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Slow Healing Columbine Aftermath

After the shootings at Columbine High, how is the community doing? What changes have been made? Are they moving on? This week -- America's Safe Schools Week -- Education World looks back at the tragic events and looks at how schools in Jefferson County, Colorado, are coping.

The nation watched, over and over again on videotape, as he dragged his injured body over a window transom, escaping the rampage of gunfire inside Columbine High School, and tumbled two stories to SWAT team members below.

Last month that boy, 18-year-old Pat Ireland, was elected homecoming king at Columbine High School. Still partially paralyzed from shots to the head and foot and undergoing intensive physical therapy, Ireland is emblematic of the high school, the town of Littleton, and the schools of Jefferson County. Injured but healing, they are moving forward the best they can.

"The fear of safety continues, but life goes on," said Nancy Newquist, a staff member at a Jefferson County high school, eight miles from Columbine." My co-worker's son was shot several times in the leg. He has healed physically but has a long way to go in healing emotionally."

Jefferson County Public Schools, which includes Columbine, operates 16 high schools in the 780-square-mile Colorado county. "The counselors are always ready to help anyone who has fears, and their services have been used greatly this year," Newquist told Education World. "The emotional stability at my school is fragile, but not as fragile as [at] Columbine, I'm sure. The students at my school have friends and relatives attending Columbine, and the tragic event affected our school very deeply."

Measures have been taken to allay those fears at Jefferson County high schools. For example, entry is limited to main entrances, and only visitors with valid identification are admitted. All faculty, staff, and students must wear picture identification badges at all times. A police officer and two security guards have been fixtures at Newquist's school for some time, and extra security personnel are now employed on days when "there may be trouble," she said. The school district now has an 800 number that students can call if they hear of any threats or rumors of someone carrying a weapon.


At Columbine elementary schools, where the innocence of young children still reigns, the fears have been quicker to subside, the path to status quo a little smoother. "Things were different right after the shooting -- parents were at school a lot more," said Jeanne Shirley, who teaches fifth grade at one of the county's 92 elementary schools.

"This year, we've tried to make it as normal as we could," Shirley said. For the most part, the school has succeeded. "I think most teachers and students feel like I feel -- that [the shooting] was a bizarre incident and the chances of it happening again are slim to none."

Still, the school has convened a committee, of which Shirley is a member, to formulate a crisis management plan. The committee is devising procedures to deal with hostage situations, explosions, "any kind of violent act," Shirley said.

In day-to-day situations, "we've talked a lot more about zero tolerance for teasing and taunting," she said. "We're more aware of that being a potential problem."

The school has had a peer mediation program in place for years that teaches students the skills to resolve conflicts to everyone's satisfaction. "These are just skills they need for life," Shirley said.


But such a program didn't prevent the Columbine shootings. The lessons to prevent such tragedy must come from a broader spectrum than schools, says Jefferson County district attorney Dave Thomas. Such lessons must come from society as a whole.

"What I hope is that [the Columbine tragedy] touches enough people that we can have a huge cultural change," Thomas said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. "I've seen one very large change in my lifetime surrounding people's drinking habits. When I was a young prosecutor, when we'd get off work at 5 p.m., we'd go to the neighborhood bar, and we generally were there many hours. If you went to a chamber of commerce meeting at 11:30, they'd roll out the hospitality cart and everybody would have a couple of drinks before lunch. That just doesn't happen anymore.

"I think the same kind of change has to happen around violence. And I'm not just talking physical violence. I'm talking about verbal and emotional violence, the way we talk to our kids, the way we discipline kids, the way we intimidate spouses. I'm hoping that if we take violence as our focal point, that we can make it unacceptable. It's like a drunk person walking into the room. We used to laugh at him. We don't do that anymore. It's not funny. It's actually very sad. We know that now.

"If we could change our attitudes toward violence, our fear of each other, it might change the way that I relate to my neighbors. Maybe we'll spend more time going to the people who live next door and say, 'Hey, can I do something to help you?' and we won't be so isolated."


In the months since the tragedy, the town of Littleton and the schools of Jefferson County have been anything but isolated, in ways both good and bad. Besieged by the media for so long, school district personnel are understandably encouraged to keep looking forward and discouraged from talking to the press. 

The poem "Please Remember," by P. S. Walker, is a reminder to everyone who teases and to everyone who is teased; it would be a worthy addition to any classroom wall:

Please Remember

Please take a minute to remember
What teasing, name calling, and ridiculing can do
The harm that it can cause
The people that it can hurt
The turmoil that it adds to
As I try to figure out where I fit in

I am someone's son
I am someone's daughter
I am someone's pride and joy
I am the center of someone's universe

Please don't classify me
For the clothes that I wear
Or for the music that I listen to
Because I may be short or tall
Because I am fat or thin
Don't classify me
For the color of my skin

Please don't categorize me
Because I excel academically or athletically
Because I may be an honor student
Because I may play sports
Or because I'm none of the above

Don't call me a nerd, geek, preppy, or a jock
I just do some things better than you
And other things not as well
Am I different from you, or
Are you different from me
Aren't we just individuals
Each trying to make our own way in life

Please take a minute to remember
I am someone's son
I am someone's daughter
I am someone's pride and joy
I am the center of someone's universe

Shirley, who had taught some of the students who were killed at Columbine last spring, thinks as vital as it is to learn from the shootings, it's equally important to maintain perspective. "As a teacher, I haven't felt any different for my safety," she said. "I really feel that public schools are as safe as they can be. We need to move forward."

Slowly, steadily, they are.

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Article by Colleen Newquist
Education World®
Copyright © Education World

Updated 12/16/2012