The principal of Columbine High School, Frank DeAngelis, has been in a number of car accidents over the last 13 years – many having occurred around the time of year the tragic shooting took place at his school in 1999 – so he tries to avoid driving during those weeks each year.
Nearly 14 years later, he still receives phone calls from former students, and occasionally some of their spouses, who still struggle with the memories of what happened on that terrible day.
Speaking at a symposium hosted by the United Way of Western Connecticut and Western Connecticut State University last week, DeAngelis said that for those affected by the tragic events of 12/14, moving forward is a marathon not a sprint.
Statistics confirm this. Unfortunately, Sandy Hook is not the first community to experience a school shooting or traumatic loss. By now the names are familiar: Virginia Tech, Aurora, the Sikh Temple, Tuscon, an Amish schoolhouse and, of course, Columbine and 9/11.
The goal of the symposium was to connect our community with others who have experienced mass trauma, and hear their experiences. They came not to tell us what to do, but to share what we may anticipate and to prepare us, learning from their mistakes and their successes. Among those who served on the panels were DeAngelis, Mary Fetchet, Founding Director of VOICES of September 11th, Dr. Jamie Howard of the Child Mind Institute, Melissa Brymer of Terrorism & Disaster Programs Center for Child Traumatic Stress, UCLA, Bill Keegan from Heart 9/11, and others equally qualified to shed light on our path forward.
Although there are significant differences among each of these tragedies, there is much we can learn from them.
According to the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), 77 percent of children who directly witnessed a sniper shooting on their school’s playground had moderate to severe PTSD symptoms and 67 percent of those in the school building at the time also developed moderate or severe symptoms.
A Canadian study found that the rate of PTSD following a shooting at Dawson College in 2006 was actually smaller than the increases in alcohol and drug abuse and major depressive disorder.
We also know that the closer a person is to the tragic event, literally, the greater the risk they face. Past trauma also plays a significant role in how a person will respond in the wake of 12/14.
The numbers are great of whom we know were significantly impacted by the events on 12/14, most obviously the victims’ families. But there are also two surviving teachers; 12 surviving children from the classrooms the shooter attacked; first responders which came from every surrounding town and the state; and hundreds of teachers, staff and students in the school that day. A whole community is impacted, with relatives, friends and colleagues stretching across the region and the country.
Indeed, we know that some of these people have not been able to return to work or have reached the limits of insurance coverage for mental health counseling.
The good news is that there are pro-active therapies that can help and there are resources available to meet many of the community’s needs for years to come. A shift needs to begin, from crisis reaction to prevention. We do not want to be sharing our war stories with the next traumatized community. If the right course of prevention and care is implemented, it is my hope that we will be the community that shares what worked; that we didn’t experience all the dire warnings of suicide attempts, increased child abuse, depression, divorce and substance abuse. While 12/14 created horror, let’s have Newtown and its surrounding communities meet this unspeakable tragedy with hope, compassion, and preventive care that will help limit further heartbreak.
Rudolph Giuliani, Mayor of New York City during one of the most horrible terrorist acts in our nation’s history, spoke to families, first responders, teachers and community leaders at a private reception hosted by United Way last week. One of the points he made as he was describing his own long-term challenge was this: “It isn’t all just about you,” he said. “It’s about your wife, and your husband; your children and your grandchildren, and your neighbors – and you have an obligation to start moving in a positive path – so you can help them to start moving in a positive path.”
What better way to honor the brave teachers and administrators who gave their lives to save others than to promise to help and support those that they saved for as long as they need us?