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Perceptions of School Counselors Surviving a School Shooting.

The fire alarm goes off in a local middle school. In accordance with the fire alarm drill protocol, students and faculty exit the building. Two current students have positioned themselves at a distance and begin unloading a barrage of gunshots in the direction of the students and faculty. Not all survive and many are wounded. Eventually, the shooters are captured, but the school counselors who experienced this event are left asking themselves: What is my role in this crisis?

The American School Counselor Association's (ASCA) position statement on school counselors and safe schools and crisis response (2013), ASCA Ethical Standards (2016), and the ASCA National Model (2012) offer expectations, standards, and competencies regarding the critical significance of school counselors in crisis situations. The ASCA position statement on school crisis (2013) suggests prevention and preparedness practices for school counselors that include activities such as "individual and group counseling" and "advocacy for student safety" (p. 49). The ASCA Ethical Standards (ASCA, 2016) makes clear that school counselors work to address "serious and foreseeable harm" (p. 2).

School counselors learn crisis counseling standards and expectations in graduate school from counselor educators and supervisors (Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, 2016). However, according to Watkins Van Asselt, Soli, and Berry (2016), counselor educators and supervisors often do not feel adequate to teach on crisis topics due to lack of research, training, and resources. Although Watkins Van Asselt et al.'s (2016) study included a small number of participants, other studies support the notion that many school counselors leave their education programs feeling unprepared to handle crises. For instance, in 2012, Wachter Morris and Barrio Minton conducted a study showing that new counselors felt that the crisis training they had received in graduate school was minimal in comparison to real-life expectations. Furthermore, in a study by Allen et al. (2002) with more than 235 school counselors, only 18% felt well prepared or very well prepared to deal with a crisis. More recently, Sawyer, Peters, and Willis (2013) found that after taking a crisis course that included researched theory and practice, beginning school counselors perceived that self-efficacy increased in crisis counseling. It is safe to say that preparing school counselors to conduct crisis counseling is important but also challenging.

Crisis counseling models have shown some effectiveness for training counselors. Some models are based on the idea advocated by Sawyer et al. (2013) that well-researched theory and evidence-based practice serve as ideal training models for school counselors. For instance, D'Andrea (2004) provided school-based violence training for school counselors and staff at the University of Hawaii, using the Hawaii School-Based Violence Prevention Training (HSBVPT) model (Daniels, Arredondo, & D'Andrea, 1999). D'Andrea's (2004) findings indicated that the training was effective, but it was not focused solely on the role of the school counselor; it included only eight school counseling participants among more than 60 teachers. The training also focused more on preventing a violent crisis than responding to one.

Another research-informed model is the preparation, action, recovery (PAR) conceptual framework developed by McAdams and Keener (2008). These authors combined phase progression, coordination of mental health interventions, and structured support to create a conceptual framework for crisis survivors in general. Unlike the HSBVPT model, the PAR model is more focused on responding to a crisis than preventing one. However, the framework is not specific to the role of the school counselor.

The Prevent, Reaffirm, Evaluate, Provide and Respond, Examine model is another research-informed model (Brock et al., 2009). Three basic assumptions form the basis of this model: (a) Prevention is critical, (b) skill sets are most effective in a multidisciplinary approach, and (c) schools are unique. This model is another that does not specifically refer to the role of school counselors; rather, it serves as a foundation to train school-based mental health professionals for general crisis situations.

The crisis literature, theories, practices, and models are meaningful for preventing and responding to violent crises in general, but research focused solely on the experiences of school counselors to inform best practices during and after a school shooting is scarce. Undoubtedly, school counselors are an essential component in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from a school shooting, yet little research supports their necessity throughout such a tragedy (A. H. Fein, Carlisle, & Issacson, 2008).

Federal entities have recognized the importance of school counselors in responding to school shootings and provided general guidelines for schools within the last decade. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Education (U.S. DOE) developed the Practical Information on Crisis Planning guide to help schools create postshooting crisis plans. The plan urged school crisis planners to focus on mitigation/prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery. The authors cautioned leaders to tailor their plans to fit their local and state laws and their community needs. The authors also recommended that school counselors be members of crisis planning teams and share in the prevention role, assisting school stakeholders with assessing the emotional toil of crisis survivors and coordinating relevant local resources.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice (U.S. DOJ) Bureau of Justice Assistance and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) developed the second edition of the Guide for Preventing and Responding to School Violence. The purpose of the document was to aid school crisis leaders in safety planning; however, the developers of the document asserted that the guide is not appropriate for every school. Among the guidelines for counseling services were addressing the emotional challenges of crisis survivors throughout the event, such as coping with anger, mourning, grief, and sadness, and addressing the impact on the social/emotional needs of students. Further recommendations for school counselors included keeping in contact with the crisis manager, being available, establishing a self-referral process, and providing individual and group counseling. Overall, the document focused on prevention, planning, training, responding, and managing the aftermath of such a tragedy. In 2013, in response to President Obama's call for better national preparedness for crises such as school shootings, the U.S. DOE Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Office of State and Healthy Students, formulated the Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans. This took the place of previous guides and focused on prevention and protection, mitigation, response, and recovery. According to the guide, expectations of school counselors include fostering a positive school atmosphere and responding in developmentally appropriate ways to students' conduct to "de-escalate" negative behavior that may lead to "a threat to school safety" (p. 54). The authors of the guide also indicated that school counselors should be members of a threat assessment team and be ready and available to assist crisis survivors in the immediate aftermath of such a situation.

