College campus shootings, along with other mass shootings, have gained much attention over the past two decades in the U.S. The Citizens Crime Commission of NYC examined events in which at least one person was intentionally shot (excluding the shooter) on the campus of a two- or four-year college, as well as incidents that occurred within two miles of a college campus resulting in a student being shot. They found 190 shooting incidents between the 2001-02 and 2015-16 school years. In these incidents, 437 people were shot, 167 killed and 270 wounded. Approximately 2.5 million students were directly or indirectly exposed to gun violence through their enrollment at the 142 colleges where the shootings occurred. When examining the changes in frequency over time, casualties during the last five school years represented a 241 percent increase compared to the casualties during the 2001-02 to 2005-06 school years.
Although the likelihood that an individual will be involved in an active shooter event is low, the increased frequency and visibility of these events, combined with the traumatic impact they can have, make campus shootings an important topic for psychologists. Unfortunately, there is not an abundance of research related to campus shootings due to a variety of methodological and funding challenges. The following studies help shed light on preparation for such events, forms of information seeking during the events, and potential ways to minimize the negative outcomes post-event.
In addition to reviewing the following research summaries, psychologists are encouraged to explore the literature more completely to determine what may be useful to them in practice.
Peterson, J., Sackrison, E., & Polland, A. (2015). Training students to respond to shootings on campus: Is it worth it? Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 2(2), 127-138. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tam0000042.
Despite the attention school shootings have gathered and the increasing pressure to take measures to ensure students’ safety, little research has been conducted on the effectiveness of trainings to protect students during active shooter situations or the impact on the well-being of student participants. In the following study, the authors investigate the impact of a school shooting training video on community college students using an online survey.
One-hundred ninety-seven undergraduate students randomly assigned to view either the popular 20-minute training video "Shots Fired: When Lightning Strikes" or the 30-minute control video Raising Adam Lanza (PBS documentary on the Newton shooter) first answered a series of questions regarding demographics, responded to an anxiety/depression screening, and completed questions about their fear and knowledge about campus shootings. After viewing one of the videos, participants answered follow-up questions assessing their fear and knowledge about shootings on campus.
Results indicated that prior to viewing the videos, students were minimally afraid of a shooting taking place on campus (not correlated with general feelings of anxiety) and felt somewhat prepared for a shooting, however, women reported feeling significantly more afraid and less prepared than men. Participants endorsed both security and psychosocial prevention programs as important with those who were most afraid that a shooting would occur rating the prevention programs to be of greatest importance. After watching the videos, overall students’ fear that a shooting would occur increased, yet they also felt more prepared to respond, and were more likely to rate both security and psychosocial prevention strategies as important. Analyses comparing the changes between the two groups pre- and post-video found that participants who watched the training video felt significantly more prepared to respond to an active shooter and were more likely to think that security prevention strategies were important. Additionally, among those who watched the training video, women’s fear levels increased significantly more than that of the men in the group and women were more likely to think that both forms of prevention strategies were important.
Jones, N., Thompson, R., Schetter, C., & Silver, R. (2017). Distress and rumor exposure on social media during a campus lockdown. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 114. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1708518114.
During times of crisis, such as during an active-shooter event, people seek out information from official channels. When that official information is lacking or not regularly updated, individuals may turn to unofficial channels like social media which are often not vetted for accuracy. Previous research has demonstrated that repeated indirect media-based exposure to collective traumas is associated with event-related distress. Unverified rumors or conflicting information may also contribute to distress levels. Using two studies the authors examined information-seeking during a university lockdown following an active-shooter event.
In study one, a survey link was emailed by the university to all enrolled students seven days following a two-hour campus lockdown due to an active shooter event during which updates from officials were infrequent. Nearly 4,000 respondents reported their distress about the lockdown, indicated the communication channels where they found information and updates, rated how much they trusted each communication channel used, and reported the overall extent to which they received conflicting information about the details of the lockdown across communication channels. Results showed that students who acquired critical updates via text messages from close others and via Twitter, but not traditional media (eg., radio, tv, online news), reported increased exposure to conflicting information and that those exposed to conflicting information reported greater acute stress. Higher acute stress was reported by heavy social media users who trusted social media for critical updates.
