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Survivors of Virginia Tech Shootings Face Long Road to Normalcy

April 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM EST
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TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: Last week, the world saw the raw emotions of a university community trying to cope with mass murder. Some students went back to class on Monday, but people who have survived school shootings say a return to any real sense of normalcy may take years.

Frank DeAngelis is the principal of Columbine High. He says the Virginia Tech shootings brought back crushing reminders of April 20, 1999, when 13 people died at his suburban Denver high school.

FRANK DEANGELIS, Principal, Columbine High School: Sick to my stomach, just gut wrenching, gut wrenching. Even though it was happening at Virginia Tech, I was having flashbacks to Columbine High School, having flashbacks to our students running out of the building with their hands on top of their head being escorted by the SWAT team. When I saw students falling from the windows, in my mind, I saw Patrick Ireland on that day, and so it was very difficult for me.

TOM BEARDEN: DeAngelis says 80 percent of the staff and faculty who were at Columbine that day have left.

FRANK DEANGELIS: I think the thing that is so disturbing to them is many of them got through the first five or six years without having any of the feeling that I have described and then, all of the sudden, in year six or year seven or year eight, they’re starting to experience and feel some things they never felt prior. And it really is mind-boggling, but this past week really took its toll on some of our staff.

Columbine students reflect

TOM BEARDEN: Emily Jacobson is a 2000 Columbine graduate. She knows firsthand what people in Virginia are likely to experience, but she says healing is possible.

EMILY JACOBSON, Columbine High School Graduate: It takes you a while to internalize what happened. It takes you a while to internalize, "Wow, it could have been me. It's so close to home." It will take them a while to realize, I mean, it was just pure evil staring them right in the face.

But it does get better with time. You'll go through stages. It would be good for like a year, and then maybe another year would be a little tougher. And there's really no rhyme or reason why.

I know it doesn't seem like it will get better, but I promise it does. The pain fades. You don't forget about it, but the pain does fade, and it does get better, and there are little glimmers of hope that makes life worth living. It will get better.

TOM BEARDEN: Erik Mickelson was Jacobson's classmate.

ERIK MICKELSON, Columbine High School Graduate: I think it helps talking about it, where you were, you know, and what you saw, you know, who you knew, things like that, just because -- I don't know -- it just kind of -- I think it just helps. And everyone is kind of going through a similar thing. And I think you've just kind of got to -- and I think, within the Virginia Tech family, I think, you know, just find that support.

Finding it hard to talk

TOM BEARDEN: DeAngelis says some people will find it hard to talk about their experiences.

FRANK DEANGELIS: One of the concerns after the tragedy at Columbine High School is students didn't want to talk to their parents, because, number one, they didn't want them to worry, realizing or telling them that you don't realize how close I was to death.

And, secondly, they didn't want them -- they felt that their parents could not understand. There were issues between husbands and wives on staff or significant others because, once again, they were there to support them, but, "Don't tell me how I was feeling. I was in that building. You were not."

TOM BEARDEN: Dr. Lee Cooper says talking about the trauma is vital. He provides a place for Virginia Tech's students to do that. Cooper is the school's director of psychological services and runs an off-campus clinic, where students began to trickle in within hours of the shootings. He expects the trickle to become a flood.

LEE COOPER, Director, Virginia Tech Psychological Services Center: I think our main thing we help them is by listening and being there for them. Typically, at this early time, it's not really therapy, in the sense of probing and insight and having to do things to get better or get over it. It's really listening, and being there, and being attentive to them. I think the main theme is allow them to tell their story to somebody who will listen and care about it.

TOM BEARDEN: Cooper says most people won't need formal therapy, but those that do will need it badly.

LEE COOPER: I think what we'll see is, in the upcoming months, people having reactions of being overly nervous, being overly anxious, having trouble sleeping, having trouble eating, poor sleep, poor appetite.

Concentration will probably be a big one, and so they just can't do what they normally do and can't seem to find a way to get through it or get around it. I would expect to see a lot of those reactions from a lot of people in this community, let alone the university itself.

Widespread trauma

TOM BEARDEN: There is some evidence that shootings like Columbine and Virginia Tech produce a ripple effect, causing psychological damage to people who have no direct contact with the events.

Dr. Jeff Dolgan is a clinical psychologist at Children's Hospital in Denver. Last week, children started to come to him suffering from the latest shootings, children who have no connection to Virginia or Columbine at all.

DR. JEFFREY DOLGAN, Children's Hospital, Colorado: We're all vicariously traumatized by these kinds of events. So, you know, one theory is that there are direct implications and direct traumatization for people around the event, so that has to with, for example, Columbine teachers, surviving families, mourning, grieving families, community. But as we hear stories, heroic stories or tragic stories, those stories tend to traumatize other people. You know, so the distance really doesn't matter.

TOM BEARDEN: Last week, several Virginia Tech students told the NewsHour they hoped their university wouldn't become forever synonymous with mass murder. Columbine Principal Frank DeAngelis says that's already happened to his school.

FRANK DEANGELIS: Unfortunately, we probably will always be associated as a place where a tragedy occurred, in which 13 were murdered and so many were injured. And it's unfortunate, because I can remember making a statement that we can't allow the 26 years of excellence to be marked by that April 20th day, but it is what it is. Any time there's a school shooting, it becomes an adjective. It was another Columbine-like attack, and that's difficult.

TOM BEARDEN: Only a handful of studies have been done on the psychological effects on children and adolescents of school violence, such as Virginia Tech and Columbine. They show that anywhere from 3 percent to as high as 77 percent could develop psychological symptoms requiring treatment, and many of them will need that help for the rest of their lives.