the tragedies have resurfaced the devastation.
Sydney Aiello, who graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, died by suicide last week. Aiello, 19, survived the Parkland, Florida, shooting that killed 14 students and three staff members, and she reportedly struggled with survivor’s guilt and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
About a week later, a second survivor and current Stoneman Douglas student, 16-year-old Calvin Desir, took his own life. And on Monday, Jeremy Richman, whose daughter was one of 20 children and six adults killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, died in an apparent suicide.
“It's tragedy after tragedy and just compounds that sense of devastation,” said Amy Klinger, co-founder and director of programs for the Educator’s School Safety Network. “It really speaks to the need for supports and interventions and recovery, which is oftentimes not addressed.”
She added, “These are indicative of a much larger systemic problem.”
'A tragedy that won't die'
The string of suicides, and especially those of the Parkland students, have shed light on the realities of the long-term impacts of trauma and how it’s addressed in communities.
“Often, tragedy strikes at a school ... and the school community rallies and deals with the problem. Parkland is unique in that the tragedy was so huge that it won't just go away,” said Hank Resnik, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning’s senior advisor for communications. “It's a tragedy that won't die.”
After the shooting last February, Stoneman Douglas had counselors available for students and staff, and in the wake of recent events, stakeholders are amplifying their efforts to address trauma and identify those who might need help. With these suicides occurring more than a year after the massacre, it’s clear that recovery doesn’t happen quickly.
Recovery for impacted families could be endless. Their lives have been changed forever.
Former superintendent, Newtown Public Schools
As a former Newtown superintendent – serving from 2014 to 2017 – Joseph Erardi knows “any tragedy is a marathon and not a sprint.” He noted that with events such as what transpired at Sandy Hook Elementary, offering sufficient mental health resources to students and giving support to the community is “imperative.”
“Knowing that resources are limited and really sacred, it's really important, from a school leadership perspective, to make sure your resources are within the area of impact,” he said. “Every person needs to be supported.”
Trauma, in any case, impacts everyone differently, but with children and adolescents, the effects can be more severe. According to the Treatment Services and Adaptation Center, which specializes in school trauma and crisis response, more than 60% of youth experienced trauma, crime or abuse in the past year, but many aren’t equipped with the necessary coping skills and need outside help.
But, the American Psychological Association says, most children who need help coping with trauma don’t get it. And if untreated, students may suffer from not just an inability to learn or poorer behavior, but also more longlasting issues such as trouble forming relationships, worse physical health and chronic conditions including depression.
Schools play a major role in helping students through these tough times – especially if they’re related to the trauma itself.
“As a school superintendent, you’re only charged to do two things: provide the safest environment possible and do whatever it takes to improve the lives of students in teaching and learning,” Erardi said. “Those families and those students should know ... that we will do whatever it takes to assist in any way possible.”
Shifting the school safety narrative
While a need for strong mental health supports in schools continues to be highlighted, Resnik said that “in today's hard-pressed financial climate for schools, counselors are one of the first things to go, and mental health services are often either not funded at all or funded as an afterthought.”
Other experts and members of the public have echoed the same notion: Counseling, while important, is almost never highest on the priority list for schools. President Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, for example, moved to cut funding for school counselors outright. And when it comes to limited funds and tough spending decisions, these programs often get sacrificed, even though “we need to address the humanity first,” Klinger said.
At the same time, there’s been a recent push for more safety resources for schools, including video surveillance, metal detectors or armed security officers. Erardi said a sole focus on these protective methods is the wrong approach.
“We spend an awful lot of time, energy and money being reactive to school safety,” he said. “If we spend billions on surveillance ... that's post-mortem. The pivot that needs to take place is how to be proactive.”
Bridging the gap
While there are still many gaps to fill, Resnik noted there is a positive trend with states making mental health and social-emotional learning a bigger priority. Since states have begun their 2019 legislative sessions, several bills have been proposed that relate to mental health needs in schools, and more areas are working to devise comprehensive solutions, including peer mentoring or hiring district-level staff. In addition, Trump's proposed fiscal year 2020 budget includes $200 million for school safety grants that would support initiatives including mental health and school counseling.
At a district level, Erardi also said there are low- or no-cost ways schools can better support their students. One example is what he calls “step back protocol,” where staff members with “boots on the ground” — including nurses, bus drivers and custodians who might interact with or see students outside the classroom — all meet with an administrator after school and discuss ways to improve.
We cannot turn these complex mental health situations over to a school and say, ‘You need to fix all these people,’ ... It needs to be viewed as a community-based issue with schools being a critical component.
Co-founder and director of programs, Educator's School Safety Network
“It's amazing the information that could be taken in 20 minutes, and that's a great first step,” he said.
Erardi and Klinger both emphasized the importance of framing supports in the context of not just at school, but also for the surrounding community. For Erardi, a trusting partnership between schools and families is key to ensure everyone’s needs are addressed, while Klinger said the community needs to be part of the solution.
“We cannot turn these complex mental health situations over to a school and say, ‘You need to fix all these people.’ That's a tall order for any organization, let alone a school,” she said. “It needs to be viewed as a community-based issue with schools being a critical component.”
Ultimately, Erardi added, schools have to strike a tough balance between continuing with what schools need to do while also respecting students’ and families’ recovery – no matter how long that process may take.
“Recovery for impacted families could be endless,” he said. “Their lives have been changed forever.”