With A Threat To Schools Near The Columbine Anniversary, A Tough Week For Mental Health Got Tougher

April 18, 2019
Photo: Columbine High School Building 2 HV 20190417
A Jefferson County Sheriff's cruiser parked outside Columbine High School Wednesday April 17 2019.

It was a tough week for many families in the Denver area, as schools and daycare centers closed with little warning due to the threat posed by an armed young woman who authorities feared was planning a school shooting. That woman was later found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound and schools reopened Thursday. The threat came just days before the 20th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School in Jefferson County. The fear created by the situation is likely to linger, leaving its mark on students, families, teachers and mental health workers across the Front Range. 

At the Jefferson Center, a local mental health agency in Jefferson County, counselors were grappling with the community’s worries over this week’s threat -- and with their own memories.

In 1999, staff members spent months working with a community rocked by the shootings at Columbine High School. About 50 of those people still work for the agency. Those people “certainly have a lot of painful memories about that day,” Center CEO Kiara Kuenzler said. “Some of them had children in the schools at that time and were some of the first responders on scene with the schools to provide support.” This week’s threat and Saturday’s 20th anniversary revived those memories and brought many of the old feelings back. Newer staff found themselves dealing with feelings of hopelessness.

“Everybody’s just emotionally exhausted,” said Kuenzler. For a center tasked with caring for the community, that means caring for its own employees, too. 

For many parents, Tuesday’s lockout and Wednesday’s closure seemed like a part of a new status quo, of having their children constantly aware of the possibility of violence. Ashley Renz, the mother of two students in the Denver suburb of Lakewood, said she can’t really escape the fear of what might happen to her kids. When she dropped her son off at school on Tuesday morning, she had a feeling of foreboding, perhaps because of the Columbine anniversary.

“It’s always there at the back of your mind as a parent,” she said. “It’s part of our country’s narrative. Unfortunately we’re all trying to adjust to this new normal that shouldn’t be normal but here we are.”

For some, this week’s events have opened uncomfortable and trying conversations with their children.

In that case, experts counsel careful honesty. “You might say (law enforcement are) worried that something could happen and they’re just being really, really cautious,” said Jennifer Hagman, a  child psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “And if kids ask more you’re going to kind of gauge what you think is right to share.” With teenagers, she said, “you’re probably going to have a very direct discussion.”

Parents should let children know “that tragic incidents aren’t common, they’re not happening day to day and schools are safe places,” said Kuenzler.

Hagman also recommended to keep to everyday routines, to help children navigate the turbulence.  “Even if it’s having a dinner together as a family or watching the same TV show tonight, I think keeping as many routines as possible is really important,” she said. “It’s kind of the rhythm of our lives and, especially for kids, helps them feel secure and safer.”

Kuenzler says to keep an eye out for signs that someone might be struggling with events like the Columbine shooting or this week’s threats. “Sometimes people will shut down and become less verbal,” she said. “You may notice people’s behavior just shift or change from what’s usual.”

That might be a sign to check in or offer more support. “Some people choose to talk through feelings, some people choose to write about feelings and so it’s important to encourage a variety of ways to deal with that.”  Others might seek professional help, she said.

Most schools will have additional counseling and mental health support available over the next several days, as well. “Regrettably this is not the only time situations like this have happened in Jeffco or in schools across the country,” said Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Jason Glass. “So it’s a sad statement that we’re becoming more used to handling situations like this.”

Schools will also have additional protective measures in place and this weekend’s anniversary events will have heightened security. 

The added threat of another shooting made organizers of the events reflect on what might have to change. 

Kuenzler said the biggest shift is “a recognition that we’re all still in a vulnerable position, that people may be having more fears and more anxiety than they would have had.” 

Jefferson Center and other agencies will have counselors available at the weekend events. “There will be a lot of behavioral health support … for anyone that might want to just talk,” she said.

At Saturday’s event, the focus will be on both on commemorating the past and looking to the future of those touched by the Columbine shooting. Pastor James Hoxworth of the Bridge Church at Bear Creek will speak at Saturday’s event and plans to focus on three themes: Remember, reflect and recommit. It’s a chance, he said, to reflect on “what do we want our lives to be about.” It’s not a denial of what happened but as chance to remember that “we as a community want to continue a commitment to service, to love of one’s neighbor.”

Jefferson Center’s 24-7 emergency crisis line is 1-844-493-8255. Tips are also available on their website at jcmh.org.

Photo: Columbine Memorial HV 3 120190417
The Columbine Memorial Wednesday morning April 17 2019.

Public Columbine anniversary events:

Thursday, April 18: 6:30 p.m. “Columbine 20 Years Later:  A Faith-based Remembrance Service,” Waterstone Community Church, 5890 S. Alkire St., Littleton. Free and open to the public. Reservations required. waterstonechurch.org

Friday, April 19: 7:30 p.m. A community vigil at the Columbine Memorial in Clement Park, 7306 W. Bowles Ave. columbinememorial.org

Saturday, April 20: 3 p.m.-5 p.m. A remembrance ceremony featuring Columbine families, survivors, past and current staff members, and others from the community.

CPR reporters Jenny Brundin and John Daley contributed reporting.

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