Thoughts on the Parkland Tragedy

As a parent who with my wife raised three children, and as a 44 year educator, I am very sad to see another school shooting tragedy has occurred in Parkland, Florida.  This is a very tragic and traumatic event for our Country and more intensely the community of Parkland.  

As a crisis team leader and trainer, my experience and training has taught me that in most cases, students, school personnel, and the parents of students subjected to such a frightening experience will have a traumatic sensation.  The trauma must be dealt with so counseling can be more effective.

Counseling is a cognitive activity.  When people who have experienced a trauma such as the one in Parkland come to counseling without the trauma being first addressed, they have great difficulty “connecting the dots” of the counseling procedure because cognition is now difficult.  They are in what is known as “the flight or fight” syndrome.  The Vagus Nerve which controls unconscious body reactions like heart rate, breathing, sweating and loss of bladder control is frozen.  The Vagus Nerve orchestrates relaxation, self- soothing, social interaction reactions and flight or fight responses.      In other words, the Vagus Nerve must be regulated because it tells the body and brain that the threat is over and we can return to calm.  Once we have returned to calm(regulation) cognitive events such as counseling will tend to be more beneficial.

The most common method in regulating after a traumatic event is critical incident debriefing.  Debriefing is NOT counseling, it is normalizing.  Debriefing has proven to be very effective in dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) symptoms.  This is the piece that is the most often missed in these situations.  It is not only the students who need debriefing, it is also the school staff, parents of students, and students in schools of surrounding communities.   

Some early PTSD symptoms include flashbacks, sensitivity to light and sound, hyperactivity, nightmares, trouble sleeping, temper/anger tantrums, easily stressed out, mood swings and crying.  In my professional opinion, deal with the trauma first.  Putting a person in front of a counselor who is not trauma informed and trained could make the situation worse.  Parents and school personnel, be aware of the early signs of PTSD.  My prayers and thoughts are with you.


Written by Dave Opalewski. Dave is a National Level Speaker and Educator.  He also is the author of the top-selling manual Confronting Death in the School Family.

Photograph by Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post