In 2018, the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) developed Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model: An Operational Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence. This guide encourages schools to develop a comprehensive violence prevention plan that is centered on the following steps: "forming a multidisciplinary threat assessment team, establishing central reporting mechanisms, identifying behaviors of concern, defining the threshold for law enforcement intervention, identifying risk management strategies, promoting safe school climates, and providing training to stakeholders" (p. 2). The authors encourage school counselors to become members of threat assessment teams, establish working relationships with law enforcement, and attend relevant trainings. According to its authors, the guide is only a "starting point" and "will need to be customized to the specific needs of your school" (NTAC, 2018, p. 2). Regarding postshooting plans, a review of the literature led Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski, and Jimerson (2010) to conclude that although guidelines are helpful, research regarding emergency plans' effectiveness in specifically guiding counselors throughout such a crisis is scarce.

A review of the literature found only two studies that directly examined school counselors in the context of gun violence. Daniels et al. (2007) investigated the experience of a high school counselor who lived through a hostage situation. A key finding in their qualitative study was that school counselors should "receive training to actively intervene to resolve hostage incidents and in handling the aftermath" of such a crisis (p. 488). In another qualitative study, A. H. Fein (2001) investigated four school shootings. The study included interviewing former administrators and counselors. The administrators interviewed considered school counselors to be critical leaders in responding to school shootings. A. H. Fein's (2001) findings resulted in four general themes or lessons for school counselors: (a) be prepared to lead, (b) serving two organizations creates role conflict, (c) employ subtle counseling, and (d) minister also to thyself, being keenly aware of secondary trauma (A. H. Fein et al., 2008). Although Daniels et al.'s (2007) case study and A. H. Fein, Carlisle, and Issacson's (2008) investigation provide context for the role of school counselors in responding to a school shooting, more research is needed to explore the actual actions and decisions school counselors make throughout this type of crisis. The purpose of the current study was to explore the perceived decisions and expertise of school counselors in responding to a school shooting and to better define the role of the school counselor in such a crisis. To achieve this goal, I employed a qualitative, single-case study design (Yin, 2011, 2014).



My background was unique to this research experience. At the time of the study, I had more than 5 years of experience as a secondary education teacher and more than 2 years of experience as a prekindergarten through 12th-grade school counselor. As a school counselor, I gained experience working on school crisis plans. I completed a graduate-level course in crisis counseling as a doctoral student and was invited as a guest lecturer to address master's-level students regarding school crisis and crisis plans. During my internship, I attended regional and district-wide school shooting crisis training. Eventually, school crisis--specifically, school shootings--became a serious research interest. After reviewing the literature, I determined that more research was needed regarding the school counselor's role in dealing with a school shooting tragedy and reinforced my perception that school safety is an important issue. Recognizing these personal beliefs and biases, I made deliberate efforts to address possible researcher influence in this study (see Validity and Trustworthiness section).

Setting, Context, and Participants

Yin (2018) defines a single-case, qualitative study as "a case study organized around a single case; the case might have been chosen because it was ... unusual" (p. 288). The present study is a single-case, qualitative study that focuses on decisions and expertise of school counselors within an "unusual circumstance" or tragedy (p. 53). Yin (2014) also states that the case can be defined by "a broad variety of topics including ... decisions [and] ... specific events" (p. 31). These definitions of the case are called units of analysis. The units of analysis for the current case are perceptions of school counselors' decisions and expertise. The central research question posed for this study was How were the decisions and expertise of school counselors perceived in responding to a rampage school shooting? For the purpose of this study, a rampage school shooting is defined as an act of violence by a student or previous student intending to cause harm to multiple people at their school at random (Langman, 2009; Newman, Fox, Harding, Mehta, & Roth, 2004). The site for this study was selected because it fit the definition of a rampage school shooting. The rampage school shooting site includes a middle school and the immediate surrounding area (i.e., elementary school, parking lots, and playground area) located in the northeast part of a southern state. The site is in one of five small school districts in the vicinity. The school district resides on one large lot and encompasses one high school, one middle school, and one elementary school. At the time of the event, the middle school served 250 students, had one full-time, certified school counselor, and followed the primary crisis protocol of a "lockdown procedure." The primary safety issue dealt with the morning arrivals of school buses. During the spring semester, a few weeks prior to the end of the 1996-1997 academic year, two assailants who were current students murdered several students and a teacher and wounded many others. The assailants were eventually apprehended.

This study involved three primary school counselor participants, with five other individuals included to provide "different perspectives [to] increase the chances that a case study will be exemplary" (Yin, 2014, p. 203) by not "supporting a single point of view ... [and] presenting a one-sided case" (p. 204). The eight interviewees, selected through snowball sampling (see Research Sample and Data Sources section), were all White women who had lived in the community for a considerable amount of time and were affiliated with the school site at the time of the shooting. Two were school counselors formerly with the elementary school and one was the middle school counselor. The others were, at the time of the incident, the middle school principal, the school psychologist, the elementary school art teacher and school bus driver, a parent of a middle school student, and a middle school student. The interviewees provided their perceptions of school counselors' decisions and expertise in responding to the rampage school shooting.

At the time of the crisis, the two elementary school counselors had worked in the education field for a combined 30 years; one had lived in the community all her life, the other for 4 years. The middle school counselor, middle school principal, art teacher/bus driver, and school psychologist had also lived in the community all their lives, having worked in education for 21, 14, 6, and 23 years, respectively. The parent and middle school student had lived in the area for the majority of their lives. None of the participants had any school-shooting crisis training prior to the event. The school psychologist had previously been a school counselor and during the tragedy was assigned as the counselor crisis leader or manager.

Research Sample and Data Sources

I requested permission from the school district superintendent to gain access to the research site. This superintendent, who had not experienced the school shooting tragedy, in turn suggested the interview of a school counselor. Through snowball sampling (Yin, 2011), the school counselor directed the researcher to the additional interviewees, except for the middle school principal, who was referred by the school psychologist.

