Lessons Learned: A Qualitative Study of School Social Workers’ Experiences Providing Crisis Response and Recovery After Targeted Gun Violence

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Doctor of Social Work (DSW)
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school social work
social work practice
gun violence
crisis response and recovery
social work education
Social and Behavioral Sciences
Social Work
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Objective: Targeted gun violence in schools, once uncommon tragedies, are now regular occurrences in the United States. Since 2018, there have been 533 incidents of gun violence in schools that resulted in death or injuries (Everytown for Gun Safety, 2022). Crisis response and recovery for these school communities are lengthy. Community crisis response teams often assist school districts in the immediate response; however, responsibility for immediate and ongoing interventions often falls onto the school-based mental health professionals, particularly social workers. Minimal empirical data is available regarding the experiences of “emotional first responders,” and no studies address school social workers specifically, who are personally and professional impacted by these events. This qualitative study examined the lessons learned from school social workers providing crisis response and recovery to school communities impacted by mass targeted gun violence. Specifically, this study sought to understand how school social workers navigate providing support that is often beyond their explicit roles in the school while experiencing and managing the impacts of trauma for themselves and in their communities. Method: The researcher used grounded theory methodology to learn from the experiences of 12 MSW-prepared school social workers employed by an impacted school district at the time of mass targeted gun violence or contracted in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Multiple participants from three school districts were recruited to prevent one single point of view. Each participant completed two semi-structured interviews at two- to four-week intervals to examine their personal and professional experiences during the crisis response and recovery. The researcher used semi-structured interview guides designed to elicit experience and meaning making around additional responsibilities, crisis response preparation, and the ability to manage personal and professional impact of the trauma. Specific questions about prior training elicited perceptions on levels of confidence in crisis response and recovery skills. Data analysis used the constant comparative approach, consistent with grounded theory, to complete open and thematic inductive coding and theoretical coding grounded in systems theory and relational cultural theory concepts. Findings: All participants discussed the importance of connection or relationship with colleagues, students, administration, and families in the response and recovery process. Students, staff, parents, and social workers all worked toward reconnection after unimaginable violence shattered the perceived safety within their workplaces and their communities. Connection through processing and supervision were critical especially in the management of STS and VT symptoms. These connections further assisted with relational resilience and empowerment as the communities moved through the phases of crisis response and recovery. Participants reinforced that response and recovery is an ongoing endeavor that requires intervention on multiple systems levels. The magnitude of the trauma often requires social workers to assume additional responsibilities outside their normative scope of practice. Participants felt their MSW education, specifically field education, provided adequate preparation for basic crisis response, but lacked the specialization to provide recovery support around the intensity of targeted gun violence-related trauma and the needs across systems in recovery and rebuilding efforts. The need and challenge of seeking out sufficient self-care for social workers also emerged. Discussion and Implications: School social workers reported varied preparation and supports as they navigated the intersection of professional and personal trauma in the context of complex school, community, and political systems. Important factors for managing personal impact included supervision that provided both the opportunity to connect with colleagues to process/debrief their feelings and clinical case support consultation to minimize professional risk. Professional systems of support, including predictable schedules for debriefing and formal school sponsored self-care activities, should be included during the workday to improve access and engagement. To address the expressed need for more specialized training, findings suggest that CSWE may consider developing content or require MSW programs to offer course and experiential work in crisis intervention techniques, such as Psychological First Aid, to assist social workers with identification of trauma reactions and associated treatment skills with the theoretical underpinnings for their use. Conclusion: The findings highlight the importance of connection and growth-fostering relationships in crisis response and trauma recovery. These findings also support previous research which indicated social workers and other emotional first responders are at high risk for secondary traumatic stress (STS) and vicarious trauma (VT). The implications of these findings extend beyond the social work profession and to first responders within other disciplines who are exposed to trauma in their work responsibilities. The findings also include social work education implications, specifically a gap in knowledge pertaining to more specialized crisis intervention skills.

Allison Werner-Lin, PhD, AM, EdM, LCSW
Marleen Wong, PhD, MSW
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