Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators
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The Writing on the Wall: Reflections on Uvalde and a Growing Mental Health Crisis in Our Schools

For decades, school violence has been a constant concern for families across the country. In May, the small town of Uvalde suffered the deadliest school shooting in Texas history. Educators everywhere share in the grief and horror of Uvalde, and Texans are returning to school with heavy hearts and anxious thoughts. 

Mounting Anxiety 

In the third year of an ongoing pandemic, students and teachers are still recovering from years of isolation, learning loss, and an unusual amount of stress. 

Cristela Rocha, a 25-year educator and president of Del Valle ATPE, says that we have all been significantly affected by recent events. 

“This year, administrators and staff don’t know what teachers are coming to the table with—what trauma they’ve had to deal with—because everybody’s different, especially with the pandemic,” Rocha says. “Some people have lost family members.” 

Rocha’s cousin, Eva Mireles, was tragically killed in the shooting at Robb Elementary. 

“This has been a difficult time for meand my family,” Rocha says. “So many things are impacting our mental well-being, and they just keep piling on.” 

Rocha says that for her family and others in Uvalde, grief is here to stay. 

“Thank you, State of Texas, for allocating mental health funding for students [in Uvalde] this year, but is it going to continue?” Rocha asks. “And for how long? It’s not something they’re going to get over right away. It can take many years to process all this trauma.” 

Elisabeth Hooker, LPC, is a behavioral health specialist who works closely with victims of trauma. She observes that the educators with whom she has worked have often broached the subject of school shootings when describing the anxieties associated with their profession. 

“Humans are not made to be in a constant hyper-vigilant state,” Hooker says. “When your heart rate and adrenaline spike, it takes about 12 to 24 hours for that adrenaline to return to your base level. If it spikes again, it will likely go higher, and the hormones racing through your bloodstream could cause you additional time to recover.” 

Hooker explains that the more episodes of heightened arousal with an adrenaline rush that you experience, the longer it takes for you to return to normal. She sees this often in military clients who have been in a hostile environment. 

“Their guard is always up,” Hooker says. “Their baseline actually shifts to match the adrenaline spikes. With sustained peaks that high, you’re looking at months, if not years, to recover.” 

Hooker acknowledges that educators and students can be affected in a similar way to war veterans. Adrenaline spikes from traumatic events over a period of time keep them from functioning at a typical baseline. 

“This is especially true with teenagers who already experience spikes in their hormones,” Hooker says. “Also, factor in the pressures of grades and SAT scores, and it’s not reasonable to expect them to perform well and be mentally healthy under these conditions.” 

Sensationalized and Desensitized 

Betty Gail Wood-Rush, Region 15 ATPE Director and Early ATPE President, is a high school special education math teacher. She observes that educators and students alike seem to have become numb to the steady stream of tragedies in the news. 

“On the other hand, it is something that niggles in the back of our brain, knowing that at any moment it could be us,” Wood-Rush says. “Something will happen at a school somewhere, and we are so heartbroken for those affected, but we think, ‘That would never happen here.’ Still, it causes some unseen anxiety in teachers and students alike.” 

Wood-Rush believes the non-stop media coverage of tragic events desensitizes many. Uvalde affected her differently, though. She was inspired to write an op-ed that was published in The Dallas Morning News about how she thought the state should respond. 

“It may have been that it occurred on my father’s 75th birthday,” Wood-Rush says. “It may have been that my youngest niece and nephew are the same age as the children murdered in their classrooms. It may have been that I realized Uvalde is so close to the border of my ATPE region—in my own backyard, so to speak.” 

Thanks in part to media coverage and the rise of social media over the past decade, school shootings have sadly felt more and more commonplace. And this coverage runs the entire spectrum from tasteful to shameful. 

“Every time I heard something about the shooting, it was like removing the Band-Aid over and over again—just as I’m healing,” Rocha says. “To me, it seems somewhat sensationalized. There needs to be a little bit more professionalism and awareness of the mental well-being of the victims.” 