I contacted participants via formal letters, telephone calls, and interpersonal conversation and provided documentation that explained the study intent, procedures, and secured informed consent. The participants were referred to using pseudonyms throughout the research process to ensure their anonymity. I also used other data sources to validate or invalidate the interview data, including permitted site observations and researcher field notes. Assisted by the participants, I utilized archival records and media reports to help inform my understanding of the problem.

Instrument and Data Collection

I developed a demographic survey to collect participant demographic information. Questions included age, marital status, number of children (age, grade level, and location), and length of time the participants had lived in the community. Other questions related to their profession included the length of time they spent in their professional position, worked in the school district, and had been in the education field at the time of the event (see Table 1).

To investigate the perceptions of school counselors' decisions and expertise, I collected data from multiple sources (Yin, 2014), including formal studies of the same or similar tragedies (Daniels et al., 2007; A. H. Fein et al., 2008; C. Fox, Roth, & Newman, 2003; Newman et al., 2004), prevalent media articles, and archival records (e.g., participants' notes, memos, e-mail correspondences, and blueprints of the area). I also conducted observations and interviews (e.g., audio and video recordings of guided tours of the site).

Interview questions were formatted on the basis of a theoretical concept for the study suggesting that counselors who effectively respond to crisis situations respond in phases or along a time line (see Table 2; McAdams & Keener, 2008). The interviews were carried out as guided conversations, giving interviewees flexibility to tell their stories. The in-depth interviews with school counselors lasted 90 min or more, while the interviews with all other participants focused more on their observations, work, and/or collaborations with school counselors throughout the tragedy and their direct experience of the event. For instance, one in-crisis-phase question for school counselors asked, "At the onset of the crisis, in what ways were you able to ensure the physical safety of those around you?", while a sample item asked of the other interviewees was, "During the crisis, did school counselors assist in providing safety for you and/or your classmates? If so, please describe." Another example question for school counselors, from the postcrisis recovery (PCR) phase, was, "During the immediate aftermath, how were you able to assist crisis survivors with processing the crisis?" The question was phrased differently for interviewees who were not school counselors: "During the immediate aftermath of the crisis, explain any debriefing or counseling services which you received from school counselors or mental health professionals." I recorded all interviews and systematically analyzed the information collected.

Data Analysis

Data were gathered, organized, and analyzed through protocols that relied on a theoretical proposition (Yin, 2014). To code and break down information, I used theoretical integration (Corbin & Strauss, 2008); a priori coding or "a start list of codes prior to fieldwork" (Crabtree & Miller, 1992; Miles & Huberman, 1984, p. 57); and computer-assisted technology software, QSR International's NVivo 10 Software. These methods assisted in identifying patterns from several sources bounded by conceptual or theoretical guidelines that followed a specific time series (see below).

I created protocols for analyzing relatable documents, media reports, and archival records and an interview protocol. The protocols included the identity of the developer(s) of each document, record, or report; its purpose, format, motif, or general message; its accessibility to the public; its location; primary and secondary research questions about it; and questions that were central to the study and followed a specific time series: precrisis, in-crisis, and postcrisis. Interviews were transcribed and analyzed through the interview protocol, which included study questions organized through the same time series. The central question of the study focused on the perceptions of school counselors' decisions and expertise.

The PAR conceptual framework designed by McAdams and Keener (2008) influenced the criteria used in interpreting the data. The PAR framework's purpose is to guide counselors through a crisis situation such as a suicide; however, it is not specific to school counselors or school shootings. Counselors are guided through "pre-crisis preparation, in-crisis action, and post-crisis recovery" (McAdams & Keener, 2008, pp. 389-390). The framework promotes six phases (precrisis preparation [PCP], precrisis awareness [PCA], in-crisis protocol [ICP], in-crisis awareness [ICA], PCR, and postcrisis awareness [PoCA]) and includes general guidelines and considerations. To utilize the framework for this research, I employed the theoretical integration technique that Corbin and Strauss (2008) described as "linking categories around a central or core category" (p. 87).

The units of analysis for this study were perceptions of school counselors' decisions and expertise. Such units assist in deciding which data to collect (Yin, 2014). For this study, I modified the PAR framework to specifically identify perceptions of school counselors' decisions and expertise in responding to the shooting; the result is a template titled the School Counselor Response to School Shootings' Template (SCRSST). Table 2 presents comparisons between the PAR framework and the SCRSST.

The SCRSST phases and guidelines assisted in coding data. Because this is a structured approach to coding, I used a priori coding with broad preliminary codes (Crabtree & Miller, 1992), where the six phases were abbreviated as PCP, PCA, ICP, ICA, PCR, and PoCA. The preliminary codes are appropriate because they fit the time-series analysis and have a theoretical influence.

Data were coded using the preliminary codes as a priori codes and, meanwhile, I identified subcodes per phase by way of open coding. Additional subcodes and sub-subcodes emerged, which provided more detail, deeper insights, and a better understanding of school counselors' lived experiences of the event (Crabtree & Miller, 1992). Assisting with coding was an independent analyst who holds master's degrees in rehabilitation counseling and public health and a PhD in public policy. During her time assisting with the study, the independent analyst was an instructor of introduction and advanced courses in qualitative research. Before final coding was completed, the independent analyst coded a significant portion of data separately from the researcher. We compared analyses to address any deficiencies in coding and came to a consensus regarding the appropriateness of the preliminary codes, themes, and thematic patterns. Data including transcripts of interviews, guided tours, and protocols were uploaded to NVivo. Extensive coding, subcoding, and sub-subcoding took place through NVivo and were organized through a method of clustering similar thematic ideas. The results of the coding process included subthemes for each phase.

