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Angst, dismay, nightmares: Colorado educators and parents respond to threat to schools

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Educators and parents in the Denver metro area woke up Wednesday to news no one wants to hear: Schools in two dozen districts were closed due to a credible threat of violence. A few hours later, authorities announced that the armed woman who allegedly made the threats, and who reportedly was infatuated with the 1999 Columbine shooting, had been found dead.

In the midst of the uncertainty, Chalkbeat asked educators and parents to share their thoughts about Wednesday’s school closures, how they explained it to their children, and how this threat felt different. Nearly 100 people had answered our five-question survey by early afternoon.

We’ve rounded up some of their responses. One thing that stood out was how many people started their answers with some variation of, “I was in third grade when Columbine happened.” It was a real reminder of how many people in Colorado have been impacted by school violence.

What was your reaction when you heard school was closed in response to a safety threat from a woman reportedly infatuated with Columbine?

Sad, thankful, and anxious.
— Carol Wright, kindergarten teacher and parent, Adams 12 Five Star Schools

I woke up at midnight to a robocall from DPS. I didn’t sleep much after that, and when I did I was having nightmares about evacuating and hiding students. My next reaction was, “What do I tell my 10-year-old?” I don’t want her to be afraid to attend school. She has already gone through a “real lockdown,” as she called it, after a shooting at a nearby school this year. I’ve had a headache all morning. I teach in a school where many of my students have experienced more trauma than they should have in their short lives. School is supposed to be their safe place.
— Bridget Stephenson-McKee, third grade teacher and parent, Denver Public Schools

I am a new teacher. I do not feel that I have received adequate training on how to handle these safety threats as to what is “best practice” for our kids. Today was the first time I really felt a fear that this is something that could happen in my classroom and I need to make sure I have a plan that keeps kids safe.
— Anonymous, kindergarten teacher, Jeffco Public Schools

I was stunned. School cancellations are typically fun and playful; this was not. I had just woken my boys when my husband said to head back to bed because school was cancelled. I actually thought he was joking. I checked my email and my heart sank into the pit of my stomach when I read the cause of the closure. And then I realized I’d have to talk to my boys. And my first-graders. It is horrific that we live in a time when school can be a scary place instead of one of joy and growth.
— Patti Zamora, first grade teacher and parent, Poudre School District

I got a call at midnight about school being closed. … I didn’t sleep the rest of the night as my stomach turned, my mind raced, and my heart wouldn’t slow down. I have only been teaching for 3½ months — should I fear for my life, for my students’ lives, every day in my new chosen career?
— Katy Guinn, fifth-grade teacher

I had mixed feelings. I’m obviously glad they took steps to protect kids and school employees, but frustrated that we had to cancel school — 20 years after Columbine — because we have not done enough to provide mental health services to schools, because we have not done enough to strengthen gun laws. So one threat to our school safety is over, but when will the next one occur? Quite honestly, we could cancel school every day. Our schools won’t be safe until our country actually takes action, by listening to educators and students, to make real change to keep our schools safe.
— Anonymous, fourth-grade teacher and parent, Adams 12 Five Star Schools

Parents, how did you explain it to your children? What was their reaction?

I told them the truth. They were both sad that one person could have that much power to change all of our lives.
— Jennifer Portillo, teacher and parent of teenagers, Denver Public Schools

They have grown up with the fear and threat. They are no longer shocked, which concerns me all the more.
— Jennifer Crouch, first-grade teacher and parent, Adams 12 Five Star Schools

I told my older two children the truth simply. My husband was a student at Columbine High School in 1999 and my boys know the reality of school shootings. I told my 5-year-old we had a bonus day off.
— Kerry, teacher and parent, Poudre School District

I have never lied to my children about the world with live in and the concerns I have as parent. I told them that there were concerns about a person making threats to schools … They have a role in identifying strange activity around their school, comments their friends make, and to be aware of their surroundings. My 10-year-old son was happy to go back to sleep. My 14-year-old was a little more reflective but understood. I begged her not to let any opinions found on her friends’ posts scare her, influence her, or change her perspective on her school safety.
— Ale, parent, St. Vrain Valley School District

Other parents from my first-grader’s class and I began texting each other at 6 a.m. to share ideas about how to explain it to our kids. My husband and I tried to be direct, but also vague. We said that somebody who might be dangerous might have been trying to get into a school and so they closed all schools around Denver so that the police could catch her and all students could be safe. My 7-year-old responded by asking if the suspect was trying to steal school computers, since in his mind, bad people are robbers. My 4-year-old didn’t realize it was a school day in the first place so we chose not to discuss it with him.
— Erin Kobler, parent, Denver Public Schools

I haven’t. He’s 5. All he knows is he has the day off, it doesn’t matter to him why.
— Patrick, parent, Cherry Creek School District

Post-Columbine, school safety threats have become a regular part of students’ experience. How does this feel different?

