Recovering is something you do, not something that just happens - WFSB 3 Connecticut

Lessons from Columbine

Recovering is something you do, not something that just happens


The Newtown community is grappling with so many questions and decisions that have to be made as they try to move on.

One of the biggest: Should the town keep the school building where the mass shooting occurred?

In Littleton, CO, the location of Columbine High School, the community there chose to keep the school, which meant the teachers and students had to ultimately return.

It was a December day in Newtown. In Littleton, it was April 20, 1999.

People there that survived the tragedy are trying, even after 14 years, to move on.

"I didn't believe them because that doesn't happen at our school," said Columbine High School teacher Paula Reed.

The disbelief inside Columbine that day quickly turned into fear and shock.

"About a month afterwards, I found myself kind of around a group of friends that I really wasn't familiar with and I was just kind of out on someone's apartment balcony, and I just started tearing up," said former Columbine student Heather Egeland. "Tears were streaming down my face and I was thinking about it and my friend came out and he was like, 'What's wrong?' And I was like, 'It's been a month. Why am I still upset?"

When asked about going back to the school, Reed said, "There was no way I was going to abandon those kids. That just wasn't even an option. I was excited to kind of get the school year started again."

But she said she remembers the moment that all changed.

"It really didn't hit hard until about three years later," Reed said. "As teachers, we're so busy taking care of kids that we didn't even think about ourselves. So it was the third year and we were down to about a quarter of the student body that had been through it, and the rest were fairly normal. The kids didn't take as much caretaking."

Reed said at the start of the third year, things changed.

"I walked into the building before we even had students and I thought, 'Oh my God. I've made a huge mistake,'" she said. "That year, every time I walked into the building, I'd break out in hives. My hair started falling out. It was a mess, and I took two years off after that."

Egeland and Jennifer Hammer, members of the senior class, said there were plenty of counselors after the shooting, but that wasn't the time that they needed help.

"I went to counseling right after Columbine happened because they made us go and then it didn't do anything for me," Hammer said. "It took 13 years. I just went this last year but just sitting there and having someone tell me all those years I've been struggling with survivor's guilt."

As a teacher, Reed said there were also many unknowns, including who was really impacted in the community from the police to the first responders to the students and teachers.

"I had a colleague, who, you know, lost her cool with him the year after (the shooting) and said, 'I hope you know my daughter has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,' and my colleague said, 'So have I,'" Reed said.

All three said they have made enormous progress through counseling and just talking about it. Egeland and Hammer, who were not close in high school, have now organized a group called The Rebels Project.

Rebels is the Columbine High School mascot.

The group's goal is to help victims of these types of crimes from listening to sharing stories about how it's affecting them.

"We've done a lot of reaching out to Sandy Hook," Hammer said. "We've been talking to some parents and different people and just trying to let them know that what you're feeling is normal."

While they acknowledge what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School was different because it was an elementary school, they believe some lessons are still the same for everyone impacted.

Recovering is something you do, not something that just happens.

"You have to go through steps of healing in order to get there, and it can affect you for a long time," Hammer said.

"The biggest thing I would tell them is don't let other people try to tell you how fast you should go," Reed said. "It's a slow process, but it works. I mean, eventually you do get better. It's just not nearly as fast as you think it's going to be."

"There's no right amount of time," Egeland said. "There's no wrong amount of time. It's whatever is right for you."

While they know their experience with the tragedy happened in Littleton can't specifically help everyone impacted by what happened in Newtown, they said they're hoping they can at least give some sort of guidance.

For more information about The Rebels Project, click here.

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