At her cousin’s funeral, the family did not want media cameras and interviews. Luckily, the fire department and a group of motorcyclists helped block the view of cameras. 

“People from the media were nearby with their big lenses trying to take photos,” Rocha says. “I don’t think it was very respectful. They don’t need to be posting pictures of the family’s faces or images of the hearse. A lot of my family just stopped turning on the TV because they didn’t want to see any of that.” 

Preparing for the Worst 

In recent years, active shooter drills have become a regular occurrence in Texas schools. But they don’t all look the same, and not everyone agrees on their effectiveness. 

“In my district—and I think a lot of districts—we don’t do full blown lockdown drills with police involvement in order to minimize the trauma that it would cause students,” Wood-Rush says. “But this watered-down version may be causing complacency in that teachers and students don’t really believe it could ever happen to them.” 

Wood-Rush explains that she is not advocating for extreme active shooter exercises with police officers entering the school and someone shooting blanks. “Maybe we need to have grade-level discussions between administrators, teachers, staff, and students after our drills to see how they are feeling about them, especially after something as traumatic as the Uvalde massacre.” 

Hooker says that frequency matters and compares effective drills to household emergency plans that families regularly practice so that everyone knows what to do and where to go.  

“If you perform an active shooter drill every quarter, it isn’t often enough to train them well,” says Hooker. “But it does tack on to the stress and trauma they are already experiencing. If you are going to perform these drills, the safety that it provides needs to outweigh the risk of additional trauma and possible desensitization.” 

This approach would likely require more frequent training to ensure that both teachers and students know exactly what actions to take in a lockdown situation. 

“The kids don’t always take it very seriously,” Rocha says. “For example, when we have the active shooter drill, after a while, the kids get restless. So I start passing around a jar of lollipops, and everybody puts one in their mouth. It helps keep them from talking and makes them feel better.” 

Rocha argues that presentation makes all the difference: “I tell them, ‘If I am here, I’m going to protect you no matter what. But there will be days that I’m not here, and I’m sorry but I’m going to have to depend on you to be the leader.’ And they buy into it after a while. The students become the leaders of the classroom.” 

Rocha also encourages every educator to know their school’s safety protocols thoroughly. 

“I know them because I’ve been in the district for so long, but new staff don’t,”  Rocha says. “You say ‘handbook,’ and they don’t know where to find it. When there isn’t adequate explanation of the protocols, in emergencies, chaos ensues.” 

Manifestations of Trauma 

A mental health crisis isn’t always obvious to those around you. Many of us are practiced at masking symptoms, and both internal and external pressures can keep us from seeking help. 

“I’ve been teaching for 25 years, and in that time, I’ve seen and experienced a lot of trauma,” Rocha says. “I’ve had students who have had mental issues who self-harmed and attempted suicide. So I’ve learned to kind of sense when things feel off.” 

Although they might not always be easy to spot, there are common symptoms of trauma that you can look for in your students, colleagues, and yourself. 

“I look for someone becoming withdrawn or showing a lack of interest in things they used to like,” Wood-Rush says. “Maybe their appearance has changed, or they aren’t sleeping at night. I may even notice their personality change or their grades drop.” 

No matter what signs someone may exhibit after a harrowing experience, it helps to understand the nature of their condition. 

“I like to separate them into the ‘Big T’ and ‘Little T’ traumas,” Hooker says. “‘Big T’ traumas can lead to PTSD or other stress-related disorders and include sexual assaults, a really bad car wreck, prolonged bullying, active shootings, and other incidents of that magnitude. 

“With ‘Little T’ traumas, which include individual instances of bullying and fender benders, you may not get hurt, but you might still get nervous about getting in a car. It’s important to remember that it is still a trauma, and it is still valid. It just isn’t life-altering or happening over and over.” 

