Sun, Apr 21, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Columbine survivors are now sending their own kids to school

Twenty years after the shooting in which 12 of their classmates and a teacher died, survivors battle an emotional toll that has affected how they raise their children

By Kathleen Foody, Allen G. Breed and P. Solomon Banda  /  AP, DENVER, Colorado

Illustration: Constance Chou

Dropping her children 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 photographs 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 up early, makes breakfast and strives to send a clear message before her children 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 children’s safety, spiking each time another shooter enters yet another school.

“I’m grateful I have the chance to be a mom. I know some of my classmates weren’t given that opportunity,” Ruegsegger Johnson said, tears in her eyes.

“There are parts of the world I wish our kids never had to know about,” she said. “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 classrooms in the US.

Drills teaching students to “lock down” inside classrooms became routine. Schools formed teams to assess threats, particularly from students. Security firms forged a multibillion-dollar industry, introducing surveillance video systems, panic buttons and upgraded doors and locks. Police also changed their strategies for responding to a gunman intent only on killing.

Some of the Columbine survivors find comfort in students being shielded by high fences or locked doors. Others find themselves frustrated by the ready acceptance of active-shooter drills in schools.

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

Ruegsegger Johnson has developed her own ritual for the school drop-off.

On a recent sunny spring morning, she helped her children 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.

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 is 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. “I know that that’s something that I can’t control, and I think that’s hard on me.”

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.

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