On May 25, 2018, there was a school shooting in Noblesville, Indiana.
The community has been traumatized by it in many ways.
Noblesville is frequently recognized as one of the ‘best places to live’ lists, and Hamilton County, where Noblesville is located, is frequently called one of the most desirable places to live in the country.
The following story is about an incident which occurred in a beautiful Friday afternoon.
It is also a story about some ways that being trauma informed can be integrated into some pretty tough situations.
May 25, 2018
On May 25, 2018, a 13 year old boy brought a .22 and a .45 caliber handgun, as well as a knife, to school.
On that day, his science class was taking a test. He asked his teacher if he could be excused to use the restroom. As might be expected, he was permitted to do this.
The child went to his locker and retrieved the two guns and the knife. He entered the classroom and began shooting at another 13 year old girl.
He shot with the hand that had the .22 calibar gun in it, which has a smaller bullet and causes less damage than a .45 caliber handgun.
The teacher, a former football player and current football coach, reacted quickly. He threw a basketball at the child and tackled him. The teacher sustained three bullet wounds, and the 13 year old girl was shot multiple times. No one else in the room was shot.
Many of the students in the room had their phones with them. Many of the students and teachers in other parts of the school outside of the room, contacted 911.
Several students have described the incident.
Many of the students who have described it were not in the room at the time of the shooting and did not think that the sounds they heard were gunshots.
The students heard the student who was tackled fall to the floor, and recognized that they heard a ‘thud’.
Nearby, in the same county and just down the road from the school, there was an emergency personnel training taking place.
In approximately three minutes, a nearby police squad came to the school. Since the school is trained in ALICE (Active Shooter Response Training), there was a plan in place for what to do if an active shooter came into the school.
The school personnel and the students, being skilled in this drill, followed the plan.
The students evacuated the school, and several were bused to the high school.
The student who fired the gun was living in a nearby, middle to upper class neighborhood.
As a licensed therapist who contracted at the time with a local practice, I had already been hired to work with students who attended Noblesville Schools.
At that time, I was just beginning to get a caseload. One student, who attended the school where the shooting occured, had been seen by me one time prior to that day.
9:05, Friday May 25th
When the news broke into television about the shooting, I walked into my husband’s home office.
‘hey, there’s an active shooter at Noblesville West’.
‘really??’, he asked.
‘Really, I wouldn’t lie about that. Come in here’.
We watched as the news crews showed the students leaving the school. At approximately 10:30am, I drove to the therapy office to see my 11:00am intake.
The people who were scheduled did not come to their appointment, but there were two therapists who were at the office. The billing coordinator was also at the office.
Both of the therapists had been scheduled to be at one of the schools that morning, but were unable to go due to the shooting.
The four of us watched the news coverage together while the events continued to unfold.
At the high school, there was another event occurring.
Most of the high school students had heard about the incident at the middle school right when it happened. One or two of them called in an additional threat stating that there was something to be feared at the high school.
At the time the high school students placed the phone call, there were many middle school children and parents inside the school. The high school went on ‘lockdown’ after the threats at the high school had been reported.
‘Lockdown’ means that no one can come in or go out of the building.
The SWAT team arrived at the high school. The members of the team went up and down the hallways to ensure the safety of the children, school personnel, and parents.
Sometimes they knocked on locked doors, or tried to open the doors to ensure that they were locked.
The students and the teachers inside these classrooms did not know with certainty that the SWAT team members were the ones knocking on and trying to open doors.
Multiple students and teachers have talked about the hours that they were inside the classrooms, unsure of their own personal safety.
Many use words that describe the giant guns that they witnessed the SWAT team carrying.
After a few hours, all school personnel, parents, and middle school students were released from the high school unharmed physically. The level of trauma the experienced while they waited was really high for most of the ones I have spoken with.
There were several counselors who were at the middle school over the course of the next week, which was scheduled to be the final week of school. There were also therapists stationed at the high school.
My role, as a therapist in the local private practice, was really up to me.
I helped by being available both at the high school and at the middle school, depending on where I was more needed.
I went to the high school early in the next week, and the middle school later in that same week.
