A mother of a Columbine High School pupil at the time of the shootings, Carolyn Lunsford Mears has discovered it is possible to build a new normal in the aftermath of devastating loss in schools – and reading lessons learned by survivors can help the healing.
On 20th April 1999 I heard that there had been a shooting at my son’s school. My response was that it was probably nothing… that sort of thing just didn’t happen at Columbine High School.
On that beautiful spring day two seniors launched the assault they had planned for a year, placing large propane bombs in the cafeteria. Their intent was to kill as many students and staff as possible. Thankfully, the bombs failed to explode, but the attackers opened fire, killing a teacher and 12 students, wounding 24 others, traumatising the entire school, and then committing suicide in the library.
I couldn’t get to the school and was told to wait at a nearby elementary school where my husband and others awaited news of loved ones. Over three hours later, we learned that our son was alive.
Our wait was gruelling, but for our 15-year-old son it was unimaginable. He was in the cafeteria when he saw teacher Dave Sanders (who was later killed), yelling for students to get down. My son and his friends dove under a table and brainstormed how to save their lives.
One remembered the Jonesboro school tragedy a year previously, where students set off a fire alarm and waited outside to fire on those leaving the building. My son and friends found safety in a closet and heard the gunfire, explosions and sirens, but had no idea what was happening.
My son was not physically injured in the attack, but he, like others, was traumatised. Our world did not have such risk – who could have imagined that someone sitting next to you in class was plotting your destruction?
Intense grief and anxiety took a toll but he returned to school and, though his grades slipped a bit, appeared to be okay. At home, we could see this was not the case. His hyper vigilance, quick temper, moodiness and withdrawal from friends and family were symptoms of trauma. Such responses are common after a life-threatening event, and no matter how much we want to return normal, trauma causes very real neurological and psychological changes.
In the aftermath, survivors can experience impaired memory and difficulty concentrating and problem-solving. Feelings of victimisation often cause defensiveness and a need to assert control. For some, anger is a coping response; others withdraw or disassociate. Trauma responses can be retriggered by sensory memories.
To reduce retraumatisation, the school library (scene of the most killing) was removed and a new library built elsewhere; food served that day was taken off the cafeteria menu; fire alarms were changed; and Columbine became a balloon-free school – if one popped it sounded like gunfire.
In the aftermath we learned things that I felt could benefit others, so I entered a doctoral programme to do dissertation research on the topic. I wanted to help others understand and be better prepared.
After disaster, educators must face their own trauma response while they continue to teach. Therapists offer psychological counselling, but there’s little guidance for teaching in the aftermath. As a result, I have continued work in this area, recently publishing an anthology of stories and lessons learned from survivors elsewhere, including the dean of New York Law School (near the World Trade Center); educators from schools destroyed by Hurricane Katrina; counsellors in Jokela, Finland, scene of another school shooting; Columbine teachers and students; a safety consultant who was abused as a child, and others. The anthology shares what these people found helpful in reclaiming school in the aftermath.
You may be reading this blog and thinking that what happened at Columbine, Louisiana, Jokela, or New York could not happen in your school. I sincerely hope you’re right. But trauma doesn’t have to be a shooting or major disaster. It is often more personal – the suicide of a friend, a parent’s loss of employment, divorce, or a traffic accident. There could be a student in your class whose behaviour has recently changed, perhaps a former straight-A student is suddenly struggling to complete simple tasks. Or maybe a previously outgoing pupil has become withdrawn. I suggest considering the possibility that unresolved trauma may be involved. There are instructional strategies for helping such students, and being informed and prepared in advance can make a difference.
As for my son? He had the courage to struggle in the aftermath and work his way through. He earned a mechanical engineering degree and launches rockets for the space programme. He is happily married and soon to become a father.
We’re doing okay. Things will never go back to what was before, and we have learned that even after devastating loss, it is possible to build a new normal and to create a new and fulfilling future.
• Carolyn Lunsford Mears holds a research position, serves on the Graduate School of Social Work Trauma Certificate Board, and is a dissertation advisor and adjunct faculty at the Morgridge College of Education, University of Denver. Reclaiming school in the aftermath of trauma: advice based on experience by Carolyn Lunsford Mears is published by Palgrave Macmillan. Carolyn will be talking about her experiences at the Oral History Society conference, Displaced Childhoods: Oral history and traumatic experiences, in Southampton in July.