I think Columbine was a real watershed moment for this whole country, and maybe even for a lot of parts of the world. — Parent of a Columbine victim
When reflecting on the tragedy of April 20, 1999, while also seeing the frequent occurrence of present-day tragedies, one can’t help but wonder: Was there a turning point? Unfortunately, in the past 19 years, we’ve seen too many other tragic events like the shooting at Columbine High School. Maybe the turning point came by way of different organizations, such as park and recreation agencies and departments, viewing themselves as a major factor in the healing and recovery of a community following a tragic event.
One of the first philosophies that any organization should embrace is proactivity. What crisis response policies and practices do you currently have in place that allow you to respond versus react? Trying to create a plan when your community needs all hands on deck can feel like a constant game of tag. So, what can you do beforehand to minimize additional trauma and facilitate recovery?
To be a part of the healing and recovery process, it’s important to have a plan in place long before any traumatic event might occur. Relationships with key decisionmakers and department leaders will enhance communication and action plans and help to guide how your organization can be an integral part of the recovery process.
As part of a municipality or city government, your agency might already be at the table with the other key decisionmakers. Be intentional regarding the conversations about the role your organization is willing to take during a traumatic event. These conversations must include purposeful actions, space, programming, etc.
If your agency is not part of a city government, consider the power of a relationship with the school district, hospitals or fire and police departments, and other nontraditional establishments. You may have invited these organizations to participate in different events and that can be a great way to start that relationship. Whether your organization is in an urban, rural or suburban community, there are various organizations, businesses and agencies that can be useful in the healing process, including faith communities, mental health agencies, local nonprofits, hospitals and volunteer organizations, like Volunteers of America.
During difficult times, leadership that is strong, fair and compassionate is critical. It’s a time when people are pulled in multiple directions based on interests, needs and emotions, and it can be difficult to not get swept up in the chaos. So, make decisions now that you can use to support your actions later.
Based on some experiences of the Columbine High School community, following are a few things to consider:
When the shootings at Columbine High School occurred, nearby Clement Park, a regional 300-acre park, became the location where media set up camp. By Wednesday, April 21, 60 media trucks and their various pieces of equipment began a more than three-week-long occupation of one of the southeast lots of the park. The size and number of trucks caused damage to the parking-lot curbing and asphalt. An assertive staff member from the parks and recreation district requested financial support from multiple media outlets to help with the necessary repairs, and approximately 80 percent of the parking-lot damage costs were recovered.
Having a policy in place regarding damage caused by on-site media trucks and traffic could help protect your budget. In addition, during the time of the media encampment, district staff provided utility hookups, sanitary facilities, snow removal, trash collection and crowd management assistance. As a public service-based organization, it makes sense that staff were engaged in this manner. Having a proactive and ongoing dialogue with your staff about what their roles might be amid a crisis response can create more positive results.
At the height of the media coverage, about 500 reporters were on scene. There were times when any person in the park, including many of the park staff, was fair game for an interview. Having a clear media and/or public relations policy will protect your staff from feeling like it needs to respond on behalf of the organization. Instead, make sure the staff knows who should address all crisis-related questions. Doing so creates a safe barrier for your staff and reduces the potential of misinformation.
Following the shooting at Columbine High School, all county departments were part of the overall crisis response. However, the parks and recreation district, specifically its adult and youth sports and children’s programming, was impacted the most. The attention that normally would have been focused on field preparation, spring and summer programming and ongoing before-and-after-school activities were put on hold or modified.
Many park staff members were pulled from their regular duties to work at Clement Park to deal with the spontaneous memorials that were created and the more than 250,000 visitors who came to the park. They were also dealing with weather issues from a record amount of snow and rain that fell. Several of the surrounding elementary schools where much of the afterschool programming was to take place went on a modified schedule, forcing the recreation department to provide alternate locations and programming. Many staff members had children who attended Columbine High School and feeder schools. Understandably, their time and attention were no longer focused on their job, and they were absent from their positions for several days. Also, several of the part-time, teen staff were students at Columbine, and it took quite a while for them to return to work.
The reality is that every department within your organization will be impacted at some level by a traumatic event. Your crisis response should include a detailed plan for the various responsibilities of each department and a phone tree that includes key staff members who can accurately share information throughout your organization and implement any necessary action plans. What kind of a strategy can you put in place to help your organization return to normal to support recovery?
Author Jenny Diski once wrote that, “Spontaneous memorials have become a ‘basic human need.’” Following the shootings at Columbine High School, nearly half-a-million items were left in Clement Park as part of the spontaneous memorials. Out of respect for the victims and the community, the park and recreation agency did its best to protect them for more than three weeks.
Eventually, these items needed to be moved; the local fire departments took the flowers and plants, creating mulch and potpourri that could be sold to contribute to the victims’ fund. Other items that could be salvaged were cataloged and stored for approximately one year. This gave the families an opportunity to sort through them and keep anything they may want. The sorting, cataloging and storing was a very long, arduous process and could not have been done without the help of other local park and recreation departments and volunteers.
Do you have a policy that clearly addresses the where, what and for how long of spontaneous memorials? How will you enforce it? Having relationships throughout your community with multiple organizations can help with this process. Those organizations not only can inform the community about the policy, but can also assist when it’s time to take them down.
Permanent memorials present another challenge. There may be individuals who want to place a memorial in your park, on your trails or in a facility. Be prepared with a policy that will support the decision of the organization. Also, be prepared to discuss how you will address First Amendment issues, as well as the separation of church and state. Emotions run high with the topic and expectations of memorials.
Personal Healing and Recovery
Everyone was affected by the shootings at Columbine High School. Whatever the nature of the traumatic event, your staff needs to know it’s okay to reach out for help. The local mental health organization had members of its staff available for the park and recreation staff. There were team debriefings available for those who wanted to attend; others found help through the Employee Assistance Program, and employees were encouraged to find their own way to begin their personal healing and recovery. The most important thing you can do for their recovery is to encourage and support them in seeking out helpful resources. One such helpful resource is the Disaster Distress Helpline — 800.985.5990 or text to talk 66746.
Parks and recreation supports the community’s well-being and healing through the programs and amenities offered. Your agency creates a “help-seeking” climate by reminding individuals about healthy eating, getting plenty of sleep and, especially, engaging in physical activities. Physical activity not only enhances well-being by reducing trauma-based symptoms and improving coping strategies, but also helps individuals gain or regain a sense of achievement.
Tragic, traumatic events, whether natural or manmade, are a part of our world. However, we can choose to be an integral part of recovery through thoughtful and intentional policies and practices. John Hull, a retired Clement Park supervisor, shares: “When this happened, we had no time to prepare. I guess the lesson learned is to have a plan for everything and hang on to each other. I know the stuff that park and recreation people are made of, and we can get through anything.”
Special thanks to the Foothills Parks and Recreation District staff that faced the unknown and tremendous obstacles dealing with the shooting event at Columbine High School. Your work has paved the way for a positive response in other communities.
Lori A. Hoffner is a Professional Speaker, Trainer and Consultant at Supporting CommUnity, Inc.