Students in Odessa returned to class on Tuesday, many of them dressed in yellow. It was planned by Odessa High School’s student council to show support, and convey a sense of hope, after the recent mass shooting that killed one of their classmates, 15-year-old Leilah Hernandez.
As the students cope, the Ector County Independent School District is trying to help by making more mental-health counseling available. Lesa Pritchard is president-elect of the Texas School Counselor Association, and says counselors give students an opportunity to process an event that seems to have no rational explanation.
“They are acknowledging what the student is feeling, and acknowledging that they are senseless acts of violence,” Pritchard says.
But fear can also be pervasive among kids who’ve experienced trauma. Pritchard says getting back to a normal schedule can help.
“You want to let them talk about things, draw, write letters to the person who’s passed or even the family, but you also want to have class and try to follow their lead,” she says. “Give them what they need, not what you think they need.”
Some students struggling to cope may not seek help. Pritchard says adults need to pay attention to any behavior changes in a child after a traumatic event.
“There’s going to naturally be some changes in behavior, but does the student seem to be more anxious than other students? Are they having a harder time?” she says. “If you know a student has issues already, those students tend to me more affected by trauma.”
School counselors are trained mental health professionals, but Ector ISD said it didn’t have enough of them, or other personnel, to help deal with the tragedy. Indeed, districts across the state face a shortage of mental health professionals. Pritchard says counselors need to connect with colleagues at other schools, and other local mental health professionals, before a tragedy so they’re prepared.
“If something bad does happen in our community, we know what to put in place already,” she says.
School counselors can also identify students who might pose a risk of violence to themselves or others. Pritchard says counselors get regular training to be able to do that effectively.
“We attend conferences … and we have sessions on helping students with trauma, identifying students who may be at risk to harm self or others,” Pritchard says. “We’re working constantly on improving our skills in that area.”
Written by Caroline Covington.