While people's immediate trauma and grief reactions are fading from the shooting tragedy that occurred at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, school psychologists are now concerned about the hidden damage they see lurking just below the surface.
"There was the initial earthquake--a 9.2 on the Richter scale--and the aftershocks are still going on," says Richard Kestenbaum, PhD, a clinical and school psychologist who chairs the psychologist advisory board for the Jefferson County Public School District, of which Columbine is part.
The challenge for mental health professionals at the school is to walk a line between not being paranoid and not acting indifferent, he believes.
"What concerns me the most is those kids and their families who are not expressing any grief, but who are not attending school very well," Kestenbaum says. "The denial has been there so long."
People haven't had a chance to heal from the event in which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded 23 others before committing suicide. Several incidents have occurred after the fact that have retraumatized those connected to the school. A mother of a teen who was paralyzed in the shootings committed suicide Oct. 22, 1999, after a battle with depression following the incident. Two other Columbine students were shot and killed at a sandwich shop on Feb. 14 by an unidentified killer. And a talented Columbine basketball star who witnessed the murders recently hanged himself.
The result of these events is that "people are walking on glass around here," says Kestenbaum. Staff who had five years left until retirement "ate those five years and retired sooner," he says. Others moved out of the school district. And many parents moved their kids out of Columbine, only to place them in other schools with the same profile--essentially white, middle class and "all-American."
Trying to spot other troubled teens who might commit similar violent acts remains a daunting and perhaps impossible task, Kestenbaum adds.
APA's "Warning Signs of Violence" youth antiviolence initiative--part of APA's "Talk to Someone Who Can Help" public education campaign--helps to educate teens and the public about possible warning signs in themselves and others.
However, if the mental health staff at Columbine were to think of every kid they work with in terms of warning signs, they'd be paralyzed by anxiety, he believes.
"An overwhelming comment from the mental health staff after the incident was, 'There are a number of kids who fit the profile of Eric and Dylan,'" Kestenbaum says.
"If we had to replay that day, our ability to pick out those kids would be no better today than it was then."
The "Warning Signs" guide can be found at the APA Help Center. Members interested in doing local "Warning Signs" outreach activities should call (877) 274-8787, ext. 135.
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.