School shootings always have the potential for significant trauma. Even if you are not injured or don’t witness anything shocking, you likely heard shouting and gunshots, and the memories can haunt you for a long time. 

“Survivors tend to avoid situations that make them think about the event,” Hooker says. “So they might avoid school, they might avoid backpacks, whatever or wherever reminds them of their trauma. This can lead to a host of other problems for students and educators.” 

Giving Teachers What They Need 

Every district has its own systems in place to support students and staff, but these don’t always meet their needs. Now more than ever, parents and teachers are searching for resources and looking to schools for help. 

“I don’t know about larger schools, but normally I only see on-campus guidance counselors available,” says Wood-Rush. “There are very few mental health counselors in our schools, but when a trauma occurs, such as when we had a student at the middle school pass away unexpectedly, the district does bring in local mental health professionals and local youth ministers to talk with any student who needs it.” 

Wood-Rush acknowledges that her schools have never had counseling after a school shooting, but she did have one principal who held a school-wide assembly after the Santa Fe shootings to reassure students and staff that the district did have safety protocols in place in case they ever had a situation arise locally. 

“On the district’s part, they could provide mental health counselors on each campus,” Wood-Rush says. “I see ‘littles’ who have a difficult time some days being away from their parents and homes. Instead of having someone to work with them on how to adapt and overcome their fears, they are sent to In-School Suspension until they can calm down and get their work done. To me—as a special education behavior specialist—that is just inappropriate and wrong.” 

Another issue is that often teachers lack the necessary financial resources or insurance to obtain needed mental health services. 

“In some cases, a teacher’s insurance may cover a handful of sessions, and that may be adequate for a small issue,” Hooker says. “But we are talking about ‘Big T’ traumas, and those require specialized treatment. In cases of school shootings, long-term therapy will likely be necessary.” 

In response to the heightened fear and anxiety Texas educators are experiencing in the wake of Uvalde, growing demand for mental health services could prove challenging for districts to satisfy. 

“In general, teachers need more support and would benefit from a fund that is set up in advance—not after something happens,” Hooker says. “They should never have to choose between paying their bills and receiving therapy.” 

Looking for Solutions 

Fortunately, there are some programs schools can sign up for to help alleviate mental health care shortcomings. 

“There’s TCHATT, which is the Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine,” Hooker says. “It’s a program that’s designed to give free telemed services to students with mental health needs, and it is paid for by the state of Texas.” 

The TCHATT program could be a boon for so many school counselors who are stretched thin, but it is not an adequate substitute for hiring more mental health professionals in schools. And these positions would likely need to be permanent to be effective. 

“We have a big issue with the mental well-being of the children and the families after tragic events because they don’t need help just for today or next week,” Rocha says. “It’s going to be years for them to process their trauma.” 

Wood-Rush says educators need opportunities to talk to colleagues as sounding boards about how they are feeling and ways to overcome their stress and anxiety. 

“I know after Uvalde, a lot of teachers didn’t want to come back to school,” she says. “I think we will see the realities of that reflected in the retention of teachers with the start of this coming year.” 

With mounting stress and lack of resources, it is no wonder teacher retention has become such a huge issue. And though teachers are not trained (or compensated) as licensed therapists, they are expected to look for red flags and document what they observe. 

“Teachers are mandated reporters, so if they see something and it doesn’t sit with them well, they need to report it,” Hooker says. “It’s in good faith, so they don’t need to worry about any backlash. In fact, they may be in the unique position to notice something that others wouldn’t, and this could be the child’s best opportunity to receive the help they need before something even worse happens.” 

So how do schools build that sense of community where students trust the administrators and the adults on campus enough to share their feelings and report things they observe? 

“We say it all the time: If you see something, say something,” Rocha says. “If you build those positive relationships with them from the beginning, then they’re the ones are going to help us keep the school safe because they’re the ones that see it. They’re the ones that know who has what.”

Author: David George | Photos by Jennifer Tuten