Students’ Mental Health Suffers Amid School Violence Threats

by Rylee Byers

Article by Rylee Byers. Cover Photo by Amy Martinez-Reynolds

Parents send their kids to school with the expectation that their children will be safe. Now that everyday environment is being jeopardized with bomb and shooter threats. 

Drill requirements have become so frequent, students can lose comprehension of the danger they’re being prepared for. 

“I’m not really worried about them anymore. It’s a once-a-month occurrence at this point. We just want to know what’s happening. But it’s not scary anymore, which is probably not good because the second it’s real it won’t be good for us,” Coweta High School ninth-grader Jewel Lenard said. 

Gun violence in American schools has become more prevalent in the past two decades, research shows, leading to increased pressure on school administrators to prepare for active- shooter situations through drills. However, the impact of these drills on the well-being of school communities is poorly understood and little-researched. 

A Georgia Institute of Technology study found that school shooter drills raised anxiety, stress and depression by 39% to 42% among students and staff. A separate analysis of 54 million social media posts from 114 schools across 33 states confirmed this while also revealing increased civic engagement following the drills.

Lenard described an occurrence that many current students likely can recognize. An announcement comes over the intercom, and the teacher instructs students to move to a corner. Then lights are turned off and blinds are closed. Once everything is secure, they wait for the drill to conclude. 

For the most part, Lenard said, she and her friends remain calm during the drills and feel safer being prepared, regardless of the drills’ frequency. But, she said, sometimes there’s a problem in clearly communicating with teachers whether a safety drill is real or not, and this uncertainty can make students worried about how credible the drills are.  

But while students grasp the importance of the drills and need to conduct them, there’s scant data on how many bomb threats schools face. 

A 2005 study using FBI data found that 5% of bomb threats in 1999 were targeted at schools. 

An OU Health forensic psychiatrist emphasized the lack of research into drills’ effects on mental health and the need for families to recognize the accumulated effect on students’ well-being of drills and threats.

“I am responding to the threats. It can be a mix of emotions, anxiety, safety worries but also hurt, grief, and anger,” said Dr. Britta K. Ostermeyer, who chairs the OU Health Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health. “Regarding drills, there is little information and it is poorly understood. There is a small study saying that there can be anxiety and distress after drills. Also, this is me saying, those who survived a previous school shooting could have post- traumatic feelings reactivated.”

Bomb incidents or threats can have a major impact on victims because they carry the potential for harm and disruption. Even though a lot of these threats turn out to be pranks, it’s crucial to treat each one seriously. 

“I understand the fear. But, remember, kids are a sponge. If we’re projecting predominately fear, they’re going to absorb all that. And they’re going to feel our fear. It’s a fearful topic, I get that. But we need to address it and really empower our teachers, empower our students. They will become sharper,” Dr. Gregory Jantz, the founder of The Center, A Place for Hope, told Seattle television station KIRO-TV. 

Studies examining different types of threats suggest that factors such as offender characteristics, family background and school climate play a role. Comprehending the factors behind school bomb threats and shootings is essential for creating effective strategies and responses.

Ostermeyer said teachers need to be familiar with their students and be able to recognize any shifts in behavior, academic performance or emotional well-being, including signs of anxiety, depression or distress.

“If students have anxiety or distress that is bothering and interfering with everyday activities, then seek professional mental health services. Parents might first seek help from their pediatrician who can refer to a counselor or psychiatrist, if needed,” she said.

Lenard agreed. 

“Talking to someone who can relate to you and what you’re going through can be helpful,” she said. 

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