Validity and Trustworthiness

To establish authenticity, I used techniques that promoted reliability, validity, and trustworthiness. For instance, I created an audit trail and recruited an independent analyst to establish reliability (Miles & Huberman, 1984). Two peer debriefers assisted with thinking through various ways of viewing evidence. At the time of the study, these peers were fellow students in my doctoral program. They had already taken qualitative research courses and, like me, were working on qualitative research projects. I also asked interviewees to verify interview data (member checks). Interview data were triangulated with other forms of data, archival records, and pertinent documents, and I compared results with those of similar studies. This combination of data collection challenges the researcher's personal beliefs and biases, creates easier transferability, and the techniques described are suitable for establishing validity and reliability (Bloomberg & Volpe, 2012; Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Maxwell, 2009).


After triangulation of data and diligent coding, preliminary themes emerged. These themes are broad and time sequenced. I provide sample data to represent the themes and subthemes.


The first theme, PCP, highlighted steps and/or missteps that school counselors unknowingly engaged in while preparing to respond to a school shooting. A total of three subthemes emerged from this section of the coded data: assessments, crisis training, and relationships. An additional subtheme that emerged beyond the theoretical framework for this section was recommendations (or lessons learned).

Assessment. To begin with, participants did not consider that one assailant's at-risk behaviors indicated possible participation in a school shooting. For instance, one school counselor participant's assessment of one assailant was that he had "gotten into some trouble, but ... he was just one of those average students." Regarding the other assailant, a second school counselor participant stated, "If you ... lined up a hundred kids and said, 'Okay which one of these would do the shooting?', [Assailant] would not have been at the top of my list." Although each assailant had difficulties, neither the school counselors nor other school members considered them a potential threat to the school.

Crisis training (or preparation). Participants mentioned crisis training and/or crisis preparation. One of the noncounselor participants stated, "I think there was a crisis team.... I don't think the counselors were part of it." A second participant stated that she thought a "counselor from one of the other buildings" was on a district-wide crisis team. However, a school counselor participant stated that the school had a basic "natural disaster plan." Other participants agreed and noted that the plan included "a lockdown procedure," "tornadoes," "suicide," and "earthquakes," but "it wasn't about school shootings." The district provided earthquake training, and school counselors' roles during this training included reaching out for emergency assistance from community resources and helping where needed. Participants agreed that their earthquake preparation helped them during the school shooting and so did their personal experience. One school counselor participant stated, "I was not a stranger to bad tragedies because we had children, two or three shooting incidences [sic], accidental shootings [off campus] where actually kids were killed ... that I dealt with" before this incident.

Relationships. Participants who observed school counselors throughout the crisis specifically mentioned the influence of school counselors' established relationships. According to a participant whose child had been an elementary and middle school student in the district, the school counselors had established "supportive" relationships with students and parents prior to the incident. The other noncounselor participants indicated that school counselors had been "approachable," "go-to-people" who had "a really good relationship" with survivors "because they were actually dealing with their students."

Recommendations. Participants made several recommendations for preparing to respond to a school shooting. A school counselor participant stated that "[when] someone has said something ... if that person could ... tell someone, some of this could be prevented" and that the process for sharing information with a trusted adult should be better streamlined. The noncounselor participants made clear that dialogue with families of "high maintenance" students should be a steady, ongoing process; school counselors should have more time to "counsel students," particularly those with "anger problems;" and that counselors should be given the opportunity to "educate teachers" on how to deal with antagonistic children.


The second theme, PCA, focused on school counselors' awareness of their limitations in technical and emotional readiness and their need for professional assistance throughout the tragedy. Two subthemes relating to PCA emerged: technical emotional readiness and the referral process. An additional subtheme, recommendations (or lessons learned), emerged for this section beyond the theoretical framework.

Technical and emotional readiness. Introspectively, the three school counselor participants mentioned their perceptions of their technical and emotional readiness for a school shooting. For example, a school counselor participant explained that a school counselor's expectations in time of grief and loss included "taking [students] out there under the big tree ... quiet them ... get them settled down." The participant added, "I didn't really have any crisis skills except just things ... I taught ... kids."

Referral process. Participants mentioned the referral process. The noncounselor participants stated that referrals were for "major issues" or the "behaviorally challenging." The three school counselor participants tended to agree that if they had known of "any warning signs" or troubling behaviors of the assailants before the incident, they would have attempted to address such issues, even if it meant "referring the students" to a school-based therapist.

Recommendations. Participants mentioned recommendations for school counselor preparation and awareness. The noncounselor participants explained that school counselors throughout a tragic situation needed to be "approachable," "have an open door" policy, be "really geared" for the profession, "talk to people that have been through" a school shooting, and participate in "seminars ... programs" about school shootings. They also suggested that counselor education programs should do more in providing crisis training specific to school shootings, saying, "Until you have practiced it, and drilled it, and experienced talking to people ... you don't have the skill set." Another recommendation was that school counselors be aware of the emotions or internal "aftershocks" of such a crisis, recommendations with which school counselors tended to agree--not only with the need for awareness of one's own and others' internal emotional turmoil but also for awareness that school counselors "can't do it all" and need to be "open to having support." Such support may be provided by peers, administration, or a community of counselors and therapists.


The third theme, ICP, focused on ways that school counselors assisted in de-escalating the situation, offering safety, and assisting crisis survivors during the shooting. Four subthemes emerged: directives, priorities, professional support, and safety. An additional subtheme beyond the theoretical framework for this section included recommendations (or lessons learned).

Directives: Go to the Gym. Participants referred to directives to go to the middle school gym. For instance, school counselor participants recalled the request "over the intercom for the [school] counselors to go to the middle school" and "get everybody in the gym."

