The Victim Services Response

    When reports of shots fired at Columbine High School were heard, forces were immediately rallied to provide counseling and crisis intervention to the school’s students, parents and faculty.

    Leading the initial response was the Victim Services Unit of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office under the direction of Karen Joyce-McMahon, coordinator. Also assisting in coordinating the victims services response was Kim Slaughter, director of the Victim/Witness Unit, First Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

    Typically, the victims assistance unit of a law enforcement agency closely follows the officers responding to an event. Within minutes of the first 911 call, the Sheriff’s Office Victim Services staff and volunteers were alerted.  Joyce-McMahon and counselor Danielle Rice arrived on scene at approximately 12:15 p.m.  They were assigned to Columbine Public Library.  By 12:45, two additional JCSO counselors, Paula Kittay and Beverly Wiese, responded to Leawood Elementary School.

    Additional mental health workers, victim advocates and volunteers from numerous agencies also responded to the sites where students and families were congregating.  At least 150 counselors from law enforcement victim services agencies responded to the scene.

    The protocol for the Sheriff’s Victim Services staff is to check in first with a deputy or investigator on scene and, at the request of the investigator, talk with a victim one-on-one.  Their initial role is to help the victim feel safe and secure and to encourage the person to talk about what he or she just went through.

    The procedure at Columbine was somewhat different because of the magnitude of the crisis. Some of the students arriving at Columbine Public Library had talked to an investigator but many had not.  Panicked parents were also arriving at the library in desperate search of their child.

    During those first hours, the primary focus for Victim Services counselors was working with families who couldn't find their children, and students who needed to contact their parents.

    Posting lists was the primary method of communicating with families about the status of their children.  The names of the students congregating at either Leawood Elementary or Columbine Library were collected and posted at both sites. But in the midst of such chaos, the lists were incomplete and caused great frustration and anguish for the parents. To complicate the procedure exponentially was the fact that children also had fled to individual homes, surrounding businesses and nearby parks.  As lists were compiled, attempts were made to fax them to the different sites where students and parents were congregating.

    Additionally, advocates sat in on interviews with investigators, placed calls to hospitals to obtain lists of the injured and arranged transportation for families needing to get to a hospital.  Advocates also tried to provide as much information as possible to families regarding what was happening with law enforcement.

    As the day wore on, the collection point for students and parents shifted entirely to Leawood Elementary. The public library was closed at 6 p.m. and the victim services unit moved all staff to the elementary school. 

    At this point, authorities knew there were fatalities but they did not know the actual number of deceased or their identities. Families remaining at Leawood who had not found their family member were asked to fill out information sheets about their missing loved one – name, age, identifying marks, clothes worn to school that day and if they possessed a driver’s license (for fingerprints).

    All information sheets were passed on to the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office to help in its identification process of the bodies. The victim advocates ended up with 16 information sheets but only 12 deceased students and one teacher.  Some students, originally determined to be missing, returned home the following day.

    At least two advocates were assigned to each family with a missing child/spouse. Advocates were also sent to the hospitals to support the families of the injured.  The advocates stayed with the families for as long as they were needed, then continued to be accessible 24 hours a day by pager. All advocates left Leawood Elementary at 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, but by 4 a.m. many were called back to be with the families “who just couldn’t stay at home.”

    The advocates also maintained an information feed from the Coroner's Office so that information could be communicated to the parents as soon as it became available. By mid-day Wednesday, tentative death notifications were made to the families. A few hours later the Coroner’s Office contacted each family with the official death notification.

    Most of the advocates stayed with their assigned family through the victim’s funeral.  Some of the advocates were “on loan” from other agencies and had to return to their regular duties.  Other jurisdictions were able to commit their people for a longer period.  With assistance from COVA, a statewide non-profit organization committed to addressing the needs of crime victims, advocates were able to provide many additional services to the families.  Through funerals and beyond, COVA was able to access donations for airline travel, rental cars, hotels and more.  In the first few weeks, advocates were able to meet many of the needs of families thanks to their assistance.

    Several hours after the news of Columbine spread throughout the community, people began congregating in “safe places.”   According to the mental health professionals, the students of Columbine needed first to connect with their families, and then they wanted to be with their friends and other students. Victim Services worked with other agencies, including COVA and the Jeffco Center for Mental Health, to provide staffing at these safe havens.

    Several phone numbers, including JCSO Victim Services Unit, JCMH and COVA, were given to the community as main numbers for mental health assistance and concerns.  These numbers were shared via the television, newspapers and public information lines and people responded. Calls came from people not only in the community but also around the country needing to talk about the event and their own emotions.  The center also received a tremendous number of calls from mental health professionals across the country volunteering to help, including offers of assistance from the three states where the latest school disasters had occurred.  U.S. President Bill Clinton offered a team of national crisis counselors who had assisted following the Oklahoma City bombing.  

Crime Victim Compensation

    In addition to helping with the first days of crisis intervention, a priority of the DA’s Victims/Witness Unit was to alert every Columbine student, teacher and staff member of their right to crime victim compensation.

