The Impact of Colorado School Shooting on Kids

ByLaura Marquez

Sept. 28, 2006 — -- The violence that hit Platte Canyon High School on Wednesday could traumatize children beyond the school's walls, according to trauma psychologists.

The Park County, Colo., sheriff says 53-year-old Dwayne Morrison entered a random classroom, took six girls hostage, and killed one of them before turning the gun on himself.

"Obviously children become nervous that it could happen at their school," said trauma psychologist Elizabeth Carll. "Young children may not know where Colorado is, and think the violence is happening near them."

Carll suggests explaining to younger children that the reason why the shooting is getting so much national attention is because it's unusual and "that it's unlikely it would happen in your school."

Child psychologists recommend limiting children's watching of the TV images of "horrified students running from their classroom."

"Younger children need to be protected from violent images," said Scott Poland, a professor of psychology at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

As former director of the National Emergency Assistance Team, Poland has counseled teachers and students after 11 different school shootings.

Poland calls it "psychological triage," using the "60-20-20 rule."

Sixty percent of students will bounce back and do well with existing support systems.

Twenty percent will have minor problems.

And 20 percent will have major problems.

"The challenge," he said, " is to identify which group a student belongs to."

As part of the training, teachers and counselors are instructed to draw a circle around all the names of the students who witnessed the violence.

"That's the physical proximity," he said.

The second circle is the "social proximity."

The student may not have witnessed the shooting, but knows the victim.

The final circle is the individual crisis history.

For example, Poland says, a student whose mother is dying from breast cancer, or whose brother committed suicide, may be more traumatized by the violence.

He says that responders must keep all three circles in mind, but that adults often don't ask about the trauma history.

Poland adds children with such trauma in their background are usually the most affected by such violence, and may not have to witness the incident for their fear or nervousness to be triggered.

For instance, it's not surprising that this latest Colorado school shooting would bring back memories of that other infamous Colorado shooting -- the 1999 Columbine massacre where two students killed 13 people.

Bailey, where Platte Canyon is located, is only 40 miles from Littleton, Colo.

One of the survivors of Columbine who wrote a book called "Marked for Life," on how she had dealt with the shooting, spoke at a student audience Wednesday night in Kent City, Mich.

"It brings up a lot of open wounds," she said.

Crystal Woodman Miller hid under a desk when the shooting began at Columbine.

"You don't think when you wake up, you're in harm's way, you're in danger," she told a Grand Rapids, Mich., TV station. " You just go to school because that's what you do."

For those Columbine survivors and other traumatized students, Poland suggests to not dwell on this latest school shooting.

Beyond limiting children's exposure to the story, Poland says talking is the best way to cope with the fear often triggered by school shootings.

He believes that dialogue about how a child is feeling and coping needs to happen both at school and at home.

"You don't have to have the answers, " he said. "You just need to ask the questions."

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