Trauma Lessons Learned From a School Shooting

At the end of the school day on 14 February 2018, a former student entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSDHS) in Parkland, Florida, and committed a mass murder on the campus that forever changed numerous lives and an entire community. During the attack, 17 students and staff were killed and another 17 were injured. Approximately 3,500 students and staff were not physically injured, but most definitely affected by the active shooter attack.

The tragedy continues to be investigated, analyzed, and studied by a formal commissionafter action task forces, law enforcement, prosecutors, victim families, media, and numerous other parties. Upon release of their results and findings, lessons shall be learned and hopefully logically implemented for permanent and lasting changes to address the dozens of interdiction and mitigation opportunities that were missed in this tragedy to interrupt the next attack. Before the release of the formal reports and findings with recommendations, several lessons learned that may not directly appear in the findings are useful for consideration by first responders and others regarding response operations and mitigation of trauma in these complex incidents.

Defining Trauma & Its Triggers

Trauma has been defined in various ways, including but not limited to the following:

  • Merriam Webster defines trauma as “an injury to living tissue caused by an extrinsic agent”; “a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury”; or “an emotional upset.”
  • The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.”
  • The American Psychiatric Association defines post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as “a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.”
  • According to The New Social Worker, “retraumatization is a conscious or unconscious reminder of past trauma that results in a re-experiencing of the initial trauma event. It can be triggered by a situation, an attitude or expression, or by certain environments that replicate the dynamics of the original trauma.”

For the discussion in this article, the definition of trauma shall focus on psychological or emotional rather than physical, even though both were evidently present during the MSDHS active shooter attack.

Trauma may leave an imprint on the brain – such as a sight, sound, touch, smell, or taste – which could trigger a flashback. Flashback experiences may be brief and typically last only a few seconds, but the emotional after-effects may last for hours or longer. A review of the three lessons learned below demonstrates the importance of considering previous trauma and the rolls those actions, triggers, and flashbacks play in retraumatization.

Lesson 1 – Expanding Trauma During Search & Rescue

Through observations and comments made by MSDHS staff and students, it was repeatedly identified that the breaching of scores of classroom doors during the primary and secondary room clearing (searching) of the campus expanded the trauma experienced by the students and staff on that day. The use of breaching tools for the entry into rooms to clear the occupants for the primary search was a necessary task, especially when law enforcement officers could not locate keys and time was of the essence. It was unknown if additional attackers were part of the attack plan and hidden on campus or if others required medical attention.

The continued breaching of doors after the shooter was in custody for the secondary searches of each room created a substantial level of noise and confusion for the occupants of the rooms, especially those concealed within second level sheltering areas inside the rooms. The breaching was often confused with gunshots by some of the occupants or as the killer attempting to make entry, which resulted in further trauma for survivors after the primary event was well over.

A lesson was learned that schools should have additional master keys in a designated secure location for immediate first responder access. First responders should also accept master keys to permit a faster and quieter entry into the rooms to better permit rapid access for the element of surprise and reduce the impact on the room occupants, who do not always know who is making forced entry into the sheltering area during an emergency lockdown.

Trauma Lessons Learned From a School Shooting
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Lesson 2 – Triggering Flashbacks

The MSDHS campus reopened two weeks after the campus attack. The first day that the students returned to MSDHS was as emotionally charged and solemn as expected after the tremendous incident. To support the students, there was an outpouring of support from the public to include a very large presence of law enforcement, which was coordinated by a local police association, at the MSDHS front entry gates.

Regrettably, there was also a very large media presence with news helicopters and news trucks, which appeared extremely similar to the day of the attack. The presence of hundreds of law enforcement officers at the first day back at school, while handing out flowers, may not have had the positive effect on all of the returning students as intended by those well-intentioned first responders. The last time the students were on campus was during the active shooter attack on Valentine’s Day when flowers were also distributed and an enormous amount of law enforcement and media were present.

According to many students and staff members, the great intentions of the law enforcement supporters with the flowers triggered memories of that horrible day. They were fleeing the campus with flowers and stuffed animals in their hands as a tremendous amount of law enforcement was running in. On the day of the shooting as well as the first day back, the students and law enforcement crossed paths in the same location. Inadvertently, these actions reportedly resulted in flashbacks for some of the students and staff by providing triggers to relive the fateful day. A lesson was learned to better evaluate, consider, and discuss subsequent actions by first responders and others to reduce the likelihood of triggers for traumatic flashbacks.

Lesson 3 – Mitigating Triggers

After the attack, several of the 14 law enforcement agencies that provide school resource officers (sworn law enforcement officers) to the school district chose to openly carry long guns (rifles) on campus to enhance their preparedness. The possession of long guns on campus had never occurred before 14 February 2018 beyond the trunk of a police vehicle. This was a significant change in the law enforcement and educational cultures on the designated campuses with these school resource officers.

The display of the long guns on slings in the schools was received with mixed emotions throughout the county of approximately two million residents and 275,000 students. Many citizens appreciated the enhanced tactical preparedness, but some citizens did not want school resource officers to be armed with any firearms, even after the attack.

Beyond the massive cultural change with the presence of long guns on campuses, there was another serious impact – especially at MSDHS. The long guns carried by the officers were very similar in appearance to the weapon used by the killer. Even when the long guns were not openly carried and were concealed in a long gun case on the back of the officer, the case was similar to the case utilized by the killer on the day of the attack. There was a great concern that the existence of the long gun and case could trigger flashbacks for some at MSDHS and distress persons at other school locations.

To mitigate this unintended consequence, the law enforcement agencies located a long gun case that provided the appearance more of a tennis racket case rather than a classic long gun case. This new style of long gun case, available in several colors, was able to divert much of the attention away from the long gun being carried by the officer on the school campuses. The ease of access to the weapon also appeared to encourage the long guns to be carried in the case and concealed from student, staff, and public observation.

A lesson was learned that, through teamwork and discussions, an option was identified that addressed many of the concerns on both sides of the fence for carrying long guns on campus. The concealment from open view, of a long gun on a sling, may assist those for which it could be a trigger while permitting immediate access if required by the officer. The solution was functional and considerate.

Lessons Learned & Shared

The impact of the shooting shall be analyzed in many ways since the consequences were so vast, deep, and lasting. The lessons learned from this tragedy are numerous and continue to this day. These three lessons learned expand beyond standard tactical and operational concerns to include the perspective and consideration of trauma and retraumatization for future planning and preparedness.

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Robert C. Hutchinson

Robert C. Hutchinson, along-time contributor to Domestic Preparedness, is a director at Black Swans Consulting LLC. Before joining the private sector, he was the chief of police for the Broward County Public School, Special Investigative Unit. He retired after over 28 years as a federal agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of the Treasury. His positions included deputy director, assistant director, deputy special agent in charge, assistant special agent in charge, supervisory special agent, and special agent at offices in Florida, Washington DC (HQ), Maryland, and Texas.  He was the deputy director of his agency’s national emergency preparedness division and assistant director for its national firearms and tactical training division. His over 40 publications and many domestic and international presentations address the important need for cooperation, coordination, and collaboration between public health, emergency management, and law enforcement, especially in pandemic preparedness. He received his graduate degrees at the University of Delaware in public administration and Naval Postgraduate School in homeland security studies.

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