I also went to the high school at the beginning of the next week as well, to meet with teachers who were feeling traumatized.
While there, I talked with several high school students. While I was at the middle school, I was available to talk with students and parents who came in wanting to talk about the trauma they experienced.
I was able to help a parent in determining if she needed counseling.
I talked with her about criteria she could think about to determine if she’d like mental health counseling. I say this to people who ask me if mental health therapy or medication will help them.
I state that if they find that they are able to function, meaning sleeping, going to work, and completing day to day tasks, without it, then they may be OK without going.
If, on the other hand, they find themself struggling with daily tasks like sleeping, going to work, and maintaining some emotional control and regulation throughout the day, then I recommend mental health therapy.
Since the incident had been 7 days prior to our conversation, we discussed that it was difficult to tell at this point how she felt.
Let’s back up a bit, and talk about trauma.
In 2012, I attended a Trauma Informed Care Train-the Trainer training conducted by the Federal Youth Service Bureau (FYSB). When my co-worker and I signed up, we were just learning about trauma. We were learning about how it can be used specific to therapy and being trauma informed.
I did not realize that the training we were enrolled in was Trauma Informed Care (TIC) and not Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Training (TF-CBT). Trauma was becoming a ‘buzz’ word at that time, and both trainings were being recommended for therapists and those dealing with people who have experienced trauma. I attended the TF-CBT training a few weeks later.
TF-CBT is a specific type of therapy intended for master’s level therapists. The training teaches the therapists a specific set of skills to use with participants who have experienced trauma.
It is an educational, evidence based training that has some very specific components to it.
During the TIC training, I was working at a nonprofit agency named Promising Futures of Central Indiana (Promising Futures). The agency celebrated its 40 year anniversary in the Spring of 2013.
When I attended the training, Promising Futures had a Pregnant and Parenting Teen program (PPT), which was partially funded by a Federal Maternal Group Home (MGH) grant. The MGH grant was part of a Transitional Living Program (TLP) Federal grant, which had been awarded in 2008. Promising Futures utilized the grant in a few different ways:
- Pregnant and Parenting Group Home, where the pregnant/parenting teens (up to age 19) lived with their children, which was staffed by employees who worked 8 hour shifts.
- Four Apartments, where the grant allowed Promising Futures to pay the rent and the utilities for the four women who occupied them.
- The women who lived in the apartments lived independently,. They had some specific rules about living there alone with their child (without any other people). All of the women, in each location, were offered both case management and mental health therapy. Some of the women participated in this more than others. Their participation was related to whether or not they were ready to make changes through talking with a therapist or using the case management services.
I was the Director of this program. My co-worker, who was a therapist with Promising Futures at the time, attended the training with me to increase our ability to work with the trauma the residents had experienced prior to moving into our apartments or home. We also planned (and did) train the residential staff to work on their focus on resiliencies and strengths.
What Does Being Trauma Informed Mean?
Being Trauma Informed means understanding that there could have been trauma and that it affects those who have experienced it.
Being trauma informed means focusing on things that go well, or resiliencies.
This includes assessing another’s ability to do well in times of stress, as well as using an approach which focuses on things that go well. Focusing on things that go well is referred to as a ‘strengths-based approach’.
The combination of focus on another’s ability to do well and their talents and skill is intended to help the women who were living in our locations (apartments and group home).
Part of being trauma informed means understanding that the brain changes when trauma occurs. At the training, the therapist and I learned about ACE, which is a study which assesses how much trauma there has been and stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. https://web.archive.org/web/20151227092712/http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html
No one is immune to the impact of trauma. Trauma affects the individual, families, and communities by disrupting healthy development, adversely affecting relationships, and contributing to mental health issues including substance abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse. Everyone pays the price when a community produces multi-generations of people with untreated trauma by an increase in crime, loss of wages, and threat to the stability of the family.
The brain has two hemispheres: the right side and the left side. The right side has more emotional components, and the left side is more pragmatic, logical, etc.
There is also a part of the brain which carries information between the two sides. That part of the brain is called the corpus callosum. With trauma, the corpus callosum, or the carrier, is changed.
The part of the brain which allows information to cross between the two sides looks different on a brain scan on someone who has experienced trauma than it does on someone who has experienced less trauma.