    Crime Victim Compensation is a fund available through the DA’s office to victims of crime “who have been physically or emotionally injured.” The money in this fund comes from fines assessed against persons convicted of a crime.  It is available to help victims pay for medical expenses, mental health therapy, lost employment and burial expenses. 

    The money is distributed through a Crime Victims’ Compensation Board.  On the Friday following the Columbine shootings, the board decided that every student and staff member was eligible for victim compensation and authorized a “streamlined process” be implemented to handle the Columbine applications. 

    A special application was developed and three separate cover letters written to those eligible – one for families of deceased victims, one for injured victims and one for everyone else.  Families of the deceased and injured had their applications given to them in person by the victim advocates assigned to them.  The rest, over 2,000 applications, were mailed.

Columbine Families Contacted

    Given the decision to treat all students, faculty and staff of Columbine as primary victims, and taking into account information obtained in debriefings and through crisis calls to their offices, Victim Services began to recognize a need for all families of Columbine to be contacted.  It became evident that the tragedy had seriously impacted the entire student body, as well as the staff of Columbine High School.  Victim Services Unit staff began looking for a way to make contact with every student and staff possible.  Initially, Victim Outreach Information took the lead in this undertaking.  At the same time, The Sheriff’s Office worked to hire additional staff for the Victims Services Unit so that its efforts could expand out beyond the initial 38 families to offer services. On May 12, 1999, the first advocate was hired by JCSO to work on the project.

Columbine Connections Established

    On April 20, mental health responders, including victim advocates, began meeting to coordinate services provided to the community. The end result was the establishment of the Mental Health Unified Management group.

    A priority of the cooperative Mental Health Unified Management group was the establishment of a facility in the Columbine area.  The goal of Columbine Connections was to provide a space for counseling and victim services as well as activities and education for students, families, and community members over the summer and into the next school year.  Columbine Connections is a cooperative effort between the Sheriff’s Office and the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office, Foothills Park and Recreation Department, and Parents and Communities Coming Together.  As advocates were hired through JCSO, they began staffing this center, originally housed out of a temporary facility.  Columbine Connections opened its doors for business on July 1, 1999.  The Sheriff’s Office hired four victim advocates and a supervisor to staff the victim services part of Columbine Connections through June 2000.  At that time, the original Victim Services staff will again take on the full responsibility for victims of the Columbine shootings.

Other Services Provided

    The normal role of the Sheriff’s Victim Services unit is crisis intervention. Advocates work with people on scene or immediately following a trauma, helping them to get through the initial crisis and then refer them on to mental health if they need longer-term counseling.  In 1998, the Sheriff’s Victims Services unit served approximately 2,000 victims of crime.  On April 20, 1999, the unit worked to respond to at least that number of victims, their families and the community.

    A year after the tragedy, the staff continues to respond to the needs of those impacted.  Within the first few months, Victim Services staff assisted with walk-throughs for the students and families when they went through the high school before the start of school and were on hand for crisis intervention when school began in August.  Donations continued to pour in from all over the country.  Boxes were piled up on every inch of available space and spilling out into the hallways.  Advocates acted as delivery people, taking numerous donations, checks and information to families.

    The Victim Services Unit also identified the need to enlist the help of volunteers in making outreach calls.  The response to their request for volunteers was enormous.  They received over 100 phone calls for 12 volunteer positions.  These volunteers received intensive training on how to respond to high profile mass tragedy, crisis intervention skills, vicarious trauma and the logistics of placing calls.

    Within days of the shootings, JCSO and the DA’s Office contracted with two consultants experienced in mass tragedy to assist in providing services.  To date, they continue to work with these consultants.

    Advocates continue to be involved with families of the injured and deceased, serving as liaisons with the Sheriff’s Office and other agencies and offering support as needed.

    Agencies and organizations that provided assistance during and after the Columbine tragedy include victim advocates and volunteers from the following:


Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office            Denver Police Department        
Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office              Division of Criminal Justice
Adams County District Attorney’s Office Douglas County Sheriff’s Office  
Adams County Sheriff’s Office Englewood Department of Safety Services 
Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office Federal Heights Police Department  
Arvada Police Department Gilpin County Sheriff’s Office  
Attorney General’s Office Greeley Police Department  
Boulder County Sheriff’s Office  Greenwood Village Police Department  
Boulder Police Department   Lakewood Police Department  
Brighton Police Department   Littleton Police Department  
Castle Rock Police Department  Longmont Police Department  
Clear Creek County Sheriff’s Office Sheridan Police Department  
Colorado State Patrol  State Court Administrators Office  
Commerce City Police Department   Thornton Police Department  
Denver District Attorney’s Office    Westminster Police Department  


Boulder County Crisis Intervention Team        Children’s Advocacy Center  (CAC)  
Victim Outreach Information  (VOI)   Colorado Organization for Victim’s Assistance  (COVA)  
Wings Foundation   Women in Crisis  
The staff of Leawood Elementary   The staff of Columbine Public Library  
Numerous professionals from private practice