In study two, the authors examined the data of a subset of Twitter users who followed official university Twitter accounts over a five-hour period surrounding the active shooter event. User tweets were analyzed using timestamps and 15-minute time frame blocks and tagged if they contained a rumor (statement verified as clearly false after the event). The number of retweets a rumor had was used as a measure of the virality of the tweet. Additionally, tweets referencing the event and containing negative emotion words were tagged. These tagged tweets were then mapped on a timeline also containing markers for when official campus alerts were sent. Results demonstrated that the majority of the rumors were generated during a 90-minute gap in communication from campus officials. The analysis also found that rumor transmission tracked with community-level negative emotion suggesting that the virality of rumors may be implicated in the transmission of distress during a crisis.
Vieselmeyer, J., Holguin, J., & Mezulis, A. (2017). The role of resilience and gratitude in posttraumatic stress and growth following a campus shooting. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 9(1), 62-69. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000149.
Traumatic events including campus shootings are frequently associated with negative mental health outcomes such as posttraumatic stress symptoms (Su & Chen, 2015), however, some individuals report positive changes following trauma. This can include increases in relating to others or an enhanced appreciation for life (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2004; Kilmer et al., 2014). The authors of this study sought to understand how characteristics about trauma (e.g., physical and emotional proximity and posttraumatic stress symptoms) affect posttraumatic growth. They further explored what effects positive characteristics of resilience and gratitude would have in determining negative and positive mental health outcomes following a campus shooting at Seattle Pacific University (SPU).
Online surveys were responded to by 359 students, faculty and staff, demonstrating a response rate of around 10 percent, four months after the shooting at SPU. Participants were representative of the SPU population and, as such, were heavily female and Caucasian. The survey contained questions regarding demographics, trauma-related stress exposure, as well as items from the Brief Trauma Questionnaire, the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Checklist — Civilian, the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory, the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale and the Gratitude Questionnaire-6.
Results demonstrated a significant positive correlation between posttraumatic stress symptoms (PTS) and posttraumatic growth (PTG), and a significant negative correlation between PTS and resilience and between PTS and gratitude. Results also suggested that participants who experienced greater degrees of trauma exposure experienced greater PTS, and thus also experienced greater PTG. Finally, looking at the interactions and conditional effects, resilience significantly moderated the effect of trauma exposure on PTS such that at high levels of resilience, the relationship between trauma exposure and PTS was reduced. Gratitude significantly moderated the effect of PTS on PTG such that at high levels of gratitude, the relationship between PTS and PTG was strengthened. Taken as a whole, these results suggest that resilience may operate to prevent adverse outcomes following a traumatic event such as a campus shooting while gratitude may promote positive outcomes following the trauma.
While it is unlikely that an active shooter situation will occur on most college campuses, many administrations have rolled out training programs for their staff and students. Peterson, Sackrison and Polland’s study provides some evidence that students do in fact feel more prepared to respond to a school shooting after watching a training video, however, feeling more prepared may not be the same as actually being prepared. Additionally, students (especially women) displayed increased levels of fear that a shooting may occur after watching the videos which may be an unnecessary burden and may cause students to think that these events are more likely to happen than is realistic.
Better preparation for these events may include the following strategies:
- Proactive approaches such as theory-based psychosocial prevention programs that benefit all students and help foster a positive school environment.
- Instruction on critical thinking and reputable sources so that during times of situational stress, like during an active shooter event, appropriate scrutiny of content on social media is possible.
For campus administrators and emergency officials
- An emphasis on the importance of frequent updates during crisis events in order to reduce situational uncertainty to mitigate distress and rumors.
- Social media training for emergency events that includes instruction on how to counter the impact of rumors that arise by monitoring social media channels and encouraging individuals to keep a healthy skepticism about information coming from unofficial channels.
For mental health professionals, first responders, and educators
- Resilience training programs that may act as prevention and work to buffer the effects of posttraumatic stress symptoms when trauma does occur.
Additionally, posttraumatic interventions targeted at enhancing gratitude may help trauma exposed individuals adopt a new, more adaptive perspective regarding their experience, further leading to posttraumatic growth and positive outcomes in spite of trauma.