Colorado school threats cause mental health distress, expert says

Danielle Diamond’s son woke up worrying about a big test he had at Boulder High School on Wednesday, but that common teen anxiety was quickly overshadowed when he learned police were investigating an unconfirmed report of an active shooter at his school.

“It’s just terrifying that this is their reality every day, wondering if there is going to be an active shooting on campus,” Diamond said.

About a dozen schools across Colorado — including in Aspen, Aurora, Brighton, Cañon City, Englewood, Estes Park, Glenwood Springs and Littleton — were hit Wednesday morning with an apparent “swatting” prank, which is when someone makes a call to police claiming an emergency and provides a real address, hoping to spur a major police response.

The threats ranged from calls about active shooters to bomb threats to what authorities called “unknown incidents.”

While none of the threats materialized, in many cases, the terror that students, parents and staff felt was real and can result in very real mental health consequences, according to an expert and those impacted.

Craig Knippenberg, a longtime Colorado mental health professional with expertise in counseling children and teens, said he provided mental health services to students in the wake of the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Jefferson County.

“Back then, something like that was a unique event,” Knippenberg said. “Now, I tell kids who are anxious about school shootings that, statistically, school is the safest place for them to be — which it is, but it’s harder and harder for them to believe. To them, it no longer feels like an anomaly.”

Diamond and her son, a junior, were packing up to head to school when they received an email from administrators shortly before 9 a.m. saying Boulder High was on lockdown. The school had a late start Wednesday because of the weather, so only about 200 students were on campus at the time.

Diamond contacted other parents while her son texted his friends as they learned about the report of an unconfirmed active shooter on campus.

According to Boulder police Chief Maris Herold, someone called a non-emergency number for the University of Colorado Police Department at 8:33 a.m. Wednesday saying they were at Boulder High with semi-automatic weapons and were prepared to go into the school. Realistic gun sounds could be heard in the background of the call, Herold said.

One parent Diamond spoke to said they had reached a Boulder High teacher who was hiding in the school with around 40 students, unclear whether there was a shooter inside.

“I just felt panicked and terrified and really rattled,” Diamond said. “I was really scared for the people that are in the building and trying to imagine what they’re going through.”

André Drapeau, a Boulder High sophomore, was among the students on campus during the incident. Drapeau, an athlete, was lifting weights before classes began and then gathered in the library to hang out with friends when he heard an announcement over the loudspeaker that there may be an active shooter in the area, he said.

Drapeau said he felt secure in the library and received solid communication from teachers and staff during the incident.

To be safe, though, those in the library decided to barricade the doors, he said. He and his friends checked social media to keep up with news of the situation and kept in contact with their parents through text messages.

“We were definitely scared,” Drapeau said while his mother picked him up from a reunification spot the school set up at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Macky Auditorium.

Diamond said she couldn’t stop weeping and hugging her son as she wondered what she’d be doing if he were inside the building. She wished there were armed guards in school to protect the students and staff, she said.

“What does this do to their well-being?” Diamond said. “We’re post-pandemic and now they’re not knowing if they’re safe at school? I really hate this. I don’t know what the answer is. I would like to keep him home and stay safe hunkered in our house but that’s not an option.”

After a distressing event like a lockdown — or even an active-shooter drill — Knippenberg said it’s critical parents talk to their children to hear how they’re coping. Some may be deeply upset while others may act like the situation was no big deal. Either way, Knippenberg said it’s important parents “go fishing” for information.

“Most teens are going to say it’s not a big deal, but you can say, ‘It was upsetting for me, and I think about you kids and how you have to deal with this stuff,’” he said. “Validate what they express.”

Many kids express frustration about adults not doing anything to stop the repeated shootings from happening, Knippenberg said.

“I can’t blame them,” Knippenberg said.

Typically, a school will provide students and staff with mental health resources in the wake of an incident like what happened Wednesday. The Boulder Valley School District encouraged anyone experiencing mental distress to contact their principal or school counselor.

If a student has trouble sleeping after the incident or seems to be unable to focus at school, Knippenberg said it may be time for extra intervention like an outside therapist.

“There’s always going to be those people who figure they can ‘SWAT’ the school and how funny that is without thinking about what it’s like for the kids in there,” Knippenberg said.

Denver Post photographer Helen H. Richardson contributed to this report.

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