It doesn’t.
— Stacey Hervey, high school teacher and parent, Denver Public Schools

I was a junior at Cherry Creek when Columbine happened. My entire adult life has been a post-Columbine era, and my entire teaching career has been in the post-Columbine era. This feels different because it’s so widespread, and it seems like there are some details we don’t know, and may never know. I do know that every lockdown drill gets harder and harder to endure, wondering when it will be real and maybe the last one.
— Edwina, high school teacher, Denver Public Schools

I was in third grade when Columbine happened and was in school nearby. I remember getting picked up from school early, and it’s stayed with me through the years. I was then a teacher when the shooting at Arapahoe High School went down and we were on lockout for hours. When will it end? It’s sad but I never thought teaching would be such a dangerous profession.
— Andy, middle school teacher, Adams 12 Five Star Schools

Lockouts are not entirely uncommon. They usually don’t cause any real sense of concern for me because the school is not usually the target of the threat in those situations. Knowing that someone is out there, who has traveled across the country with the intent to inflict harm to students in school is gut wrenching. As a teacher, today has been an emotional one. I am glad to have the day to get my thoughts and feelings in order before I am with my kids.
— Jennifer Armstrong, fifth grade teacher, Adams 12 Five Star Schools

This sets a very dangerous precedent for the next threat because there will be another one. Is this the best solution? Shutting down schools? People not being able to work? Kids not being able to go to school? This is the solution over more sensible gun laws?
— Kate Otto, parent, Jeffco Public Schools

How do you plan to spend today? Parents, will you keep your children inside? Educators, are you preparing for how you’ll talk about this with your students when school resumes?

Today, I am spending the majority of my time contacting legislators, and asking educators and community members to contact legislators, to make sure we get the needed funding for mental health in our schools.
— Beth Michieli-Grote, first-grade teacher, Poudre School District

I dropped my daughter off at preschool and then drove away wondering if the school closures could push this person to look at daycare centers that are still open.
— Diane, second-grade teacher in the Adams 14 School District, parent of a preschooler

We are certainly staying away from public places.
— Melissa Hudman, parent, Jeffco Public Schools

As soon as I found out the immediate threat was over, I went outside for a nice run in the foothills of Golden.
— Christine Loehr, art teacher in Denver and parent of a student in Jeffco Public Schools

My kids and I spent the morning inside. Now we’re walking our dog and visiting a local cafe. I spent my morning as a teacher writing example poems for my students. We’re doing a unit on how poetry, art, and music portray human rights violations. Sadly, all three of the poems I wrote this morning were about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 3: You have the right to life, liberty, and security. Today we have none of these.
— Karen Vittetoe, high school teacher and parent, Denver Public Schools

Tomorrow I will explain to my class that the helpers needed to get to the woman who was confused and not safe, so we stayed off of the streets to be out of their way. We are grateful for our community helpers.
— Cara Havenar, kindergarten teacher

My boys and I are treating today like a regular Saturday at our home. Errands, bike rides, love, and fun!
— Nicole Bruyere, first-grade teacher and parent, Denver Public Schools

My child stayed with my in-laws and I requested that they not go to the mall, zoo, or museum today. They played outside and rode their bikes.
— Monica Lintz, parent, Denver Public Schools

Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share?

I wish the media would be more responsible and less dramatic about reporting these incidents. I think the fashion of reporting, including anniversaries, contributes to irrational fantasies of notoriety on the part of would-be and wanna-be terrorists like these.
— Anonymous, teacher and parent, Denver Public Schools

I hate that the world is stopping for one human like this, that no one took her seriously before she got on a plane to Colorado.
— Stacey Bloomfield, parent whose child attends a private school that was closed

I’m thankful for our law enforcement officers and the difficult decision our school districts made today. I also want to emphasize my sadness for the continued ignorance of mental health consciousness throughout the United States.
— Shannon B., high school teacher, Denver Public Schools

Teachers need mental and emotional support as well. Please don’t forget the teachers. They’ll be the first to give their lives to protect the lives of their students.
— Anonymous, eighth-grade teacher, Denver Public Schools

I was a seventh-grader in Jeffco when Columbine happened. I felt terrified to attend school after that, and watched as the country changed rapidly, and so did my schools. Lockdown drills happened, and all of us knew the weight they carried. Now, as a teacher, I herd my children into the corner of a room during a lockdown, and they joke. “Miss, if the shooter is outside, they can just shoot through the window.” They text. They laugh. But underneath it all, they are terrified, too. Attend a lockdown drill and you will see that it has been normalized. This is not normal and it is a choice.
— Elizabeth Milligan, 10th-grade teacher, Denver Public Schools

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