Priorities. The three school counselor participants also mentioned changing their priorities from going directly to the gym to finding and helping someone specific. For example, one school counselor participant exclaimed, "When I realized how bad it was ... it went from trying to help to I've got to find my niece." She continued, "And, I thought, I'm not going to that gym ... if [niece is] not in there.... When I walked in that gym I just ... started scanning those kids ... looking for her.... [After finding her] then I thought, okay, I can, I can work [now]."

Professional support. The three school counselor participants stated that staff and other noneducation professionals assisted them in their efforts during the crisis. One school counselor participant attempted to lock the "front doors" but "had never used the key before" and needed the assistance of "one of our janitors ... [to help] lock the door." The other school counselor participants acknowledged help from about "15 .. .nurses on the grounds because they were doing scoliosis training" and "lunchroom ladies with dish towels" making "tourniquets."

Safety. Participants mentioned school counselors providing physical and emotional safety for students during the crisis. School counselor participants stated, "I would just hold them and they would cry," "started hugging all of them," and going to the students who were "screaming the loudest." The noncounselor participants stated that school counselors "herded" students into the gym, keeping students safe while also tracking an "account [of] the students."


The fourth theme, ICA, focused on addressing possible barriers to responding during the crisis. A total of three subthemes emerged: emotional states, challenges, and professional support, with the additional subtheme of recommendations (or lessons learned) beyond the theoretical framework for this section.

Emotional states. Participants referred to the school counselors' emotional states during the crisis. The noncounselor participants stated that school counselors were "tough ... right people for the situation," "they [school counselors] knew how to keep it together, and keep calm." However, the school counselors felt differently. For instance, a school counselor participant said, "I just walked into the gates of HELL.... [I wasn't sure] if I was doing the right thing ... or saying the right things." She continued, "I'm one of these people that ... handle it as long as the situation is there ... but then, when [I] get home ... [I] crash."

Challenges. Participants discussed challenges. School counselor participants were challenged by what they saw and heard. For instance, they stated, "I had never seen people that had been shot," "there was another one, little [student's name]screaming for her life." Statements by noncounselor participants included, "When I got to the gym the kids ... started telling me, [names of perpetrators] did this ... and they were right." They reported that kids were saying, "Go get [name of teacher], they'll kill him, he's on the hit list." School counselors assisted injured students while also attempting to address students who were impacted more emotionally than physically.

Professional support. All school counselor participants commented about professional support. One stated that she needed "outside help ... [from] somebody that has not necessarily just gone through [this]." Another said, "I felt more comfortable because I had [another school counselor] there." A third stated, "The nurses ... [and] other school counselors ... [were] helpful."

Recommendations. The noncounselor participants who shared this tragic experience with school counselors mentioned recommendations for school counselors for in-crisis situations. For instance, a participant stated, "Counselors [should be] ... nurturing people ... have that calming effect ... trained as a counselor ... reassuring ... [ability to be] with you ... [and let you know] that you're safe." Another participant stated that school counselors should "be able to comfort them [students] and just to be there to listen to them and make sure to let them know ... things are gonna be okay.... We're going take care of you."


The fifth theme, PCR, focused on school counselors providing assistance and helping others manage the effects of the crisis. Four subthemes emerged: directives, professional support, availability, and goals and strategies.

Directives. All three school counselor participants discussed directives. After it was announced that the assailants had been "captured," parents arrived to pick up their children. School counselors were directed to help match parents with their children and continued counseling students. School counselors eventually went home for a short time and returned to perform additional duties. A school counselor participant stated, "[My principal] said, 'We've got to be back out here tonight because Governor [name] is going to be here and we're going to have to talk with [him] ... and ... we've got to deal with all our books and lockers and all that stuff.'" Another school counselor participant commented that law enforcement told her to "answer the phone ... and I sat there until we got ready to do our meeting, answering the phone and, and literally news report[er]s were calling from all over the world." Another school counselor participant was told to keep counseling students; she stated that she had to keep counseling because "there [were] some kids who still wanted to talk.... Even after parents picked them up, some of them started coming back with kids."

Professional support. Next, participants made significant comments about professional support. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, school counselors had assistance in providing counseling services. One of the noncounselor participants stated that at this time, the "Cavalry" [assigned crisis management team] relieved the school counselors. The participant continued, "at that time, it was like they [school counselors] could take their breath for the first time and they collapsed." One school counselor participant clarified, many "parents and people were coming ... [for] counseling services ... [so many] that group [management team] was [helping in] coordinating ... counseling services." Another school counselor participant was more specific and stated that "other mental health professionals ... helped with the debriefing and ... working with the kids."

Availability. Participants made pertinent comments regarding counseling availability. Counseling services were available when faculty and students returned to school a couple of days after the incident. According to one school counselor participant, "My office was open for kids to come into for me to help them.... [I worked with kids] until I went home.... I went home 2 weeks before school was out ... [and I] set the kids up in counseling with other agencies." A noncounselor participant reflected that the school also provided safe spaces for parents: "We had a setup place where if the parents wanted to park their cars and stay that day."

Goals and strategies. Participants mentioned goals and strategies of counselors. For outside counselors, goals and strategies included debriefing crisis survivors such as faculty and staff by helping them to process and share their experience in groups with one another. According to one school counselor participant, outside counselors helped crisis survivors with "processing through ... writing down ... [and telling] their stories." Another school counselor participant discussed her goals for working with parents: "A lot of times [parents] wanted to make sure their child was ... safe. They wanted to be reassured." A third school counselor participant was more specific: "I told [parents], 'You know, it's not going to be an easy fix here. You're going to have to be patient.'" School counselors used "chicken soup story books," "play therapy," "group guidance sessions," "puppets" and developed "a referral list for parents."


