After the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, then Superintendent Jane Hammond remembers impassioned pleas from the parents of the murdered children: Get rid of the school library where their children died.
"They didn't want people walking where their children's bodies had been," Hammond said.
Building a new library became a focus of the effort to move forward, Hammond said, and the parents organized to raise millions for the effort. "Part of the healing for them," Hammond said, "was to be involved in something that they could make happen."
In interviews this week, Hammond and Cindy Stevenson, her successor as superintendent, spoke of lessons learned in the handling of a tragedy like Newtown's. Hammond said she learned how differently people grieve and the importance of respecting those differences.
"If you do not understand that, you cannot provide support and help to each other," said Hammond, who left her job as Jefferson County superintendent about three years after the shootings.
For example, she said that one of the parents of a murdered child reached out to the parents of the shooters, while others would never do that. She said some used the opportunity to address political, religious or legal issues. Still others kept to themselves and focused on their families.
On the one-year anniversary of the shootings, Hammond said, she sent the parents of the victims flowers and a note. The responses ranged from "people being angry to others being very thankful."
"I think what I learned was you could prefer or find more attractive how some people grieve, but people have a right to grieve however they grieve," Hammond said. "And you don't have control over that and the more you accept and understand people's differences … then you can work better. You can think of how you can provide support."
In the weeks after the Columbine shootings, the district was helped immensely by volunteers who answered phones while others managed the influx of teddy bears, toys, cards and other gifts sent by well-wishers, Stevenson said.
"You have no idea. … You are going to get thousands of phone calls from all over the world," Stevenson said. She said the district fielded offers that ranged from presentations for school assemblies to a pony named "Columbine" to "purification ceremonies" to offers from rock bands to do concerts. ("Right, do you know how much work that would be for us?" asked Stevenson.)
In an interview earlier this week on Connecticut Public Radio's "Where We Live," Frank DeAngelis, who was principal of Columbine High School in 1999 and remains in that job, said that shortly after the shootiing a friend suggested he get help for himself — advice that proved valuable. "You can't help them, if you can't help yourself," DeAngelis said. "I got into counseling immediately to come up with coping skills."
DeAngelis also mentioned on the radio show that he has school staff members who were there in 1999 and would be willing to come out and help Newtown teachers. Hammond also said she is available to provide assistance. "My heart has been with you every minute," she said.
One of the major hurdles after such a horrific event is how to reclaim the school space marked by it.
For Columbine, part of that process involved the elimination of the library space as parents of the victims requested. The library was on the second floor above a cafeteria. The parents helped raise the money to have the library floor removed and replaced with an atrium above the cafeteria, with clouds painted on the ceiling and tall aspens on the walls. The construction of a new library followed.
The school was closed after the shootings on April 20, 1999, and reopened in August with a rally involving students and the entire community. Earlier in the summer, however, Hammond said, as a way to re-introduce the building, students and community members were invited into the high school and encouraged to paint a ceramic tile that would be placed above the lockers. Hammond said they were asked not to make any reference to the victims or to include any religious symbols.
Unfortunately, she said, some made tiles with religious symbols. When the school refused to display those tiles — because of the separation of church and state — the families went to court. Another lesson learned about ways of grief, Hammond said.
Making School Safe Emotionally, Physically
Soon after the shooting at Columbine, a committee was created to collect ideas about how to make the students and staff feel safe. The committee included teachers, administrators, students, parents, community members, experts on school safety and others.
Stevenson said that in retrospect she thinks the committee was established too quickly. "Conceptually, it was a really good thing to do," she said, but "people weren't ready to move from their understandable personal hurt and anger. … It was so raw and emotional."
Still, the committee came up with a variety of recommendations. They decided against metal detectors, instead choosing to lock doors except the front door. They also wanted to see more presence of "adult leadership" in the schools, Hammond said. To that end, a table was placed just inside Columbine's front door where volunteer parents sat and welcomed students and visitors. Local religious leaders came in at lunch time and sat down at students' tables and talked with them.
An effort was made to improve communication, with the police officers stationed there and between students and staff, so that any threats or problems would be reported.
Counseling was available for students and staff, and Hammond remembers that efforts were made to occasionally provide special support for teachers. At one point, she said, teachers could ease tension by getting a neck massage in the teachers' room on certain days.
A strong alumni association was also developed, raising money for programs the students would enjoy. And students spoke up about what made them feel safe and what didn't. They decided against balloons at the prom. They feared that any popping would sound too much like gunfire.
Hammond said that it was decided that it was important not to have a large memorial to the victims in the school. "You don't want symbols of the murder for kids to be seeing every day as they walk through the school," Hammond said.
A plaque was installed by the library with the names of the victims on it, Stevenson said, but a large memorial was installed on property next to the school. Stevenson said it is important that the "school itself is vibrant and alive for the current children."
How long does it take to get back to normal? Shortly after the shooting, Hammond said, she was told by one expert that she would have to let go for a while of her focus on increasing student achievement.
"I looked at him and said that was all I was hired to do," she said. Hammond said the next year, achievement at Columbine, which had been rising, leveled off. But the year after that, it went back to climbing, she said.
Hammond estimates it took about 18 months for life to achieve a sense of normalcy. "For a year and a half, everything was very, very difficult," she said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun