MUSC experts working on Mass Violence Center discuss latest school shooting

February 15, 2018
This image from the website shows some of the coverage of a school shooting that killed 17 people.
This image from the website shows some of the coverage of a school shooting that killed 17 people.

When news broke about the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a lot of people shook their heads and watched in horror. Rochelle Hanson got on the phone. “I reached out to several folks I worked with when I was there.”

The Medical University of South Carolina psychologist recently trained mental health experts in Broward County, Florida, where the shooting happened, in how to work with children and families who have experienced traumatic events. So yesterday, she reached out to the people she worked with. “I said, ‘What can we do? We can give you information, handouts, put you in touch with people as needed.’”

It was exactly the type of situation a new, national center at MUSC is being developed to deal with. Hanson is part of the team working on the Mass Violence and Victimization Resource Center. So is Connie Best, another MUSC psychologist.

“At some point my sadness has an edge of being very frustrated as a nation," Best said. "It’s very frustrating to say we as a nation don’t have a plan to prevent this.”

There may not be an agreed-upon plan to prevent mass shootings, but there is an effort to make sure people affected by such violence get the best treatment possible. That’s where the MUSC-based center, funded by an $18 million grant from the federal Office for Victims of Crime, will come in.

“We need to look at it from a scientist’s viewpoint,” Best said.

Two months into a three-year effort to create the national resource center, some pieces are already beginning to fall into place. The government grant pays for 20 full-time employees for the center, which will take a data-driven approach to determining what works and what does not when it comes to helping people in the aftermath of mass violence. It will also become a central site for resources for communities that find themselves dealing with large, deadly incidents.

Hanson said research will play an important role. “We’ll do surveys, interviews, focus groups. We want to fine-tune as a nation the way we respond, developing protocols that can be used.”

There will also be a Mass Violence Victimization and Resource Center website, with resources for everyone from survivors to first responders to doctors and nurses who care for victims, and the MUSC team is developing training and self-help apps.

But MUSC isn’t going it alone. It’s working with other schools to develop the center, including the Boston University School of Public Health and the University of California-Los Angeles, along with mayors, attorneys general and non-governmental organizations.

Best, who has been involved in caring for survivors of church shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, and Sutherland Springs, Texas, and helped colleagues in the aftermath of the Las Vegas concert shootings, said mass violence has effects that go far beyond the people who were threatened or hurt. It impacts the rescuers on the scene, loved ones of the victims and survivors, and even strangers who weren’t anywhere near the incident but were emotionally affected by seeing news reports about it.

“It really is a violation of feelings of safety that all of us have as human beings,” Best said. “We’re a community of people.”

With that in mind, Hanson offered some advice for families in the wake of the Florida shooting. “A lot of it will depend on the age of the child. Adolescents, in general, are going through a tumultuous time trying to figure out who they are and tend to pull away from adults. Adults need to let these kids know they’re there, but kids also need to have permission to be by themselves. Their peers are extremely important to them. Have an open door. Be there when they reach out.”

She also suggested encouraging them to take breaks from social media. When it comes to younger kids, Hanson said parents should limit their exposure to information about traumatic events.

“The good news is, most kids are going to be OK,” she said. “The way kids respond is so directly connected to how their parents are doing. And parents can remind their children of all the positives — the way the community comes together and of all the adults available to help keep them safe.”