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Sandy Austin was a school counselor at Jefferson High in 1999. A few years before, she completed her student teaching across the district at Columbine High. So when the call came on April 20 asking for mental health professionals throughout Jeffco schools to respond, she jumped.
“My heart was there,” Austin said. “Even if I wasn’t anymore.”
She remembers the chaos surrounding the school.
“It was like there was an atmosphere hanging over that area,” she recalled.
Austin was one of many mental health professionals to provide counseling to families of Columbine High students and families in the hours after the tragedy unfolded.
She remembers two families who had to go home that night without being reunited with their children.
“They had to go home that night wondering if their children were shot,” she said.
In the days, weeks and months that followed, Austin spent hours upon hours at various community sites and schools counseling people who had been impacted by the events.
“Dave Sanders, I had student taught with him,” Austin said. “Dave was such a caring person. So I thought, whatever I can do to help out, I will.”
Sanders, a teacher and coach at Columbine, died in the shooting.
One of the most powerful things Austin remembers from counseling that summer was four posters hanging in the cafeteria at Ken Caryl Middle School. One was from an elementary school in Japan. Kids had traced around their hands and written their names in the middle of their palm and sent it to the students of Columbine.
She asked one student what the posters meant to her. The response stuck with Austin.
“She said they appreciate what the community has done, but the posters mean more than anything because it’s people their age, students that are reaching out saying, `we care,’” Austin recalled. “She said it’s like a huge hug that’s coming around us during this time.”
The hug in those posters is something Austin replicates 20 years later with her B.I.O.N.I.C. team, which stands for Believe It Or Not I Care. Austin launched the group in 2002 following four student suicides at Green Mountain High in Lakewood, where she was working at the time. The school club expanded throughout the district and is now its own nonprofit.
B.I.O.N.I.C. has a school tragedy team that sends posters to schools experiencing tragedy to spread love.
“Whenever we hear of a tragedy in another school, we will do a big poster like that,” Austin said. “The stories we’ve heard from those posters are powerful.”
Now a counselor at Pomona High in Arvada, Austin said she sees students are both callous and hyper-aware when in comes to school shootings.
“These kids in school now have only known school shootings,” Austin said, “That’s what they’ve known all their lives. It’s sad the innocence is gone.”
As an adult in a school setting, Austin said she is constantly looking for warning signs.
“When I’m walking into a room, I’m looking around to see if anyone looks strange,” Austin said. “I’m always paying attention to see if anyone doesn’t seem to fit, always looking for kids that are down. It’s being aware of surroundings.”
Austin said it’s important to know the signs of post-traumatic stress and when to ask for help.
“You have to deal with the tragedy, that trauma,” Austin said. “Even if you think you’re strong, you have to deal with it.”
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