When reports of shots fired at Columbine High School
were heard, forces were immediately rallied to provide counseling and crisis
intervention to the school’s students, parents and faculty.
Leading the initial response was the Victim Services
Unit of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office under the direction of Karen
Joyce-McMahon, coordinator. Also assisting in coordinating the victims services
response was Kim Slaughter, director of the Victim/Witness Unit, First Judicial
District Attorney’s Office.
Typically, the victims assistance unit of a law
enforcement agency closely follows the officers responding to an event. Within
minutes of the first 911 call, the Sheriff’s Office Victim Services staff and
volunteers were alerted. Joyce-McMahon
and counselor Danielle Rice arrived on scene at approximately 12:15 p.m.
They were assigned to Columbine Public Library.
By 12:45, two additional JCSO counselors, Paula
Kittay and Beverly Wiese, responded to Leawood Elementary School.
Additional mental health workers, victim advocates
and volunteers from numerous agencies also responded to the sites where students
and families were congregating. At
least 150 counselors from law enforcement victim services agencies responded to
The protocol for the Sheriff’s Victim Services
staff is to check in first with a deputy or investigator on scene and, at the
request of the investigator, talk with a victim one-on-one. Their initial role is to help the victim feel safe and secure
and to encourage the person to talk about what he or she just went through.
The procedure at Columbine was somewhat different
because of the magnitude of the crisis. Some of the students arriving at
Columbine Public Library had talked to an investigator but many had not.
Panicked parents were also arriving at the library in desperate search of
During those first hours, the primary focus for
Victim Services counselors was working with families who couldn't find their
children, and students who needed to contact their parents.
Posting lists was the primary method of communicating
with families about the status of their children.
The names of the students congregating at either Leawood Elementary or
Columbine Library were collected and posted at both sites. But in the midst of
such chaos, the lists were incomplete and caused great frustration and anguish
for the parents. To complicate the procedure exponentially was the fact that
children also had fled to individual homes, surrounding businesses and nearby
parks. As lists were compiled, attempts were made to fax them to the
different sites where students and parents were congregating.
Additionally, advocates sat in on interviews with
investigators, placed calls to hospitals to obtain lists of the injured and
arranged transportation for families needing to get to a hospital.
Advocates also tried to provide as much information as possible to
families regarding what was happening with law enforcement.
As the day wore on, the collection point for students
and parents shifted entirely to Leawood Elementary. The public library was
closed at 6 p.m. and the victim services unit moved all staff to the elementary
At this point, authorities knew there were fatalities but they did not know the actual number of deceased or their identities. Families remaining at Leawood who had not found their family member were asked to fill out information sheets about their missing loved one – name, age, identifying marks, clothes worn to school that day and if they possessed a driver’s license (for fingerprints).
All information sheets were passed on to the
Jefferson County Coroner’s Office to help in its identification process of
the bodies. The victim advocates ended up with 16 information sheets but only 12
deceased students and one teacher. Some
students, originally determined to be missing, returned home the following day.
At least two advocates were assigned to each family
with a missing child/spouse. Advocates were also sent to the hospitals to
support the families of the injured. The
advocates stayed with the families for as long as they were needed, then
continued to be accessible 24 hours a day by pager. All advocates left Leawood
Elementary at 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, but by 4 a.m. many were called back to
be with the families “who just couldn’t stay at home.”
The advocates also maintained an information feed from the Coroner's
Office so that information could be communicated to the parents as soon as it
became available. By mid-day Wednesday, tentative death notifications were made
to the families. A few hours later the Coroner’s Office contacted each family
with the official death notification.
Most of the advocates stayed with their assigned
family through the victim’s funeral. Some
of the advocates were “on loan” from other agencies and had to return to
their regular duties. Other
jurisdictions were able to commit their people for a longer period.
With assistance from COVA, a statewide non-profit organization committed
to addressing the needs of crime victims, advocates were able to provide many
additional services to the families. Through
funerals and beyond, COVA was able to access donations for airline travel,
rental cars, hotels and more. In
the first few weeks, advocates were able to meet many of the needs of families
thanks to their assistance.
Several hours after the news of Columbine spread
throughout the community, people began congregating in “safe places.”
According to the mental health professionals, the students of Columbine
needed first to connect with their families, and then they wanted to be with
their friends and other students. Victim Services worked with other agencies,
including COVA and the Jeffco Center for Mental Health, to provide staffing at
these safe havens.
Several phone numbers, including JCSO Victim Services
Unit, JCMH and COVA, were given to the community as main numbers for mental
health assistance and concerns. These
numbers were shared via the television, newspapers and public information lines
and people responded. Calls came from people not only in the community but also
around the country needing to talk about the event and their own emotions.
The center also received a tremendous
number of calls from mental health professionals across the country volunteering
to help, including offers of assistance from the three states where the latest
school disasters had occurred. U.S.
President Bill Clinton offered a team of national crisis counselors who had
assisted following the Oklahoma City bombing.
