A team of Boston University researchers is conducting a survey this summer focusing on Watertown and Framingham parents and teachers to determine whether being geographically close to traumatic events — such as those related to the Boston Marathon bombings — leads children and teens to develop stress disorders.
Jonathan Comer, an assistant professor at BU who directs the university’s early childhood interventions program, said researchers will compare answers about youngsters’ mental health before, during, and after the attacks and the hunt for suspects, drawing on communities that are similar in terms of their socioeconomic demographics.
“Children in Framingham were of course much further away from the epicenter of the events in Boston and Watertown,” which makes it an ideal community for comparison, he said.
Among other areas, Comer said, he is interested in one particular topic. He conducted a similar survey after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and found that children who were not geographically near the tragedy still developed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Kids closer to the attack weren’t necessarily showing a large number of symptoms,” he said. “Due to television and other media exposure, kids could be far away and still meet the criteria for PTSD. The traditional bull’s-eye model, where you have to be closer to the epicenter to have higher symptoms, doesn’t necessarily hold true.”
The BU survey is open to parents and teachers throughout Greater Boston, Comer said, but the team plans to focus on responses from Watertown and Framingham to determine differences.
The survey comes after two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon’s finish line on April 15, killing three people and injuring dozens more. The bombing suspects, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were involved in a shootout with police in Watertown on April 19 during which Tamerlan was killed. Dzhokhar was captured in a boat in a Watertown backyard after a daylong hunt during which police urged residents in area communities to stay indoors.
School officials in Watertown took special steps to deal with any lingering trauma resulting from the attack and the aftermath. They sought the repetitive routine of a normal day while also using psychological techniques to pinpoint any students who might be traumatized from the events.
Barbara Gortych, the school system’s coordinator of guidance and assessment, said the district held a three-day, 10-hour workshop in which experts from the Israeli Trauma Coalition taught teachers to identify children abnormally affected by the events, and to help the majority of students through their feelings.
“They were helpful in providing exercises to help all children, whether they were severely traumatized or not so traumatized,” Gortych said. One exercise, she said, was to give students a piece of paper and have them fold it into thirds. “On the first third they would draw a picture of how they felt before the event; the middle third was how they felt during; and the last third was how it feels now,” she said.
Superintendent Jean Fitzgerald said in addition to workshops for teachers, the district has also held a half-dozen parent support meetings since mid-April, and she noted that school guidance counselors have directed students troubled by the events to psychologists to receive help.
“I think we all experienced something no other district in Massachusetts has experienced,” she said. “We actively sought help and received it and passed it along to our staff. It will be interesting to see how the research applies to Watertown.”
Jason Del Porto, assistant principal at Watertown Middle School, said he thinks more research into improving response techniques is necessary.
“We have more active shootings in schools these days than we have had before, and we have an increase in terrorist activity on our soil,” he said. “It forces the schools to look at how they manage their kids and their families, and how to be better prepared for those events. For good or for bad, we are faced with it.”
In Framingham, administrators urged teachers and principals to look for signs of student distress after the Marathon events. However, the district’s chief operating officer, Edward Gotgart, said students reacted more forcefully to the Newtown, Conn., school shootings in December, when 20 first-graders and six adult staff members were killed by a single gunman.
Gotgart said Framingham officials began an overhaul of security and mental health support services after the Newtown shootings, but the district did comparatively little after the Boston bombings and Watertown manhunt.
“We haven’t felt a need or demand for additional support services after the Marathon — we didn’t have a significant impact here,” Gotgart said, noting that Framingham was not locked down like Watertown during the April 19 search. “Since the Newtown shooting happened in a school and killed teachers and students, it was much easier for students and teachers to be impacted by that than a seemingly random bombing at a Boston sporting event.”
He said administrators sent parents a reminder after the bombings that support was available, but, “no question,” there was a greater effort by the district to change protocol after the Connecticut attack.
“We weren’t as aggressive as after Newtown,” Gotgart said, noting that the shootings led to an additional $250,000 allocated to Framingham schools this spring to beef up security measures.
The survey, which compensates participating parents with a $30 Amazon gift card and teachers with a $10 gift card, takes less than an hour for parents, and about 20 minutes for teachers, Comer said. The participants can also elect to donate their compensation to the One Fund Boston.
Answers in the questionnaire are strictly confidential, Comer said, and will focus on how parents and their children experienced the bombings and the manhunt in Watertown, and how parents helped their kids process the events and cope with them afterward.
The BU survey will also focus on the moods and behavior of children throughout the events, in an effort to help researchers determine how parents, teachers, and other officials can better react to traumatic events in the future.
“We’re trying to figure out which kids are the most vulnerable, and which geographic regions might need services that they’re not getting now,” Comer said.
The teacher questionnaire will focus on how educators reacted to students who showed traumatic stress symptoms in a school setting, said Jen Green, a BU education professor helping to lead the survey.
The teacher’s survey has received a handful of responses, but researchers hope to have at least 100 educators fill it out this summer, Green said.
“We’ve had a couple people talking about wanting more training in identifying students who might need support, and some teachers want to know how to discuss these crises in classes, or have more specific information on what to say and how to bring it up,” Green said.
Comer said he hopes to survey about 1,000 parents this summer, and will publish results in the fall in scientific journals, as well as discuss the findings at local community meetings.
The BU team obtained authorization to recruit survey-takers through the school system by sending letters home to parents, and featuring links to the questionnaire on the Watertown district’s website, Comer said. “Part of that agreement was doing a presentation, which we’re happy to do.”