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Bomb threats, school closings tighten student stress after Oxford shootings

boy looks worried
The trauma of Tuesday’s deadly shooting inside Oxford High School is raising stress for students across much of Michigan. (Shutterstock)

Update: The case against the parents of Oxford shooting suspect: Gun was Xmas present
December 3, 2021: Scores of Michigan schools close amid threats following Oxford shootings

School shutdowns, social media anger and bomb threats following a deadly school shooting in Oxford are heightening stress for students across much of Michigan — to levels some experts say exceed what they have seen in recent history.

“Kids operate as we all do: ‘This couldn’t happen here,’ Bob Vandepol, a national authority on incident response to tragedy at schools and in the workplace, told Bridge Michigan Thursday. Oxford, he said, “popped that bubble.”

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For younger children, especially, social media and an avalanche of news coverage close the miles too quickly, said Vandepol, who was on the ground in New York City after 9-11, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012 and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.

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“They see (a shooting) on TV and it’s, ‘That could be my school. That could be my cousin's school. That could be my sibling’s school.’ They're confronted with something that we wish they didn't have to be confronted with.”

On Thursday, even those farther from Tuesday’s bloodshed at Oxford High School were pulled deeper into what at times felt like an anxiety vortex, as school after school after school — at least 60 in all — closed due to what is believed to be copycat threats.

Some of those threats may have been jokes, according to Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, whose office is investigating the Oxford tragedy. Others have turned out to be "circular" claims or rumors already debunked but continuing to spread online.

 

Bouchard noted that responding to threats takes up a "great deal of resources" in agencies still trying to investigate the shooting. And, he added, in addressing the post-shooting culprits: “It is ridiculous you're inflaming the fears and passion of parents, teachers and the community in the midst of a real tragedy.”

Efforts to keep Michigan students safe also tightened the stranglehold of stress for many children miles away from the Oxford school district, much like what Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist who has helped families and children since the Oklahoma bombing in 1995, calls a “pebble in a pond.”

In a school shooting, the greatest trauma, of course, is incurred by loved ones of the dead and those who were injured. But the ripples extend to students and teachers in the buildings huddled behind barricaded doors, those in other buildings worried about children and colleagues, the entire community and — as Thursday’s events highlighted — communities near Oxford and beyond.

Add to this week’s trauma the strong undercurrents of stress from the past two years: pandemic stress, learning and social isolation, the Jan. 6 insurrection, a global social justice movement, and “hate that’s off the charts right now,” Gurwitch, a faculty member in the Duke University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Center for Child and Family Health, told Bridge. For students engulfed by social media, the collective stress can become unbearable, she said.

Some steps to help young people cope with tragedy:

  1. Give reassurance that your child is safe, but also validate their feelings, letting them know that it’s okay to feel scared or anxious.
  2. Help them find other outlets and hobbies as a way to work through their grief.
  3. Make time to talk. Let them guide how much information you share by the questions they ask. 
  4. Accommodate young children who may need other activities like drawing or playing to identify and express feelings.
  5. Keep explanations developmentally appropriate based upon age.
  6. Review safety procedures at school and at home, if it’s developmentally appropriate.
  7. Pay attention to their emotional state and ask for professional help when needed.
  8. Limit television and social media. Make space for them to step away from the stress.
  9. Maintain a normal routine. A regular schedule can help with healing and aid in managing grief.

Source: Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. David Rosenberg, Wayne State University

Even before the Tuesday school shooting — a “uniquely horrific” event — some young people were “just barely hanging on,” said David Rosenberg, chairman of psychiatry at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine. In 2019, he wrote about the fallout from mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida

“There were kids who are already anxious about going to school, because they might be infected (with COVID,)” said Vandepol, the crisis intervention specialist who is also executive director of the employee assistance program at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services in Grand Rapids. 

“There are kids who are anxious because some people wear masks, and some people don't. If you wear a mask, you're a chicken and if you don't, you're a jerk. 

Vandepol likened the stress to “when a hurricane spawns tornadoes.”

“A hurricane comes and causes flooding that lasts for months, and it spawns sudden impact events — tornadoes,” he said. “We have both. We have COVID that's lasted two years, that has caused the death of loved ones, layoffs, missing out on prom and football championships and all of those things.”

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On top of that: A shooting and the continued stress from school closings, bomb threats and parents taking out anger and frustration online.

Students who have survived school shootings may suffer flashbacks, nightmares, and “some (will) withdraw completely and socially, because they don't get the sense of closure and are left wondering why, how,” said Rosenberg of Wayne State.

“For too many survivors, particularly teenagers, their pain and suffering doesn't diminish,” he said. “They’ve lost that sense of control over their lives. They see how easily it can be taken away. These are the ones that continue to suffer from anxiety, agitation, numbness where they don't feel anything, they don’t allow themselves to feel anything.”

Others may have problems sleeping, eating, focusing and moderating emotions, or (suffer) headaches, stomach aches, and other aches and pains. And there’s a heightened sense of worry about another shooting , however infinitesimally small the chances.

Policy makers face big decisions, too. Chief among them: When to reopen schools, like Oxford High, struck by unimaginable terror and bloodshed? 

Much depends on the support that is in place and being able to accept that “normal” isn’t in the near future, said Gurwitch at Duke.

It may mean a better, more empathic understanding for temporarily slipping grades and students’ lack of focus. Something as simple as permitting students to use their phones to check in with their parents at certain times of the day can provide comfort and reassurance, Gurwitch said.

“One of the best ways that children do better .. is to  make sure they're connected,” she said.

Other resources for young people:

The Michigan Crisis and Access Line (MiCAL) in Oakland County at 844-44-MICAL (844-446-4225) 24/7 for free behavioral health crisis triage, support, resource information and referral to local services. 

Chat is also available through Michigan.gov/MiCAL.

To learn about speaking to your children about safety, visit HopkinsAllChildrens.org.

To learn about speaking to your children about violence, visit nasponline.org.

If you or a loved one is concerned about suicide, call 800-273-8255 or visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.

To help your children manage distress after a shooting, visit Apa.org.

Parents and students who do not already have a health provider can call 2-1-1 to find local resources that can meet their needs.

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