In addition to helping with the first days of crisis
intervention, a priority of the DA’s Victims/Witness Unit was to alert every
Columbine student, teacher and staff member of their right to crime victim
Crime Victim Compensation is a fund available through
the DA’s office to victims of crime “who have been physically or emotionally
injured.” The money in this fund comes from fines assessed against persons
convicted of a crime. It is
available to help victims pay for medical expenses, mental health therapy, lost
employment and burial expenses.
The money is distributed through a Crime Victims’
Compensation Board. On the Friday
following the Columbine shootings, the board decided that every student and
staff member was eligible for victim compensation and authorized a
“streamlined process” be implemented to handle the Columbine applications.
A special application was developed and three
separate cover letters written to those eligible – one for families of
deceased victims, one for injured victims and one for everyone else.
Families of the deceased and injured had their applications given to them
in person by the victim advocates assigned to them.
The rest, over 2,000 applications, were mailed.
Given the decision to treat all students, faculty and
staff of Columbine as primary victims, and taking into account information
obtained in debriefings and through crisis calls to their offices, Victim
Services began to recognize a need for all families of Columbine to be
contacted. It became evident that
the tragedy had seriously impacted the entire student body, as well as the staff
of Columbine High School. Victim
Services Unit staff began looking for a way to make contact with every student
and staff possible. Initially,
Victim Outreach Information took the lead in this undertaking.
At the same time, The Sheriff’s Office worked to hire additional staff
for the Victims Services Unit so that its efforts could expand out beyond the
initial 38 families to offer services. On May 12, 1999, the first advocate was
hired by JCSO to work on the project.
On April 20, mental health responders, including
victim advocates, began meeting to coordinate services provided to the
community. The end result was the establishment of the Mental Health Unified
A priority of the cooperative Mental Health Unified
Management group was the establishment of a facility in the Columbine area.
The goal of Columbine Connections was to provide a space for counseling
and victim services as well as activities and education for students, families,
and community members over the summer and into the next school year.
Columbine Connections is a cooperative effort between the Sheriff’s
Office and the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, the First Judicial District
Attorney’s Office, Foothills Park and Recreation Department, and Parents and
Communities Coming Together. As
advocates were hired through JCSO, they began staffing this center, originally
housed out of a temporary facility. Columbine
Connections opened its doors for business on July 1, 1999.
The Sheriff’s Office hired four victim advocates and a supervisor to
staff the victim services part of Columbine Connections through June 2000.
At that time, the original Victim Services staff will again take on the
full responsibility for victims of the Columbine shootings.
The normal role of the Sheriff’s Victim Services
unit is crisis intervention. Advocates work with people on scene or immediately
following a trauma, helping them to get through the initial crisis and then
refer them on to mental health if they need longer-term counseling.
In 1998, the Sheriff’s Victims Services unit served approximately 2,000
victims of crime. On April 20,
1999, the unit worked to respond to at least that number of victims, their
families and the community.
A year after the tragedy, the staff continues to
respond to the needs of those impacted. Within
the first few months, Victim Services staff assisted with walk-throughs for the
students and families when they went through the high school before the start of
school and were on hand for crisis intervention when school began in August.
Donations continued to pour in from all over the country.
Boxes were piled up on every inch of available space and spilling out
into the hallways. Advocates acted
as delivery people, taking numerous donations, checks and information to
The Victim Services Unit also identified the need to
enlist the help of volunteers in making outreach calls.
The response to their request for volunteers was enormous.
They received over 100 phone calls for 12 volunteer positions.
These volunteers received intensive training on how to respond to high
profile mass tragedy, crisis intervention skills, vicarious trauma and the
logistics of placing calls.
Within days of the shootings, JCSO and the DA’s
Office contracted with two consultants experienced in mass tragedy to assist in
providing services. To date, they
continue to work with these consultants.
Advocates continue to be involved with families of
the injured and deceased, serving as liaisons with the Sheriff’s Office and
other agencies and offering support as needed.
Agencies and organizations that provided assistance
during and after the Columbine tragedy include victim advocates and volunteers
from the following:
|Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office
|Denver Police Department
|Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office
|Division of Criminal Justice
|Adams County District Attorney’s Office
|Douglas County Sheriff’s Office
|Adams County Sheriff’s Office
|Englewood Department of Safety Services
|Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office
|Federal Heights Police Department
|Arvada Police Department
|Gilpin County Sheriff’s Office
|Attorney General’s Office
|Greeley Police Department
|Boulder County Sheriff’s Office
|Greenwood Village Police Department
|Boulder Police Department
|Lakewood Police Department
|Brighton Police Department
|Littleton Police Department
|Castle Rock Police Department
|Longmont Police Department
|Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Office
|Sheridan Police Department
|Colorado State Patrol
|State Court Administrators Office
|Commerce City Police Department
|Thornton Police Department
|Denver District Attorney’s Office
|Westminster Police Department
|Boulder County Crisis Intervention Team
Advocacy Center (CAC)
Outreach Information (VOI)
Organization for Victim’s Assistance (COVA)
|The staff of Leawood Elementary
|The staff of Columbine
|Numerous professionals from private practice