More About Trauma…..Primary and Secondary
Being Trauma Informed means understanding that there has been trauma, or that there could have been trauma, and that it affects those who have experienced it.
Being trauma informed means focusing on other people’s resiliencies and helping them learn to recognize their strengths and resiliencies.
Being Trauma Informed also includes focusing on other people’s strengths to help them when they experience trauma.
Feelings associated with hearing about traumatic events are referred to as ‘Secondary trauma’.
As an example, I experienced Secondary Trauma when I met with a client and she vividly described the spousal abuse she experienced.
Later, I met her husband who stated that 90% of families have spousal abuse. This is clearly not true, but for me, that Secondary Trauma manifested in dreams I had about the spousal abuse my client had described, and some pretty intense feelings toward her abuser.
Here’s another quote:
Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Each year more than 10 million children in the United States endure the trauma of abuse, violence, natural disasters, and other adverse events. These experiences can give rise to significant emotional and behavioral problems that can profoundly disrupt the children’s lives and bring them in contact with child-serving professionals. For therapists, child welfare workers, case managers, and other helping professionals involved in the care of traumatized children and their families, the essential act of listening to trauma stories may take an emotional toll that compromises professional functioning and diminishes quality of life. Individual and supervisory awareness of the effects of this indirect trauma exposure is a basic part of protecting the health of the worker and ensuring that children consistently receive the best possible care from those who are committed to helping them.
Secondary Trauma can really affect helpers, as we, as therapists or people in the helping profession, hear about traumatic events for a living.
Primary Trauma is trauma that a person experiences first hand . Primary trauma, in this instance, was the trauma experienced while watching television first at home, and then again at the office with the two other therapists and the billing coordinator.
People who have experienced trauma have trauma responses.
A Trauma Responses is indicated when those who have experienced trauma have very strong responses to stimuli.
An example of Trauma Response is residents in residential homes who have a very strong response to lights being turned on to wake them from sleeping.
For some people, turning on the lights can trigger a traumatic response, as it may remind them of a time they were sleeping, and woken from a sleep abruptly.
An example is a child who was removed from their custodial parent while they had been sleeping.
Another one is a child who was abused after they had fallen asleep.
There is also the ‘burnt toast’ example: A child who smells something burning who has not been through a traumatic event may associate a burning smell with burning toast, a frequent smell if you are in the habit of burning toast. A child whose trauma history includes a fire may associate the smell of burning with their trauma, thus triggering a trauma response.
In teenagers, traumatic responses frequently look like disobedience, un-cooperativeness, and sometimes violence.
A teen who is woken up from a sleep with a light being turned on may wake up yelling or may start swinging prior to fully waking.
A teen with a fire in their trauma history may become terrified when they smell something burning, or they may become surly.
Teens tend to be surly anyway, so being trauma informed becomes more and more important for those who work with adolescents.
For success in working with youth in residential facilities, we want to motivate the youth to do what the youth need to do, instead of punishing them for not doing what they are supposed to do.
We want to help them be motivated to do what they are permitted to do.
The consequence for not behaving in ways we want to encourage needs to be related to motivating the youth to do what the youth interprets as somehting they need to do. We want to avoid a consequence that seems unrelated to the youth.
One example of helping teens recognize and receive natural consequences involves a teen who had vandalized a wall.
When we determine the appropriate consequences for vandalism, we think about how to help the youth make better choices in the future, and how to help the youth identify what triggered them to behave in that way.
Helping youth learn to identify what triggers the feelings of sadness and anger helps them learn to control the way they act when they are having feelings for anger or sadness.
These feelings can be which can be related to their previous trauma.
Connecting it all...along with some definitions
When I think about being Trauma Informed regarding the shooting incident at Noblesville schools, I think of several different factors.
I think about the tremendous number of students and faculty who were actually experiencing the trauma first hand, or those who experienced Primary Trauma. I think about the class of students who saw their teacher shot, and about the hundreds of students, teachers, and parents huddling in classrooms while the SWAT team made sure that the high school was safe.
I think about the family and community members who watched the events unfold live on television. The therapists who went to the school following the incident. The crisis therapists who were available over the weekend following the shooting.
