School shootings: Educators have more questions than answers

Police car on the street


In the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, teachers, principals and superintendents everywhere have questions.

“We’re expected to play so many roles these days, from social worker to parent to nurse, and now we’re expected to be human shields,” one teacher says. “I run through scenarios. I visualize blocking my students by standing between them and the locked closet door, but then I get stuck thinking about the playground. What do I do if we need to run away and one of my students lags behind? Or if a student cries when she needs to be silent?”

Another teacher says that she loves working with kids, but she can’t stop thinking about active shooters. “I fear for my students, and I’m also concerned about my six-year-old son. Multiple times a day, I think, ‘Is he safe?’ ”

A principal says he wonders whether he should reevaluate his safety procedures. “Some schools have the works — metal detectors and security guards and teachers trained to use guns. All I have is a secured main entrance and a few cameras. How do I know what’s enough?”

Another principal worries that his drills aren’t realistic enough. “I don’t really want to have simulated gunshots and powder in the air and kids playing dead while armed officers storm the building, but that’s what some schools are doing. Where’s the line between adequate preparation and unnecessarily putting everyone on edge?” he asks.

Then there’s the superintendent who wants to be a reassuring leader but doesn’t want to seem disingenuous. “How can I comfort my community while conceding that we can never be entirely safe?” he says.

There’s a common thread. Educators want to know how to manage uncertainty and helplessness after a trauma. How can they carry on when their reserves are down? Leaders want to tamp down everyone’s anxiety, but they also want to make sure they’re prepared for the worst.

So what can educators do to soothe themselves and others after a mass shooting? Start by trying to regain some semblance of control.

There are more questions than answers, but we do have good research on stress. Dr. Sonia Lupien, the director of the Center for Studies on Human Stress, in Montreal, developed the N.U.T.S. model. For something to be stressful, it has to contain novelty (something new); unpredictability (no way of knowing it could occur); threat to the ego (feeling your competence is questioned); and sense of control (feeling you have little or no control in a situation). The fastest way to stress the nervous system is to believe you’re helpless, explains educator Ned Johnson, author of “The Self-Driven Child.”

School shootings have all of these elements. Stress also tends to spill over from adults to kids. When teachers have difficulty coping, their behavior may become unpredictable, and that can produce more anxious students.

So what can educators do to soothe themselves and others after a mass shooting? Start by trying to regain some semblance of control. For some individuals, that might mean researching and updating safety procedures. For others, it might mean lobbying for more gun control or better mental health services in schools. Still others might choose to raise money to benefit a fund.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas students, for example, are fund-raising and organizing the March for our Lives. The school’s principal, Diane Wolk-Rogers, is taking action by requesting that people send real, signed letters to her students. She wants them to see that they’re not alone and there are still kind people in the world.

To increase your sense of agency, pursue whatever feels meaningful and gives you a sense of purpose. You’ll feel less powerless. If students or their parents are feeling similarly helpless, encourage them to do the same.

There’s not much else you can do. You can’t promise families that their children are 100 percent safe. You can update emergency plans, practice drills, stay updated on recommended security measures, and consult with experts and colleagues, but you can’t make any guarantees. It’s a tough balance to strike. You want to be empathetic and reassuring, but you also need to be transparent and admit you don’t have all the answers.

When you can’t readily solve or avoid a problem, you need to know how to conserve your energy and focus on what you can control.

When you can’t readily solve or avoid a problem, you need to know how to conserve your energy and focus on what you can control. That’s the secret to resilience. You can’t predict the future, but you can take care of yourself in the present so you’re able to rebound more quickly. Exercise, eat well, and get enough sleep.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and an international expert on resiliency, suggests taking “instant vacations.”

“It’s about knowing how to escape our emotions for a little bit so we can comfortably avoid intrusive thoughts and settle through things like mindfulness, reading a book, and other ways of getting away,” he says.

Make sure you express your emotions, whether that’s through crying, laughing, talking, praying, writing, or any other artistic expression. Choose whatever works for you.

Limit your news consumption, focus on the helpers doing good, and make time to connect with friends, family, and professional peers. For principals and superintendents, that might mean reaching out to other principals and superintendents. Keep in mind that a person can be traumatized by something they experience indirectly, so seek counseling if you need help moving forward.

Educator Phyllis L. Fagell answers questions about work when the school is your place of work. Fagell is the school counselor at the Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., and a licensed clinical professional counselor at Chrysalis Group, Inc., Bethesda, Md. In addition to Career Confidential, she regularly writes about parenting, counseling, and education for The Washington Post.

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at

One Comment

  • Peter Chapla

    A thoughtful article for sure. A great starting point for school leaders is to check out It empowers staff and students to have options for getting out of an active intruder incident based on the threat and it can be taught at age appropriate levels.

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