The sixth theme, PoCA, focused on school counselors' attention to self-care and assisting others to become aware and work through barriers to the recovery process. Four subthemes emerged: peer professional challenges, media and traffic challenges, students' and teachers' challenges, and school counselors' challenges; an additional subtheme, recommendations (or lessons learned), emerged beyond the theoretical framework for this section.

Peer professional challenges. Participants made some comments about challenges with peer professionals. According to interviewees, some outside counselors were helpful, but not all. A school counselor participant stated, "There were some [outside counselors] that were [trying] to make a name for themselves." Another school counselor participant was more specific: "We had ... [a] psychiatrist with credentials that were great.... [Others] were looney tunes ... [and] too many people [wanting] to be the boss." A noncounselor participant emphasized that school officials had to start verifying whether individuals were "certified people."

Media challenges. Participants had much to say about media challenges. A noncounselor participant stated, "We were clueless about [how to] deal with the media." School counselor participants were more specific: "The media made parking ... challenging"; "the parking lot was covered." Another noncounselor participant gave more context: "It was just a sea of reporters." One participant described how counseling services were impacted: "There was major traffic" and "all of this [counseling services] was done" with media "spotlighting crying kids ... rushing to wherever [the] kids [were]." School counselor participants added that media representatives were trying to listen "to our conversations," "impersonate counselors," pretend "to be a family member," and "reporting misinformation."

Students' and teachers' challenges. Participants discussed students' and teachers' challenges. A school counselor participant stated that elementary "students were affected.... Some rode the bus with [perpetrators].... Some ... were related to the girls that were shot.... We're a small community." Another school counselor participant added that students were often "emotional ... their little world is shattered.... It was like a hospital." A third school counselor participant commented that, when counseling students, "We didn't force them.... We'd go back [and forth] to check on them." A noncounselor participant stated that her child who experienced the incident "still will not talk about it to this day."

School counselor participants described how the elementary school teachers were impacted. For example, one school counselor participant stated, "We had a lot of those students come through ... [elementary] school and [deceased teacher] worked in the building." A noncounselor participant noted, "A lot of them [teachers] had kids at the middle school. They couldn't leave their classroom to go take care of, find their own children." In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, "teachers weren't ready for that [debriefing].... Their friends were killed. Their kids were killed." A school counselor participant stated that she invited, "faculty and staff that wanted to come ... over to my house ... to just come and ... have time together."

School counselors' challenges. All of the school counselor participants commented that they had challenges. From a personal point of view, school counselors stated that they were affected by the event. A school counselor participant said that the "first one out of the building that they shot ... was my student aide.... I was beside ... bleeding [teacher and] ... I couldn't get her sweet face out of my mind." She also stated, "I didn't get to talk to anybody really [except] my pastor." A second school counselor participant stated, "We were victims ourselves ... I had a [middle school] son that had been there.... I had a daughter that was at the elementary.... [It] felt personal." After the tragedy, three of the participants (two school counselors) met "together on a regular basis ... praying, crying, trying to figure out, you know, why God would let this happen." From a professional point of view, school counselor participants noted that in "summer they had a training" that covered "debriefing," and with their newfound knowledge, "we could have taken a population of kids ... [through] an organized debriefing session."

Recommendations. Participants offered recommendations related to the aftermath of the shooting. A noncounselor participant stated that returning on the night of the event to "the school campus ... [to offer counseling services] was a mistake." It would be better to have such services "offsite ... [because] nobody wants to [go] back to the site where somebody was shot." A school counselor participant added, "I would advise anybody don't wait" too long, "because it's better for kids to get back in their routine." Another school counselor participant said, "You need to keep your media under control ... [by putting] them yards and yards and yards away." A third school counselor participant noted the importance of having "something in place to ... check credentials" of volunteer counselors. Another participant stated that school counselors should be involved in the debriefing processes: "Even after [an] ice storm we debriefed ... and [school counselors]" were part of that. Last, another participant added that "the superintendent mandates ... that we [all faculty] do this debriefing."


The participants in this study gave rich, in-depth, detailed descriptions of engaged actions (or decisions) and perceived expertise by school counselors via time-series phases that occurred before and at the time of a violent situation. Comparing findings with those in similar case studies of school shootings with a focus on school counselors, and the relevant literature, clarified important discussion points. In the PCP phase, my findings regarding assessments, crisis teams, and relationships were aligned with the professional literature and similar research. For instance, individual assessments of specific characteristics of potential school shooters were found to be ineffective across studies (Daniels et al., 2007; O'Toole, 2000).

In regard to crisis teams, as with the current study, similar studies found that school counselors take on responsibilities during and after a school shooting that were not previously assigned to them. Federal guidelines that promote crisis plans insist that counselors play an integral part in preventing and responding to crises. These guidelines help support the need for the inclusion of school counselors and the skills they have to offer in crisis planning (U.S. DOE, 2007, 2013; U.S. DOJ & IACP, 2012).

Relationships were also found to be essential. For example, well-established, supportive relationships with students were integral for school counselors in the current study. Relationships were particularly significant during and in response to a school shooting. This finding aligns with the professional literature, including examples such as adult relationships with the youth perpetrators, school counselor relationships with student crisis survivors, and faculty relationships with each other (Austin, 2003; Daniels et al., 2007).

The PCA phase refers to the school counselors' awareness of the limits of their technical and emotional preparedness for such a tragedy and to their need for professional help. For the PCA phase, the literature and related studies aligned with the following subthemes of the current study: school counselor supervisor and school-based process. Studies showed consensus that a school counselor, or professional with school counseling background, be expected to lead during a school shooting (A. H. Fein et al., 2008). However, in the present study, school counselors who had previously experienced a school shooting desired to be led or given direction.