The hospital personnel who treated the teacher and the student who were shot.
I think about the child who chose to bring weapons to school that day. Two guns and a knife, to be specific. I think about his underdeveloped, 13 year old brain. I wonder what traumas he may have experienced prior to this day. I think about his parents. I imagine the pain they experienced when learning that their child had shot a student and a teacher, and the pain they must be experiencing still today.
The trauma that the Noblesville community experienced on that day continues today. Several teachers I spoke with last spring were unsure if they were going to come back to school this year. There are guidance counselors who are helping students determine paths to be able to continue to attend Noblesville schools. Personally, I have determined that the trauma I experienced does not coincide with working with students inside school buildings.
Noblesville schools as a district continues to make efforts to improve safety.
I want to switch topics for a second and talk about self-fulfilling prophecy.
Self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when someone is so afraid of something happening that they do things that create it. In other words: (Self-fulfilling-prophecy)
A self-fulfilling prophecy refers to a belief or expectation that an individual holds about a future event that manifests because the individual holds it (Good Therapy, 2015).
One of my theories about the increase in school shootings relates to self-fulfilling prophesy. In order to enter a school in the Noblesville school district, a person needs to press a doorbell that is outside the school building. Prior to this school year, the button was inside the vestibule, allowing the person pressing the button to be inside, out of the elements.
One change the district has made is to place these buttons to the outside of the building. Another improved safety measure that is being done at Noblesville West (the middle school where the child and teacher were shot) is to require non-school personnel with badges to also show their ID when they enter the school. A person who works in the school, but not for the school, may be required to also show their ID as well as their badge to enter a building.
The administrative person allows everyone into the school after the school day starts. This means that she must interrupt herself from other tasks (including checking ID’s of people she just let into the building) to see the badge or talk with the person to inquire about what is requiring them to be in the building at that time.
At the middle school where the shooting occurred, this person sits several steps from the doors where people are allowed in, so she must focus on them to make sure they come to her to get into the building. It is a large, beautiful atrium which was built prior to the epidemic of school shootings and increases in safety.
For me, once I entered the building, I then took the several steps to her desk and then showed my ID, where she gave me a printed copy of a picture of myself.
For some, all of these steps increase their feeling of perceived safety. If it is difficult for me to get into the building, for example, then think about how difficult it would be for a would-be shooter to get into the building.
For me, each step in that process was a reminder of the school shooting that occurred last spring. The shooting that occurred at the hands of a student, who most certainly was allowed into the building and would have been despite any of these precautions.
For me, these steps became a frustration that hindered my ability to provide therapy to help students reduce their anxiety, particularly the sensitive students who also can’t seem to forget about the shooting.
For me, these steps do not reassure me. They reinforce the fact that the safety measures are perceived as needed, and I am reminded that such safety measures would not have prevented the shooting last May.
I have veered from writing about self-fulfilling prophecy, so I will return there now. As part of my role as Director for both Promising Futures and Children’s Bureau, I attended a meeting Noblesville schools holds called ‘Safe Schools’.
This quarterly meeting addresses school safety. I began attending that meeting in 2011. At that time, most of the meeting centered around drug use, and how to reduce drug use among students who attend the school.
I’m not sure when, but at some point (probably 2012) the meetings shifted from working to decrease drug use, to meetings about avoiding an active shooter and what to do when/if that happened.
At that time, my perception was that each student in the school district now thinks about active shooters. Each student is put through drills on what to do if there is an active shooter. Each teacher/administrator/employee of the school is aware of the plan for how to stay safe if an active shooter were to come to enter the building.
I have to admit, at that time I thought the chances of Noblesville schools having an active shooter were incredibly low. I wrote a paper that addressed this in 2016. I talked about how we need to teach children not to shoot and to work on their anger issues, instead of focusing so much energy on teaching children how to survive it. Teaching children to run as far and fast as they can to get as far away from the school seemed traumatizing even then.
For some, this knowledge of what to do in a crisis situation is reassuring. If a crisis happens, they are able to have muscle memory from their practiced drills, and feel more safe prior to and during the crisis. I have heard people talk about how the plan helped keep the physical injuries to two people.
