Liz McCormick Published

'Let Them Talk,' WVU Researcher Says Adults Must Help Kids To Process School Shootings

Members of the community gather at the City of Uvalde Town Square for a prayer vigil in the wake of a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.

It’s been two weeks since the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas that left 19 children and two teachers dead.

In this year alone, there have been 27 school shootings in the United States, according to Education Week. Last year, there were 34, which is the highest number of school shootings in a year since Education Week began its tracker in 2018.

During those four years, there have been no school shootings in West Virginia, according to Education Week.

Keith Zullig is a researcher and professor at the West Virginia University School of Public Health, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Education reporter Liz McCormick sat down with Zullig to talk about the impacts that school shootings have on our children – and what we can do to help them feel safe.

Listen to the extended version of this interview to hear more of the conversation.

Listen to the extended conversation with WVU Researcher Keith Zullig

The transcript below is from the original broadcast. It has been lightly edited for clarity. 

McCormick: I understand you have been investigating behavior change as a critical component in mitigating gun violence in U.S. schools. Tell us more about your research and how it relates to this recent tragedy in Texas.

Zullig: Thank you. I’m very interested in kids’ satisfaction with their schooling experiences and the climate of a school: the overall learning environment, how students treat one another, [and] how students feel about their interactions with their teachers.

What I’ve come to understand is that from a general standpoint, an outstanding school climate has a protective effect for lots of things. It can even blunt some of the negative effects of poverty that students may experience or some outside effects of the environments where they live.

So obviously, this has impacts in terms of how kids feel in school, in terms of a great environment for learning.

McCormick: What do you see in your research specifically in West Virginia? What sort of feeling do you get in terms of how our students feel? Do they feel safe in our West Virginia schools?

Zullig: I can’t say specifically how all students are feeling. But I do know that there are ripple effects from each of these shootings that, as a parent of a nine year old, just asking questions. So the day after the [Uvalde] shooting, for example, my wife and I had to sit our son down and just kind of process some of this with him to help him understand why they do some of the things they do at their school, in terms of active shooting drills.

[The drills] are pretty common across the country. Over 90 percent of schools have active shooting drills. Whether they’re evidence-based or not is another issue, but most schools do practice some form of intruder training.

McCormick: As a parent, what went through your mind when the shooting happened two weeks ago? You mentioned you have a nine year old, and many of the students who died in Texas were nine and 10 years old. How did you feel as a father?

Zullig: Well, there’s really no making sense of this kind of loss. But I can say you can’t be there for your children until you process your own feelings first. So calling a friend, talking to your partner, those things are really important for you to process.

Once you do that, you can remind your children of all the good people in the community, and in their school specifically, who is there to help protect them. You can review safety plans they may have covered in school, and at the same time, be attentive to really try to avoid any stigmatizing language around mental health.

The other part is to really listen to your children. Let them talk about the fears they may have. Creating a psychologically safe environment for your children to express their feelings is where they can truly be heard and reassured.

McCormick: That’s interesting. So being there for them, letting them talk it out with you helps them process all the feelings they might be going through.

Zullig: Yeah, and I think you have to process it yourself, though first, so you can actually be present for your children.

McCormick: Keith, you have described school shootings in the U.S. as a “persistent public health crisis” if left unaddressed. Can you talk more about what you mean by that?

Zullig: Yeah, of course. So let’s just say mass shootings, they really affect us all and can trigger Post Traumatic Stress Disorder amongst those directly exposed, and children are even more vulnerable than adults to any of these types of tragedies.

What I fear is the general threat of a school shooting, and the damage that it can have on mental health. So, for example, think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Safety and security are really fundamental to a child’s psychological development. So any sense of danger that children may perceive can disrupt that security and have long term consequences, not only from things like mood disorders, but also educational and economic trajectories long term.

McCormick: What happened in Uvalde, Texas and Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, to our children in the Mountain State, may seem far away. But what would you tell them?

Zullig: Yeah, it seems like they could be quite disparate, because we’re not necessarily there. But I can certainly say that there are ripple effects from these shootings. And I think it’s really important to remind folks that for every deadly shooting, there are many more acts of violence at schools that are less fatal, and therefore less publicized every year.

So estimates suggest there’s about 50,000 or so students every year that are directly exposed to gun violence at school in the United States. These children are deeply affected by what they endure. And the younger the kids are, the harder it is to recover. So if you want to contextualize this a little bit more, I want you to think about, in addition to these 50,000 or so students directly exposed to gun violence at school, estimates suggest that another four to eight million, in a normal year, go through a lockdown.

Lockdowns result because of a threat of a gun. So, if you think about this even more, out of about 42 million adolescents in this country – anywhere between 10 and 20 percent of our kids are impacted by lockdowns every year.

So that’s really eye popping, when you kind of look at the totality of the impact, whether it’s just from lockdowns, or the less publicized offense in terms of gun violence, or the direct shootings, it’s quite large.

McCormick: What are your biggest recommendations to help mitigate school shooting incidents in the future?

Zullig: What I think would be a logical first step that I think a lot of us can get around is, we currently have a federal law on the books that you cannot buy a handgun until you’re 21 years of age. We’ve done that with handguns. It’s established. Why can’t we do the same thing with buying a rifle and increase the age from 18 to 21, to match that of a handgun? That would remove some of the access issues amongst a particularly vulnerable age group.

You have to remember that people’s brains are not developed until their mid 20s. A lot of times, emotional issues that young people may feel, are at a time when they have access to weapons, and that is just a lethal mix.