Interviews in the current study indicated that a process supporting more communication between school counselors and community counselors might have been helpful. According to C. Fox, Roth, and Newman (2003), after one school shooting, information came out that a student assailant had been seeing a psychologist outside of school for treatment for serious issues. However, neither the school counselor nor any other adult at the school was aware.

With respect to the ICP phase, de-escalating or de-stressing techniques were found to be prevalent subthemes across studies. In the present study, school counselors worked diligently to help students cope with intense emotions and stress during the crisis. Daniels et al. (2007) recognized the necessity of school counselors having such skills in their professional tool kit and recommend that school counselors help others to de-escalate or de-stress during a crisis. Nader and Nader (2012) suggested using techniques such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation methods during a crisis situation.

Next, self-care was a subtheme that emerged from the ICA phase of the present study and aligned with the 2008 findings of Fein et al. In both studies, school counselors were responding to a school shooting without prepared school shooting crisis plans or protocols. School counselors from both studies admitted not knowing whether they were making mistakes, feeling isolated at times, and being gravely impacted by the crisis of a school shooting. Experiencing highly stressful, life-threatening situations can cause feelings of anxiety, stress, sadness, worry, and fear, not only immediately during the crisis but also after the crisis and long after the event itself has ended. Therefore, all victims, including school counselors, should seek out support services to assist them in healing and coping with these negative aftereffects. Nader and Nader (2012) suggested that participants consider techniques such as challenging negative self-talk and using positive affirmation during a crisis.

For the PCR phase, two subthemes correspond to findings from other studies: readily available resources and goals, strategies, and interventions. Findings from Austin (2003), A. H. Fein et al. (2008), and the current study show that school counselors were overloaded and overwhelmed while helping crisis survivors and managing volunteer counselors. In terms of goals during the immediate aftermath of a school shooting, both the current study and that of A. H. Fein et al. (2008) indicate that school counselors were challenged in deciding which goals or directives to follow. With respect to strategies and interventions, A. H. Fein et al. (2008) indicate that school counselors used counseling interventions such as system principles and group play therapy to address crisis survivors' needs.

In the current study's last phase, PoCA, feedback from crisis survivors indicated that school counselors and other surviving educators did not seek counseling services after the school shooting. A. H. Fein et al. (2008) found that school counselors did not realize the impact a school shooting had on their emotional state. School counselors also were unaware of their risk of experiencing secondary trauma. Therefore, school counselors would benefit from immediately seeking counseling services after a tragic event and should also encourage their coworkers to do the same.


From the findings of the current study and its comparisons with other studies and professional literature (see Discussion section), important implications emerged. For instance, school counselors may find using an integrated, holistic, team approach to threat assessments effective (Dreal, 2011; R. A. Fein et al., 2004; Verlinden, Hersen, & Thomas, 2000). Schools also would benefit from including school counselors as part of their crisis teams. Furthermore, school counselors might benefit from putting in place avenues to build or develop meaningful relationships with each other and within their building population. Next, assigning a school counselor supervisor or crisis-counseling manager would be helpful, as would school counselors staying in close contact and following the directives of the supervisor during a crisis (U.S. DOJ and IACP, 2012). This study's findings encourage an interactive communication process between the school counselor and community mental health professionals to assist students within and outside of the school setting. In terms of working with students during a crisis, knowledge of de-escalation or de-stressing techniques would help school counselors. Although being able to assist students is a priority, having the ability for self-care throughout such a crisis also would benefit school counselors.

In the immediate aftermath of a violent situation, school counselors would benefit from having a prescreened list of volunteer counselors and counseling materials pertaining to issues such as trauma. Having predetermined clear but flexible directives would also help school counselors, and they should be prepared to use their counseling skills after a school shooting. Last, school counselors would benefit from seeking counseling for themselves after such an incident and being mindful of the possible need for their own long-term care, particularly in regard to secondary trauma.

Limitations and Conclusion

As with any study, this study is not without limitations. One limitation was that the school shooting under investigation took place more than 20 years ago (i.e., in the 1996-1997 academic year); therefore, interviewees' memories may not have been completely accurate. School shootings have been a contemporary phenomenon since the late 1990s. This school shooting took place during the late 1990s, a time when school shootings had gone from rare tragedies to a national epidemic (Newman et al., 2004; Rocque, 2012) and introduced the cultural phrase "rampage school shooting" (Langman, 2009). Because of the cultural shift in perception, this time period has garnered much attention for research by the U.S. DOE, the National Research Council, the National Academy of Sciences, and researchers of various fields (J. A. Fox & Burstein, 2010; Langman, 2009; Nader & Nader, 2012; Newman et al., 2004). Building on lessons learned from this time period is critical to inform research conducted on recent school shootings (Bockler, Seeger, Sitzer, & Heitmeyer, 2013; A. H. Fein, 2001, 2003; Langman, 2009; Newman et al., 2004). Readers should view this study within this context.

A second limitation of this study concerned the limited number of school counselor participants (n = 3). Research that examines the lived experiences of school counselors involving gun violence at school is lacking, thus giving little voice to their experience (Austin, 2003; Daniels et al., 2007; A. H. Fein et al., 2008). The current study attempted to add to the very limited body of literature investigating the role of the school counselor in this context. However, the study at hand examined the actions of school counselors that took place some time ago, with interviewees having to rely on their memories, and because schools hire limited numbers of school counselors, only three such counselors had experienced the entire event. To address these limitations, I not only interviewed individuals who were school counselors at the time but spoke with individuals who had witnessed the counselors in action and collected relevant archival records and documents to verify interviewee reports.

