On 20 April, 1999 in Columbine, Colorado, two students heavily armed with semi-automatic guns and explosive devices went into Columbine High School with the intention of causing maximum destruction and death. In the period of an hour they had murdered a teacher and 12 students, they had left 24 students seriously injured and many others suffering with psychological and emotional wounds from their experience. Today many still suffer as a result of that traumatic experience.
Carolyn Lunsford Mears came to HMP Send to talk to the women about her experience as a parent of a Columbine High School student exposed to the shootings which led her on to conducting a dissertation research into the impact of the tragedy on schools and families. Carolyn described to a silent group of women the events that took place on that day. She explained how her younger son experienced the assault on his school, and later when things were supposed to be getting back to normal, how he struggled with the community to find their way through what seemed to be a never ending nightmare.
Carolyn described some of the actions that were put in place, when the students and teachers eventually returned to the school, in order to minimise the potential for re-triggering the trauma, mental health counsellors advised changes to the physical environment (e.g. new paint and flooring). One of the measures in place included advance notice being given whenever a fire drill was scheduled, and the sound of the alarm was changed. The school became a ‘balloon free school’ for years, because the sound of a balloon popping triggered traumatic memories of gunfire in the halls. It became clear that people could be re-traumatised by anything that involved the senses – smell, touch, sound and sight. For some it was even taste, like the food served in the cafeteria that day. For students trapped in a storage room with cleaning supplies, it was the smell of cleaner.
In post discussion with the women, they found her visit to be informative about the effects of trauma and the long term results of this. They also related to many of the triggers, described by Carolyn, both before prison and during their sentence. Since the visit I have read the book Reclaiming School In The Aftermath of Trauma with advice based on experience, and edited by Carolyn Lunsford Mears and would recommend it to anyone else with an interest in trauma.
Carolyn Lunsford Mears is the author of the award-winning study Experiences of Columbine Parents: Finding a Way to Tomorrow and Interviewing for Education and Social Science Research: The Gateway Approach. She 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
Steve Dempsey is a Specialist Therapeutic Community Officer at HMP Send