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Columbine attack shapes schools, families 20 years later

Associated Press • Apr 16, 2019 at 1:13 PM

DENVER — Dropping her kids off at school used to be the hardest part of Kacey Ruegsegger Johnson’s day. She would cry most mornings as they left the car, and relied on texted photos from their teachers to make it through the day.

Now, the mother of four — and Columbine shooting survivor — sees mornings as an opportunity. She wakes early, makes breakfast and strives to send a clear message before her kids leave home: I adore you.

Twenty years after teenage gunmen attacked Columbine High School, Ruegsegger Johnson and other alumni of the Littleton, Colorado, school have become parents. The emotional toll of the shooting that killed 12 classmates and a teacher has been amplified by fears about their own kids’ safety, spiking each time yet another shooter enters yet another school.

“There are parts of the world I wish our kids never had to know about,” Ruegsegger Johnson said, tears springing to her eyes. “I wish that there would never be a day I had to tell them the things I’ve been through.”

As the survivors of Columbine entered adulthood, they watched the attacks at their school and so many others — Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Parkland — alter the American classroom.

Drills teaching students to “lock down” inside classrooms became routine. Schools formed teams to assess threats, particularly from students. And security firms forged a multibillion-dollar industry, introducing surveillance video, panic buttons and upgraded doors and locks.

Now, many of these Columbine students-turned-parents grapple with crippling fear dwarfing pride as their children walk into their own schools.

Leaning on her religious faith and family support, Ruegsegger Johnson worked hard to push down her terror and manage her post-traumatic stress as her children got older. She became unwilling to let her past affect her kids’ experience.

She has developed her own ritual for the school drop-off. On a recent sunny morning, she helped her kids find their book bags and tie their shoes before ushering them to the car. She prayed aloud as they neared the school, giving thanks for a beautiful morning and asking for a day of learning and friendship.

As always, she made a silent addition: Keep them safe.

Though it sometimes seems mass shootings inside schools are a commonplace occurrence, they are relatively rare, and statistics show the number has not substantially increased since 2000.

But that is of little consolation to a swath of American parents. About 2 in 10 parents said they are not at all or not very confident in their children’s safety while at school, while a third of parents are very or extremely confident, according to a March survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Austin Eubanks, who survived being shot in the Columbine library, is among those who doesn’t fear for his sons at school.

Instead, he laments that active-shooter drills and armed guards are all too routine for them — as natural as a tornado drill was for him growing up in Oklahoma.

“We are so unwilling to actually make meaningful progress on eradicating the issue,” said Eubanks, who remains scarred by watching his best friend, Corey DePooter, die. “So we’re just going to focus on teaching kids to hide better, regardless of the emotional impact that that bears on their life.”

Isolation, depression, addiction and suicide are among the larger dangers he sees facing his kids’ generation, and he knows firsthand the damage those can cause.

For more than a decade after the attack, Eubanks was addicted to prescription pain medication. He now works at an addiction treatment facility and travels the country telling his story.

He was horrified by videos that Marjory Stoneman Douglas students shot in Parkland, Fla., as they hid inside a classroom while a gunman stalked the halls. He has urged his boys to always try to escape first — whatever it takes — even if drills advise staying put.

“These are my children,” he said, “and what I care about most is their safety.”

The prospect of Amy Over’s 13-year-old daughter starting high school could have triggered a panic attack in the not-too-distant past. But now she’s focused on helping the girl prepare for the unexpected.

She coaches her daughter when she ventures to places outside her mom’s control: Where is the closest exit? What street are you on? Who is around you?

“I never want my kids to feel an ounce of pain, the way that I felt pain,” Over said.

Over was in the Columbine cafeteria when the gunmen approached the school, targeting students eating lunch outside. She escaped with no physical injuries, but has struggled emotionally for years.

Therapy and family support helped. But waving goodbye to her daughter on the first day of preschool triggered a panic attack — the first of many. She was diagnosed with chronic panic disorder, resumed therapy and found new strategies for her life as a mother of two.

Over’s daughter, Brie, was 11 when her mother first told her about Columbine, a few days before the anniversary. That April 20, they visited the school for a memorial ceremony and then walked together through the quiet halls.

Here is where she hid in the cafeteria, Amy Over showed her daughter. And that is the staircase where she last saw her basketball coach, Dave Sanders, who died in a classroom awaiting rescue after valiantly trying to help evacuate the school.

For Over, opening up to her daughter was cathartic. And so they have continued to attend annual memorial events, now imbued with a gentler tone with the girl by her side.

“It’s a day of reflection,” Over said. “It’s a day of love and hope. And I get to share that with my daughter.”

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