Last, this study is only generalizable via a theory and "not to populations or universes" (Yin, 2018, p. 20). A probable theory for this study is that school counselors were tasked with making critical decisions via their perceived expertise throughout a school shooting. Thus, school counselors are in a unique position to positively affect the lives of others during and after a violent crisis. Unfortunately, very little research has been done to aid school counselors in developing best practice strategies in responding to school shootings. Examining school counselors' actions and decisions throughout such a tragedy is important, so that counselors can consider how best to use their skills in helping others during a similar situation. Recommendations for researchers include continued qualitative case studies and a challenge for more traditional experimental research that includes the role of the school counselor. Bockler, Seeger, Sitzer, and Heitmeyer (2013) state that, when investigating school shootings, the researchers' specific focus on rampage school shootings is important to better operationalize their research through qualitative case studies. By collecting such data and thoroughly examining these case studies, concepts of prevention can be "advanced" (p. 8). Bockler and colleagues caution that attempting solely to use quantitative methods of inquiry is often problematic because of the need to achieve adequate sample size for statistical analysis. The problem of sample size for statistical analysis is irrelevant to qualitative case studies. According to Yin (2014), attempting to use statistical generalization in case study research is a "fatal flaw" (p. 40), primarily because "a case or cases are not 'sampling units' and also will be too small in number to serve as an adequately sized sample to represent any larger population" (p. 40). Brock et al. (2016) have recognized the lack of experiential design research in the school crisis field and encourage more research on school crisis prevention models, mental health interventions, and trainings. Further, they contend that "research is needed to examine the extent to which training leads to meaningful changes and implementation" of models, strategies and interventions for those who may experience a school crisis (Brock et al., 2016, p. 366). Although perhaps more difficult and complex, a mixed-methods design might be appropriate for future studies on this topic, incorporating both qualitative and quantitative aspects. All in all, increased knowledge about crisis preparation, protocol adherence, and skills may lead to safer outcomes for schools and the greater society.

DOI: 10.1177/2156759X19853250

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


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Author Biographies

Carleton H. Brown, PhD, is an assistant professor and school counselor clinical coordinator with the Department of Educational Psychology and Special Services at the University of Texas at El Paso, TX, USA.

Carleton H. Brown, PhD [1]

(1) Department of Educational Psychology and Special Services, The University of Texas at El Paso, El Paso, TX, USA

Corresponding Author:

Carleton H. Brown, PhD, Department of Educational Psychology and Special Services, The University of Texas at El Paso, 500 W. University Ave., Room 705, El Paso, TX 79968, USA.

Table 1. Questions Used to Collect Participant Demographic

Topic                            Questions

Age                              What was your age at the time
                                 of the crisis?

Marital status                   What was your marital status?

Number of children (age,         At the time of the crisis, how
grade level, and location)       many children did you have and
                                 what were their ages? What
                                 grade were they in? Were they
                                 at the site of the tragedy
                                 during the crisis?

Length of time in community      At the time of the crisis, how
                                 long had you lived in the

Length of time in                At the time of the crisis, how
professional position            long had you been in your
                                 professional position?

Length of time in school         At the time of the crisis, how
district                         long had you been working in
                                 the [Name] school district?

Length of time in education      At the time of the crisis, how
                                 long had you been in the
                                 education field?

Table 2. Preparation, Action, Recovery (PAR), and School Counselors
Response to School Shootings Template (SCRSST) Guidelines

Phases    PAR General Guidelines       SCRSST General

PCP       "Counselors ... take         School counselors take
          general steps to reduce      steps to reduce the
          the chances of being         chances of being ill-
          blindsided by [a             prepared to respond to
          crisis]." (p. 390)           clients' needs during
                                       and after a rampage
                                       school shooting.

PCA       "Counselors must             School counselors
          determine the limits of      recognize their
          their technical and          limitations regarding
          emotional readiness to       their "technical and
          deal with various            emotional readiness" in
          crisis situations." (p.      dealing with a rampage
          391)                         school shooting and
                                       their "need for
                                       personal and
                                       professional support"
                                       in responding to such
                                       an incident. (p. 391)

ICP       Counselors "efficiently      School counselors take
          and effectively              steps to "efficiently
          expedite de-escalation       expedite de-escalation
          and safe resolution in       and safe resolution"
          a serious client             during a rampage school
          crisis." (p. 392)            shooting. (p. 392)

ICA       Counselors are "aware        School counselors are
          of and able to overcome      "aware of and able to
          potential barriers to        overcome potential
          handling the event."         barriers to handling"
          (p. 392)                     the crisis of a rampage
                                       school shooting (p.

PCR       Counselors help "crisis      School counselors help
          survivors become able        the school system and
          to manage the                "crisis survivors [of a
          debilitating effects of      rampage school
          the crisis sufficiently      shooting] become able
          to resume pre-crisis         to manage the ... effects
          levels of functioning"       of the crisis
          (p. 393)                     sufficiently to resume
                                       pre-crisis levels of
                                       functioning" after the
                                       crisis (p. 393)

PoCA      "Counselors recognize        School counselors help
          and work to avoid            self and others
          pitfalls common to each      recognize and work
          step in the recovery         through challenges to
          process." (p. 394)           the recovery process.

Source. McAdams and Keener (2008, pp. 390-394).

Note. PCP = precrisis preparation; PCA = precrisis awareness;
ICP = in-crisis protocol; ICA = in-crisis awareness;
PCR = postcrisis recovery; PoCA = postcrisis awareness.
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Title Annotation:Featured Research
Author:Brown, Carleton H.
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Date:Sep 1, 2018
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