- Academic Research and Writing Tips / Tutorial

School Violence: Psychological Impact on Law Enforcement Respondents

A Conceptual Introduction

According to Nickerson and Martens, “Preventing and responding to school violence and disruption is a national priority” (p. 228). From Federal policy making to anti-bullying programs, the attention to decreasing school related violence has become a polarizing societal issue for legislation as well as scientific literature development. In the rush to better understand school violence and to prevent the negative impact of school violence, the primary focus of literature and policy makers has been prevention and development of programs to mitigate the psychological damages that occur to students who have witnessed such situations. While this is understandable and holistically necessary, the psychological impact that police respondents incur when dealing with a school violence critical incident is an under analyzed construct that too necessitates attention. According to Brown (2003), “More than any other occupation, law enforcement is an emotionally and physically dangerous job” (p. 2). Like students and other victims of school violence, first respondents are also forced to carry with them the emotional impact of experiencing such a life changing event. In an effort to better understand the current state of literature related to stress management for police officers who have been involved with school place violence, this work examined a variety of literature published on the subject as well as current programs that have been used to help assuage the negative impacts of the events on this overlooked population. The literature reviewed suggests that though most departments recognize the need for psychological treatment after such events and that some methods have been proven efficacious, however, a fully specific research based intervention program for police officers is still not available on a level of peak efficacy. Though it is recognized by the researcher that no intervention can fully assuage the negative impacts of experiencing such an event, it is true that interventions after exposure can mitigate the severity of the psychological impacts related to the phenomenon.

Stress Mitigation: Popular Theories

School Violence Law

It has long been recognized that the exposure to stress “outside the range of usual human experience” can lead to psychological problems included post-traumatic stress disorder. The degree to which such phenomena affect the individual varies greatly from one person to the next and the concept is not fully agreed upon by the psychiatric community. For example, the mental state, daily stress level, past and age of the individual experiencing the traumatic event can influence the psychological impact of the even on the individual greatly. An adolescent is generally regarded to be more psychologically fragile than their adult counterparts when dealing with traumatic events. Even beyond a single event, researchers have concluded that daily stressors “have been reported to play a more central role in the development and maintenance of psychological problems” (Berton & Stabb, 2002, p. 489). For police officers, there is significant daily stressors that are a common part of the job. As a result, based on the theories related to post traumatic stress disorder articulated by Berton and Stabb, the preponderance of daily stressors in the lives of an officer combined with a singular traumatic violent event like a school shooting would be equitable to a double jeopardy for psychological damage. Though it could be argued that police officers are trained to deal with such events, they are still human and subject to the basic human fallibility related to dealing with critical incidents and stress. The fact that police officers are trained professionals, as a result, should not be used as a rationalization for decreasing attention to psychological intervention after exposure to a violent critical incident. It could be argued that this dimension reflects an importance to pay even closer attention to such scenarios.

In a study conducted on 12 adults at 6 and 18 months after experiencing a school shooting, Schwarz, Kowalski and McNally found that after the event each of the adults significantly altered some aspect of their recall related to emotion, life threat and sensory experience related to the incident. These results suggest that some sort of psychological adjusting is going on within the minds of the individuals that have correlation to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and depression. In general, exposure to near death experiences in the face of violence is a frequent contributor to post traumatic stress or related psychological damage. For example, the National Center on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder estimates that 60-80% of soldiers who experience and IED black acquire some degree of psychological trauma artifacts from the occurrence. Soldiers, like officers, are generally considered the tough guys and are often overlooked as victims of psychological damage. As Miller explained, adaptive defensive toughness, attitude, training and temperament are part of how officers deal with stress beyond the typical exposures in which most human beings experience. Miller (2009) continued, “Sometimes, however, the stress is just too much, and the very toughness that facilitates smooth functioning in their daily duties now becomes an impediment to these helpers seeking help for themselves” (p. 592). The capacity of officers not wishing to display weakness to peers or outsiders presents a special challenge for clinicians attempting to diagnose and help officers in psychological distress.

