MSU shooting, one year later: What science says about trauma and healing


At just 23 years-old, it was his third such harrowing experience. He was also in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park when a rooftop gunman shot into a July 4th crowd the year before, and was student-teaching at Okemos High School a week before the MSU shooting, when a fake threat prompted a campus-wide lockdown.

This month, he took a job as an art teacher in nearby Eaton Rapids.

In this new classroom, he said, “the first thing I did — I looked for emergency exits. I need to know. How do I get out? What is the plan? What are the supplies I have? How do I lock the doors? What do I need?”

‘A stampede out the door’

People respond differently under attack, just as they will experience its aftermath differently, Folino Ley said.

“Even two people sitting right next to each other, seemingly experiencing the exact same thing, could have totally different reactions,” Folino Ley said. In the moment, “one might scream, one might be unable to scream.”

At the height of tragedy — those moments of fight-or-flight — the brain’s limbic system snaps into action, triggering physical responses to sharply emotional experiences such as fear.

In doing so, the system lays down abnormal memories that can later reignite with maddening unpredictability. That memory can be the mundane — the taste of a sandwich being eaten just as shots shatter the peace, or the unusual — the flutter of police tape in the aftermath.

A single sound, a smell — and “you’re going back in the tragedy, you’re right back in the trauma. It’s intrusive and unwanted,” Folino Ley said.

Students who witnessed the tragedy in the MSU Union said it started with the sound of a tray being dropped. It took a few moments and two more bangs to realize they were hearing gunshots.

At that point, “it was a stampede out the door,” said Jacob Catalina, a senior journalism major who had been at the union grabbing dinner with friends.


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