The San Diego East County school shootings: a qualitative study of community-level post-traumatic stress

Prehosp Disaster Med. Jan-Mar 2004;19(1):113-21. doi: 10.1017/s1049023x00001564.


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.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Cultural
  • California
  • Faculty
  • Female
  • Health Personnel / psychology
  • Homicide / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Parents / psychology
  • Residence Characteristics*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology*
  • Students* / psychology