Intervention Programs


General CISD occurs within 24-72 hours after the exposure to the incident. Often done with group evaluation teams that include peer and mental health professionals, the meetings can last for 2-3 hours depending on the situation. CISD is can occur based on a number of established dynamics including one or more of these issues: an individual appearing to be distressed after a call, signs of stress that appear severe, significant behavioral changes, making errors that they normally would not after a call, request by the officer and the event is unusual or extraordinary (Miller, 2010). In the case of school place violence, these situations would typically automatically fall into the unusual or extraordinary category. Since such occurrences are beyond the scope of normal duty and most officers will not experience such an event in their career, CISD is generally applied school violence scenarios. According to Miller (2010), the CISD process follows seven phase evolution that ultimately ends with the reentry of the officer back into regular duty. The first phase, which is the fact phase, has the respondent explain what their role was in the event and what they did during the event. After establishing what occurred, the second phase allows the respondent to explain how they felt during the event. This phase, though starting to move into emotion, is still generally an intellectual processes, which then prepared for the reaction phase, which is the entrance into the emotional level.

Reaction phases allow for the respondent to explain what the worst parts of the incidents were for them. For example, an officer experiencing a school shooting may recount that the worst part of the experience for them was hearing the screams of children. While the fact phase and even the thought phase may be fairly consistent for respondents to the same incident, the reaction phase is usually far more personal and unique. The worst part of the experience could vary greatly from one person to the next. The next phase, the symptom phase, makes the respondents describe their physical, cognitive, emotional and behavior at the scene, days after the incident and at the time of the debriefing. The re-entry phase then marks the final portion of the incident. For CISD, there are varying perspectives on how it should occur. While some departments and advocates suggest mandatory CISD for specific incidents to not single out officers, other theorists suggest that this only leads to passive participation in the process thereby making it less than efficacious. Strong arguments can be made for both perspectives.

One of the key attributes of debriefing to mitigate risks associated with post traumatic stress disorder is traumatic stress education portions. There are problems related to debriefing, however, as debriefing techniques are not designed for application on a “one off” basis, which is the way they are commonly employed. In a sample of 243 traumatized officers, no differences in psychological morbidity were found between the groups at pre-test, at 24 hours or at 6 months post trauma. In addition, debriefed subjects exhibited significantly more post traumatic stress disorder symptomatology than non debriefed subjects and high levels of satisfaction with debriefing were not reflected in positive outcomes. As a result, though debriefing is a common tool used by many police forces as the singular methodology for trauma response, its efficacy is in question based on peer reviewed studies.


With no singular program that has been agreed upon to help mitigate psychological damage associated with exposure to a critical incident, different departments deal with the situation in a variety of manners. One program used by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) is a peer based assistance program. The program, which was designed for stress symptoms related to the World Trade center disaster, acknowledges the long term problems related to exposure to trauma by police officers. According to Dowling et al. (2006), 20% of Police officers abuse alcohol as a form of self medication, increased aggression was common due to trauma exposure, higher rates of domestic violence were associated with trauma exposure and police families have been found to have higher rates of domestic violence than civilian families. All of these conditions, according to the author, can lead to depression and even suicide. In the Dowling et al. (2005), 34% of officers exposed to the traumatic event analyzed demonstrated at least one current psychological symptom that could affect their daily lives and police work. The peer based intervention program, however, demonstrated that “peer officers can be effectively used to assist police officers with post disaster related stress and of the 39,000 officers involved in the event, 28,000 were reached through the program. The peers in the program, who are trained, have demonstrated the capacity to be better trusted by fellow officers than situations where only outsiders are providing the intervention. The propensity of officers to be closed to outsiders, as expressed by Miller (2010), is mitigated through the peer intervention methods employed by the NYPD. The outcomes of this study and program suggest that similar methods could be employed by other service organizations. In addition, the program has widespread application for other traumatic events that include school violence and situations that are beyond the normal scope of duty related to every day police work.


Campus police officers at College of New Jersey undergo training that is designed to directly teach instincts and response for officers faced with school violence. The program, which focuses on theoretical and practical education carries with it a two fold goal. In one regard, the program teaches the officers how to swiftly and efficaciously deal with a threat and secondly, it helps them understand the situation better in order to help them cope in the aftermath of the event. For example, the program teaches the officers to avoid human instincts like stopping to help wounded before the perpetrator is incapacitated. By understanding the importance of such actions on the tactical and broader picture level, officers can have reduced guilt in the future that would have existed had they not understood how to properly deal with such a situation. This program believes prevention and training is the mechanism for helping officers deal with psychological impact in the wake of tragedy.

Also part of training for some departments is the inclusion of continuing education curriculum that attempts to help officers develop their own coping skills. A number of Australian police departments have based stress management tactics on research that has shown most officers use problem-focuses, direction action coping strategies with limited attention to social supports. Rather than working against the nature of most officers and attempting to force social based interventions, these methods take the innate problem focused nature of most police officers and teach them coping strategies that would work within their scope of understanding.