My question involves the trauma that the people I mentioned earlier experience. Self-fulfilling prophecy relates to the trauma as it relates to the school shooting in that active shooters drills, and the potential of a person bringing a weapon into a school have been brought to the forefront of the minds of people associated with the schools. Once this idea is in the minds of the students and the teachers, it is a possibility.
School shootings are without question a national issue. My brother is a teacher, and has quoted the statistics to me before. I believe that in the 2017–2018 school year, there was a shooting every 23 days. He is able to talk about the single point of entry and safety issues, as he has lived the changes as they have taken place in his school.
I remember Columbine. I remember watching the students leave the school. I read the non-fiction book Columbine, and also multiple fictional accounts. I remember where I was when I heard about Parkland in Florida and the Sandy Hook shooting. I have been able to hear one of the students who attended school in Littleton, Colorado, (where Columbine is located) who is now a national speaker, talk about her experiences as they relate to the trauma she experienced. I actually have a college friend who became a firefighter in Littleton CO not long after the school shooting that occurred there. I have had an interest in this issue since the 90’s, so it would seem that my trauma related reaction to the shooting in the town in which I live would not come as a surprise.
A Review of Terms
So, summing up the topics I’ve covered so far,
Trauma Informed Care is a concept about recognizing the effects of trauma and treating those who have or may have experienced trauma with sensitivity. Being trauma informed means recognizing that there are real, chemical brain changes that occur when a person has experienced trauma. Being trauma informed also includes recognizing that people tend to perform best when we focus on their resiliencies, instead of their shortcomings.
Trauma focused-cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) is a specific, evidence based type of therapy utilized by master’s level therapists who have completed a very specific training related to working through traumatic issues in therapy.
Self-fulfilling prophecy is a concept where the things a person is working so hard to avoid become the very situations that they create. An example of this is the school shootings, and why the numbers for them have increased so much. By preparing all teachers, administrators, and students for a school shooting, the concept is at the forefront of the students minds, the teachers minds, and on the minds of anyone who sends their child to school.
Another concept I have discussed is both Primary and Secondary Trauma. Primary trauma occurs when a person experiences the trauma first hand. They may be the ones who experience the trauma, or they may even watch the trauma occur on television, but they are there when the trauma occurs in some way. Secondary trauma occurs when a person is told about the trauma. Secondary trauma is very common among therapists, as their role is to listen to the trauma narrative of their clients and to help them process how to work through it.
Moving Forward…..Looking at some reasons for why the shootings occur where they do
Let’s begin to think about some ideas to help prevent these very real traumas from occurring as often in the future. I certainly do not have all of the answers, but I think we want to start a conversation among those who may have some very concrete ideas of how to work to prevent some primary trauma among those affiliated with school systems.
If we start with what we know about primary and secondary trauma, we can be trauma-informed both within the school system and in our local communities.
Due to the trauma those affiliated with the school experienced, many residents of the Noblesville community experienced acute trauma.
Another issue to think about as it relates to trauma is anxiety. With generalized anxiety, there is usually some free floating anxiety looking for a place to land. A lot of school age children who have anxiety perform well at school. In a higher income area such as Hamilton County in Indiana, where Noblesville is located, there may be an overrepresentation of people who have a higher baseline of anxiety. Parents who choose to live in the town of Noblesville may be more likely to have increased anxiety, and may also have children who have higher anxiety. When a traumatic event such as a school shooting occurs, and anxiety levels can go through the roof.
The third issue which can occur from a traumatic event is increased panic which can become panic attacks. People who experience Panic Attacks experience symptoms such as increased heart rate, rapid speech, may have chest pain, and other responses which are part of the limbic system. This increase in feelings of panic can lead to what can be called Panic Disorder. The term Panic Disorder describes a set of symptoms which occur when a person has such of fear of increased panic symptoms that they can begin avoiding places where they could have these increased panic symptoms. In a more extreme demonstration of a response, some individuals may eventually feel unable to leave their home or drive a cat
Trauma plays an important role in each of these issues. In addition, many parents and students are accepting their own vulnerability and acknowledging that mental health is actually a part of health, and that counseling is beneficial to themselves and to their children. More and more, I believe we are learning that mental and physical health cannot be separated.
