WASHINGTON – Minutes after a gunman opened fire at a Florida High School last week, live images of the attack were being streamed into the phones of students across the country through social media.
Within hours, those same social media accounts were being used by students to express grief, to send condolences and to rally people across the country to action.
In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that left 17 dead, Arizona educators said they regularly grapple with the benefits and the drawbacks of the immediacy of social media for students.
“We’re hearing firsthand through social media, spotlighting not only facts about the events, but the opinions and discussions our students are having and their reactions,” said Josh Meibos, Arizona Teacher of the Year for 2018. “Now we’re giving them a powerful tool to organize together and be a force to reckoned with.”
Unlike previous school shootings at Sandy Hook and Columbine, victims in the Feb. 14 Stoneman Douglas shooting offered a first-person perspective of the tragedy at a time when, in the words of one expert, “news and trauma demands your attention more than ever.”
But many mental health professionals worry that the increased exposure to violence puts students at higher risk for traumatizing behavior and increased media changes the teacher-student relationship. Social media is “increasing their proximity to the trauma,” said Jodi Whitcomb, director of organizational development and training for KidsPeace.
“Hearing about tragedy from somebody else or reading it on a news report is very different than seeing it from a first-person standpoint through a screen, and it’s hard as an educator to monitor just how many times they are seeing it,” Whitcomb said.
The rise of social media has also changed the way schools respond to their students, said David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. Students often have more direct access to evolving news than teachers planning a response, he said.
“What you used to see were schools having more direct crisis plans, where administration would gather information and discuss together a traumatic event, release a statement and then gather the kids to tell them at one set time,” Schonfield said.
“Now with social media, teachers are often needing to get briefed because kids are being sent notifications all the time, in between classes, telling each other constant updates,” he said. “News and trauma demands your attention more than ever.”
And teachers may become the students when dealing with the digital natives in their classrooms.
“Many teachers don’t have the same social media savvy as these students and if we can learn to appreciate the positive outcomes they are bringing to the table, I feel like we have a lot to learn from them,” said Meibos, a physical education teacher at Crockett Elementary School in east Phoenix.
While social media can give students a window into trauma, it can also provide a window into troubled behavior – offering warnings that were apparently missed in the case of Nikolas Cruz, 19, the former Stoneman Douglas student accused in that shooting.
Published reports say Cruz had a history of behavioral problems, problems that mental health experts believe schools should focus more effort on identifying.
“When someone has difficulty in distinguishing between a violent video game and a real gun and real people … that lack of distinction can be a huge contributing factor in them displaying risky behavior and not seeing the harm in obtaining weapons,” said Julian Ford, director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Treatment of Developmental Trauma Disorders.
Ford, who co-authored a report after Sandy Hook on the background of accused shooter Adam Lanza, said schools should not rush to label isolated kids but should treat them as children “more easily influenced by violent situations.”
Arizona Federation of Teachers President Ralph Quintana agreed that educators should focus on correctly identifying those isolated students.
“Social media is next to impossible to stop, but we need to focus not only on kids who are finding about trauma, but correctly labeling the kids who are showing signs of isolation and disturbing behavior,” Quintana said. “We have to do more for those students and look at increasing funding for programs who can provide help.”
But help can be hard to come by in Arizona, where the state’s failure to retain teachers and counselors leaves many schools with limited resources to help students who need extra attention, according to Janine Menard, board chair for the Arizona School Counselors Association.
“In Arizona, there’s about 924 students for every one counselor – a ratio so high that many kids are not having the proper resource to turn to,” Menard said. “Not every school is able to hire the amount of counselors they need and instead leave it to teachers to have those hard discussions, many of which are outside their field of expertise.”
Meibos agreed that there could be more counselors hired, but praised the effect current counselors have on their schools.
“Teachers at least know we have an outlet and a person with a name and a face we can go to, what days they are on campus in case we do have a student we think needs some extra resources,” he said. “While I wish our counselor was here full time, it helps us educators to know we have a team that can help us with giving further resources to kids who are showing concerning signs.”
Despite some negatives, Meibos prefers to focus on “powerful” student-organized social media movements, which he believes have inspired Arizona teachers to listen more seriously to students and validate their concerns.
“These kids have always had a voice, but now they have the direct outlets to speak out and share their voices on a large scale,” Meibos said. “They don’t hold office, they don’t hold any major leadership positions that influence large masses, but through social media, they finally have a platform to promote change.”
Menard agreed that technology lets adults hear opinions of the younger generation in a way that was not possible before, while creating a platform for activism like the #NeverAgain and #MarchForOurLives movements.
Originally organized in Florida, #MarchForOurLives quickly spread to Arizona where a planned March 24 rally at the Capitol has already drawn interest from about 4,000 people, according to the organizers’ Facebook page.
“I think the key is that we need to start listening,” Menard said. “It always amazes me just how much kids are willing to say when we stop talking and start listening.”