Content warning: this article discusses gun violence

Molly Schnell, an assistant economics professor at Northwestern, gave a virtual talk about her research on the effects of school shootings on survivors Thursday morning.

“We can’t address a problem that we don’t know exists,” Schnell said. “The media, policymakers and researchers have focused on the victims physically hurt by school shootings, but there’s a lot less research on their surviving classmates.”

During her talk, Schnell discussed two different projects. The first was published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, exploring the effect of school shootings on antidepressant use among local youths. The second project, which is still ongoing, looks at educational and economic trajectories of students after school shootings.

Before jumping into the detailed data, Schnell opened the discussion with some comparisons: namely, that school shootings in the United States are 50 times more common than in Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Italy and the United Kingdom combined.

“What you also see is that they’re becoming more frequent in the United States,” Schnell said. “To the extent that they are going to continue to happen, we really need to take a step back and think about how these events are affecting our students so we can effectively target resources to them.”

Schnell’s 2020 paper, co-authored by Maya Rossin-Slater, Hannes Schwandt, Sam Trejo and Lindsey Uniat, is titled “Local exposure to school shootings and youth antidepressant use.” It analyzes long-term impacts of school shootings on economic well-being.

Schnell’s research discovered that antidepressant use among local youths increases by 20-25% in the 2-3 years following fatal school shootings. Their study did not find the same results with non-fatal school shootings and shootings targeted toward adults. Schnell concluded that “the effects are concentrated on school-aged children in the local area following shooting events.”

“The first explanation is increased incidence,” Schnell explained. “Following the shooting, you see a deterioration of mental health. On the flip side, following school shootings, the school is flooded by mental health resources, and more students are getting screened for the first time. You’re treating pathologies that previously existed and weren’t getting treated.”

Schnell then moved to discuss her second, ongoing work, “Trauma at School: The Impacts of Shootings on Students’ Human Capital and Economic Outcomes.” This paper examines data on K-12 Texas students and their path through college into the labor market.

“I can’t overstate how unique this data is, that we can see students in kindergarten, then in college and then in the labor market. This will allow us to see students that are exposed to this event and follow them for a decade afterwards,” Schnell said.

Using demographically similar schools as a control group, the researchers found that absenteeism increases by 12-28% following a school shooting. Schnell also noted that all students were negatively impacted, regardless of socioeconomic status.

“Going into this analysis, we did not have a clear idea on who would be affected more. One the one hand, affluent students have more resources to mitigate harms. But, it could be argued that they might experience larger effects because they are less likely to be exposed to trauma outside of school, so a school shooting will be more jarring,” Schnell remarked. “[Since] the negative impacts are relatively universal … no student is fully protected from these events.”

However, shootings did intersect with class in terms of students’ long-run outcomes: students exposed to shootings were less likely to attend college, more likely to be unemployed between the ages of 24 and 26, and more likely to earn lower salaries.

One listener asked Schnell if she and her team encountered any political opposition in their research. Schnell acknowledged that while politics do pose a problem for the field, her team had more flexibility because, as part of university economics departments, they did not have to rely on grant funding.

“The part where it became political was with the data,” Schnell said. “I was amazed that Texas was tracking students to this level … We had to be very careful with the language we used in pitching it to the state and stakeholders. We discussed in our application that our research would help inform discussions on gun control, and that had to be removed from the proposal.”

Another listener asked if Schnell would be involved in efforts to create better interventions for school shooting survivors. Although Schnell responded that she was not trained in qualitative research, she emphasized the importance of such improvements.

“To the extent that we’re finding effects, it suggests that current resources directed toward survivors aren’t doing enough to offset the effects on shooting survivors,” Schnell said.

*Article thumbnail courtesy of  Molly Schnell