Protective Factors and Focusing on the Positive
Research has shown that focusing on resiliencies, or positive responses in times of stress, increases positive responses. Improved protective factors reduce the incidence of abuse and neglect.
Protective factors are part of an evidence based framework to that people working with children, families, and people in the community can utilize in many settings.
The Protective Factor framework is a training provided through Strengthening Families. The framework includes training to help child care workers, individuals who work in child welfare, and those who work with families involved in the child welfare system, and have been determined to be beneficial in predicting success in children and families.
The five protective factors are: Parental Resilience, Concrete Support in times of need, Social and Emotional development of children, Social Connections, and Knowledge of Parenting and Childhood development. https://www.cssp.org/young-children-their-families/strengtheningfamilies
Looking to the Future: How do we do it? Some ideas:
As we think about ways to reduce school shootings and how we teach our children to and parents to remain safe while also helping them feel safe, we need to start to think differently, and to come up with some different ideas to teach all of us how to feel and remain safe. Some ideas are:
Below are some ideas of different ways to increase trust and focus on safety instead of feelings of being unsafe. I’ve listed some ideas below:
- What if mental health professionals were part of the planning for increased safety for schools? What if a mental health professional was on the planning committee, and spoke to the needs of the sensitive child or adult who is reminded of their fear when increased safety measures that are put into place?
- What if the fact that those increased safety measure increase fears for some people is taken into account when deciding what changes need to happen?
- What if each mental health professional employed by the school was responsible for a certain number of students, and available in the school for students who need to talk with a safe person?
- What if, instead of focusing on keeping out intruders, we focused on keeping in resilient adults who protect children?
- What if each school had a greeter similar to the one at Wal-Mart, who said hello and attempted to anticipate the needs of the person visiting the school as they arrived? This person could work in conjunction with the employed administrative person I spoke of earlier. Many communities have volunteers who may embrace this opportunity, whether they are retired individuals or parents who have availability during the school day.
- What if, instead of teaching children to run as fast as they can, we taught children to understand the importance of including each other in conversations and activities?
- What if, instead of keeping all of the doors locked at the school, both internally and externally, we focused on unlocking our predisposition to fearing the unknown and differences?
- What if resiliency training was as important as the ALICE drill? What if focusing on the children who come through the doors each day to learn was the focus, and the adults who are there to volunteer or drop off things their children forgot, or medical and mental health professionals who arrive throughout the school day, were welcomed with open arms instead of screened?
This is not the direction that school districts have gone so far. I would venture to say that the ways to reduce school shootings tried so far are not being effective. The changes that have been made at this point seem to be increasing the number of school shootings, instead of decreasing them.
I asked some people close to me about their ideas for what they think would be helpful to help increase the feelings of being safe among the students, teachers, and community members.
- One idea is to have enough mental health counselors at the schools to meet the needs of each child. This is a difficult number to predict, and would represent a large shift in culture for prioritizing how funds are spent in each school district.
- One idea includes teaching bullying techniques from a purchased, evidenced based curriculum from a very young age. The curriculum may be expensive, so funds would need to be allocated by the school in order to have them to teach children from a very young age. This curriculum can also include issues regarding self esteem, and who to turn to if they need help or if someone else needs help. Being evidence based means it has been proven to work, which would help the students receive a quality curriculum. Schools could embrace evidence based curriculum and make it part of the school day. These programs already exist, but are expensive and also require funds to purchase.
- Including parents is an additional avenue. As both a parent and a professional in the Noblesville school system, I have seen this from different perspectives. Embracing parent participation, including really thinking about how parents are greeted and allowed into the school building is something to think about.
- How can parents feel more included? How can parents of middle school and high school age children be encouraged to be a part of their child’s educational experience, while respecting the developmental stage their children are experiencing?
- How can parents focus as much on emotional awareness and empathy as they do on academic success? How can we all focus on kindness being equally important to verbal, math, and athletic skill and prowess?
I’m certainly going to continue thinking about this, and I hope that you do too. I hope that we can come together to reverse the trend in our schools.