Introduction: Within one month (March 2001), two separate incidents of school shootings occurred at two different high schools within the same school district in San Diego's East County.
Objective: To examine community-wide expressions of post-traumatic distress resulting from the shootings that may or may not fulfill DSM-IV criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but which might interfere with treatment and the prevention of youth violence.
Methods: A qualitative study was undertaken using Rapid Assessment Procedures (RAP) in four East San Diego County communities over a six-month period following the two events. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 85 community residents identified through a maximum variation sampling technique. Interview transcripts were analyzed by coding consensus, co-occurrence, and comparison, using text analysis software.
Results: Three community-wide patterns of response to the two events were identified: (1) 52.9% of respondents reported intrusive reminders of the trauma associated with intense media coverage and subsequent rumors, hoaxes, and threats of additional acts of school violence; (2) 44.7% reported efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, conversations, or places (i.e., schools) associated with the events; negative assessment of media coverage; and belief that such events in general cannot be prevented; and (3) 30.6% reported anger, hyper-vigilance, and other forms of increased arousal. Twenty-three (27.1%) respondents reported symptoms of fear, anxiety, depression, drug use, and psychosomatic symptoms in themselves or others.
Conclusions: School shootings can precipitate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder at the community level. Such symptoms hinder the treatment of individuals with PTSD and the implementation of effective prevention strategies and programs.