Other coping programs are taught in the academies for police training and also in criminal justice courses. The degree to which such curricula is present or effective varies widely from the ideology present in the respective institution or training facility. Some facilities are more focal on psychological needs and some are more traditional and focused on procedure and classic perspectives on police work. Studies to determine if this method is more or less efficacious than social coping practices for police officers is not present to the extent that sweeping conclusions can be crafted.

Conclusions: Strategies for Officers and Departments in the Wake of School Violence

Following conventional wisdom that traumatic violent events fall beneath the same window as the innate stresses associated with police work is exacerbating potential for PTSD development in officers who respond to out of the ordinary critical events. The cumulative nature of the stress associated with police work will only be compounded by a large incident like one related to school violence. The problems associated with PTSD, which include but are not limited to anxiety disorders, suicide, guilt, personality disorders, dissociative disorders, cynicism, family disruption, isolation and violence, can develop in veteran police officers at an alarming level who have been exposed to a critical incident if left untreated. Part of the strategies that should be employed by police departments included “pro-active training in both stress management and potential critical events” as it can increase “feelings of self control needed to help people overcome the overwhelming feelings they experience” during and after the event. In addition, at the conclusion of the event, debriefing practices have been demonstrated to be efficacious for identifying problems in officers. Though the degree to which the debriefing actually mitigates psychological risks associated with experiencing trauma, when combined with peer intervention based strategies, a more sustainable model emerges. Holistically, none of the theories or intervention strategies alone are sufficiently robust to deal with all of the problems associated with first response to a critical incident like school violence. As a result, officers and departments are best served through a combination of the three methods suggested. Pro-active training, debriefing and peer intervention strategies used for both long and short term dynamics are proven through literature to be a sound combined method for reducing the effects of stress related to police officers experiencing a traumatic event.

While this is likely the most efficacious approach in the current paradigm, it is simply not available to all police departments who already have challenging budgets. According to Brown who recognizes debriefing as a potential strategy for dealing with the vast majority of trauma experiences that can occur on the force, “Most small police departments in Arkansas do not have the resources or professional personnel to conduct such debriefings” (p. 16). Though he is referencing only one small area of the United States, this phenomenon can be considered fairly common. The interventions and professionals employed by the NYPD are not a reality for many police officers who deal with equally stressful situations. Though there is no fast way to assuage this phenomenon, federal grants and state grants are available and lobbying needs to occur to make such grants even more available to those departments in need. In addition, many departments do not recognize the need for such programs and choose to budget money into other places. In reality, the cost of replacing a veteran officer lost due to PTSD is much higher than the cost to train or incorporate many programs designed to help officers deal with trauma. Doing nothing, however, should not be considered an option as stress is a severe dynamic present in police work that cannot be underestimated. As a result, those events that can cause significant stress or trauma also have to be dealt with.


Berton, M.W. & Stabb, S.D. (2002). Exposure to violence and post traumatic stress disorder in urban adolescents. Adolescence, 21(122) 480-493.

Burke, H.S., Degeneffe, C.E., & Olney, M.F. (2009). A new disability for rehabilitation counselors. Iraq War veterans with traumatic brain injury an post traumatic stress disorder. Journal of Rehabilitation, 75(3), 5-8.

Cariler, I.V.E., Voerman, A.E., & Gersons, B.P.R. (2000). The influence of occupational debriefing on post traumatic stress symptomatology in traumatized police officers. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 73(1), 87-98.

owling, F.G., Moynihan, G., Genet, B., Lewis, L. (2006). A peer based assistance program with the New York City Police Department. American Psychiatric Association, 163(1), 151-153.

Evans, B.J., Coman, G.J., Stanley, R.O., Burrown, G.D. (2006). Police officers’ coping strategies: An Australian police survey. Stress Medicine, 9(4), 237-246.

Miller, L. (2010). Law enforcement traumatic stress: clinical syndromes and intervention strategies. AAETS.

Miller, L. (2009). Tough guys: Psychotherapeutic strategies with law enforcement and emergency services personnel. Psychotherapy, 1(32), 592-600.

Nickerson, A.B. & Martens, M.P. (2008). School violence: Association with control, security/ enforcement, educational/therapeutic approaches, and demographic factors. School Psychology Review, 37(2), 228-230.

Sanford, L.B. (2003). Critical Incident Stress and the Police Officer: A Pro-Active Approach. Allen Park: Michigan.

Schwarz, E.D., Kowaiski, J.M., McNally, R.J. (2006). Malignant memories: Post traumatic changes in memory in adults after a school shooting. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 6(4), 545-553.