Parents gather in a circle to pray at a recreation center where students were reunited with their parents after a shooting at a suburban Denver middle school Tuesday, May 7, 2019, in Highlands Ranch, Colo.

David Zalubowski/AP Photo

At first, it was a normal day for Marcus Sovich. The 15-year-old sophomore was in history class at STEM School Highland Ranch. Then came the lockdown.

He and his classmates heard muffled sounds from the hallways. Then after about 10 minutes they started getting worried. It didn’t seem like a drill.

They hunkered down in the classroom, away from the door. Sovich said some students were on their phones and saw it was a shooting. A half hour or more after it all began, “the SWAT team busted down the door,” Sovich said. “Then they pointed their guns at us and told us to put hands in the air and they walked us out single file out of the school.” 

Later, he and others found out two of their peers had entered the school with guns and started shooting. Eight students were injured and one killed.

Mental Health Colorado advises anyone who feels unsafe or hears about a threat to visit www.Safe2Tell.org or call 877-542-7233.

To talk with speak with a trained crisis counselor now, call the Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255.

With scenes like that, American high schools today can be anxious places for students who are well aware of past school tragedies.

Marcus Sovich is a 15-year-old student at STEM School Highlands Ranch who went through the lockdown during Tuesday's shooting.

Courtesy of Marcus Sovich

“I often am paranoid about this,” said Sovich, who described feeling a bit jittery as he crouched in his history classroom. It adds to the broader stress students are under.

The shooting will likely have long-lasting mental health effects in a state that has dealt with similar events several times before, from Columbine and the Aurora Theater Shooting.

The effects of the shooting at STEM School may be particularly intense, as it comes so soon on the heels of the 20th anniversary of Columbine. Plus, just last month schools along the Front Range were closed, as police responded to a potential threat of an attack.

“I do think this is another level of stress and anxiety for folks,” said Dr. Jennifer Hagman, a child psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “I think it’s really important for parents to validate for themselves and for their kids that this was scary, if that’s how their kids were experiencing it."

Schools near STEM School shut down as well and families throughout the community are grappling with hard conversations.

Claire Reedy’s daughters attend Arma Dei Academy, near STEM School. The academy locked down yesterday while Reedy was in her daughter Miriam’s second grade-classroom. They huddled away from the windows and in the darkness, Reedy said they quietly prayed together, which was calming.

When they got home, Reedy talked it over with her daughters and prayed for the students and perpetrators involved in the incident.

“I’m so sad our students have to go through this,” she said.

Her younger daughter Annika was locked in the classroom next door. Reedy said her daughter was afraid someone was going to come in through the windows. On Wednesday, Annika was still afraid, thinking the shooters might break out of jail and attack the school.

Mental health specialists say one of the most important messages for students, as well as teachers, first responders and others, is to know that help is available — and that school is still a safe place to be.

 
 
“There are things we can do to help support them,” said Dr. Sarah Davidon, director of research and child and adolescent strategy with Mental Health Colorado, and the mother of two 11-year-olds.
 
“We need to recognize their sense of anxiety and tension,” Davidon said. When she talks to her own children about these events, she said, “I want them to feel safe and I want them to know schools are still safe places to be.”
 
Hagman also recommends talking through emergency plans with students. She said it’s also valuable to discuss school safety, for kids to know many people like teachers, administrators and school security are working to keep school safe. 
 
Reassurance, routine and honesty are essential at times like this, Davidon said. When kids are curious, “we need to be comfortable with saying ‘I don’t know,’” she said. Davidon recommends leaving space for kids to express their emotions, and to be a little gentler with expectations and demands.
Teachers, parents and other adults need to be attuned to what’s happening in a young person’s world, she said. Exposure to trauma like what happened at STEM School Tuesday does heighten mental health risks. Research shows mass shootings can spark post traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicide. 
 
More communities need to plan ahead and head off future problems, she said. “We need to insure that communities have adequate mental health professionals,” not just when somebody hits a crisis or gets a mental health diagnosis, but in a “preventative way.”
 
Practical steps like sleep, diet and exercise can help students and adults cope. “If people have had some sort of traumatic experience, the best way to deal with that is social connection and exercise,” said David Hughlock, a father and an associate professor of school psychology at the University of Northern Colorado. 
 
And while parents may feel a strong desire to check in on students and talk through what happened, Hurlock said it’s important to let children guide the conversation.
 
“They may not want to talk about it,” he said on Colorado Matters. “And if the kids do want to talk about it, then I'm certainly willing to be there to sit and listen and to talk about what their feelings are.”
 
As Sovich contemplated returning to school, he said his connections with friends and faculty at the school will help him get through it. 
 
“What makes this school great, at least for me, is the people that go there,” he said. “It's the interactions that a lot of us have with each other and how we can all kind of help each other get through things like this.”
 
Going forward, Davidon said it’s valuable for those who’ve survived a school shooting to connect with “other people who have had similar experiences.” 
 
And in the coming weeks and months, adults at schools will need to pay special attention to students may feel powerless and could be dealing with personal failures, bullying, or maltreatment by others  in order to prevent any kind of repeat. Davidon pointed to data indicating most attackers gave some indication ahead of time of their grievances and plans.
 
“We need to listen,” Davidon said.