What Happens Next? Research into the Aftermath of the Columbine Shootings
by Carolyn Lunsford Mears — June 10, 2007
This article addresses issues of school violence from the perspective of what happens after a rampage school shooting. It reports findings of qualitative research into challenges faced by parents and families in the years following the shootings at Columbine High School, beginning with a brief overview of the tragedy and then describing research into the experiences of parents of Columbine students. This research, which was conducted to help inform responses by educators and crisis teams to a school shooting or other community-wide trauma, revealed three primary issues to be addressed in providing services following such an event: 1) location, 2) intention, and 3) connection.
On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, seniors just weeks away from graduation, carried out an attack on their classmates and teachers at Columbine High School in unincorporated Jefferson County, a suburb of Denver, Colorado. Heavily armed with semiautomatic weapons, shotguns, and explosives, the young men murdered twelve students and one teacher before taking their own lives in the school library. My son, a student at Columbine at the time, hid with other terrorized students, faculty, and staff until being freed by law enforcement officers. This experience changed his life. Indeed, it has had an enormous impact on our family and the entire community.
As an educator and long-time resident of the Columbine area, I considered what could be learned from this tragedy. While there are countless investigations into school violence, its possible causes, and potential solutions, first-hand accounts of its impact on schools and communities are rare. This gap in the literature is understandable, however, since the overwhelming majority of those exposed to trauma remain silent, closing ranks within what Lindy and associates describe as a trauma membrane (Lindy, Grace, & Green, 1981). Lindy observed that after a traumatic experience, those impacted surround themselves with a protective environment in order to avoid further violation (Lindy, 1985). This phenomenon contributes to the difficulties that researchers face in trying to learn from a traumatic event. As a result, those who must develop contingency plans for dealing with deadly school violence do so without information from those who have actually lived through such an experience.
As I considered the situation, I realized that I could contribute to the body of knowledge on the impacts of lethal school violence by offering a perspective from within the experience itself. I enrolled in the University of Denver, resolving to conduct research that might shed light on this traumatic event. Other Columbine parents saw the benefit of this endeavor and offered their support so that communities elsewhere could be better prepared. The culmination of my doctoral studies was the dissertation, Experiences of Columbine Parents: Finding a Way to Tomorrow (2005), a volume that collects and considers the stories of six parents whose children were exposed to the violence and its aftermath. The guiding purpose of this research was to contribute an understanding of the complexities of living through and moving beyond such an event. Specifically, I investigated the question, What is the experience of parents of students who have been exposed to a rampage school shooting? I examined this fundamental question by focusing on the challenges that parents encountered, the resources or support that helped them face these challenges, and their recommendations for others faced with such trauma in the future.
School-associated violence can take many forms, ranging from verbal intimidation to vandalism, theft, assault, gang activity, and murder. Violence such as occurred at Columbine falls within a small subset of lethal school violence, termed a rampage school shooting, an event characterized by a wanton rage, resulting in multiple injuries and possibly deaths (Harding, Fox, & Mehta, 2002; National Research Council, 2003). In a rampage shooting, a gunman with some connection to the school selects victims apparently at random, though some may be selected for their symbolic significance, perhaps representative of a group that has wronged or slighted the shooter in the past. A review of available statistics of school-associated violent deaths (National Center for Education Statistics, 2007) reveals that rampage school shootings to date have not occurred in urban schools but in the relative safety of small towns and in rural and suburban communities with low-incidence of crime.
Persons surviving a traumatic event and their families often feel separate, estranged from the rest of humanity (Caruth, 1995, p. 194). From their shared experience grows a perspective that the assumptions once held about the world, the way it operates, and ones place in it have all changed (Janoff-Bulman, 1985, 1992). The world once assumed to exist is no more, and it is somehow easier to be with others who share this traumatic loss.
Following a large-scale tragedy, families and the community at-large often avoid outsiders (Lindy, Green, Grace, & Titchener, 1983), seeking to help each other heal but complicating the efforts of mental health workers and service providers from the outside. In addition to matters of access, the issue of community raises a significant question of how to determine the extent of devastation and recovery-needs without personifying the community as a single entity (Zinner & Williams, 1999, p. 239). Questions undoubtedly are raised about the cumulative, greater good versus the immediate individual impact. In supporting persons attempting to recover from a disaster, effective helpers allow those they help to instruct them about what or who was lost and the meaning of the loss. . . . Outsiders to a community who come in, by invitation or intrusion, to assist those affected, may rush survivors to overcompensate and to normalize too quickly; outsiders may urge community members to return to predictable routines that are not appropriate for the circumstances (Zinner & Williams, 1999, p. 7).
A rampage school shooting impacts not only those who are exposed to the gunfire but also their families and their community. Assumptions are shattered. Relationships are challenged. Grief and trauma are prevalent. To bring the aftermath of a school shooting into human dimensions, I explored the experiences of six Columbine parents, revealing stories of lived experience and impact to those outside the trauma membrane so that others may be better informed. The remainder of this paper describes the study and its findings.
For my investigation, I utilized aspects of oral history for interviewing, generated narrative poetic representation for the display of data, and selected elements of educational criticism and connoisseurship for data analysis and reporting. I refer to my distinctive approach as a gateway study since it provides a gateway to deep, contextual understanding of the impact of a type of experience that may prove difficult for researchers to access.
In a series of three, 90-minute, modified oral history interviews, six parents (three fathers and three mothers) shared their stories, revealing their individual experiences in order that others might better understand what happens after a school shooting. Using voice recognition software, I transcribed the interviews, producing over 600 pages of text, rich with story and significance. To complete the investigation, I analyzed the transcriptions and reported findings through techniques adapted from educational criticism and connoisseurship, a methodology that emphasizes the perception of qualities, the interpretation of significance, and the giving of public form to the content of consciousness (Eisner, 1998). This arts-based methodology allowed me to keep a literary feel to the study and consider metaphor and meaning in a way that might have been lost in the more traditional, distanced voice of academia.
With my close association to the matter being researched, I realized that questions about subjectivity would be raised. To minimize the negative impact of my prior knowledge and experience and to ensure that the voices of the participants could be heard, I used open-ended questions, monitored my reactions for subjectivity (Peshkin, 1988), and encouraged the parents to go beyond what I knew to inquire about. I asked each parent to identify key elements in his or her experience and to tell me which issues they would be disappointed to see omitted from the final manuscript. These strategies, combined with the display of data through free-verse narratives crafted from the parents own words, allowed me to maximize my closeness to the event while minimizing the negative impact of subjectivity. Parents confirmed the accuracy and completeness of their transcript and of their narratives.
With regard to the particular challenge of presenting the parents experiences, I employed narrative representation not only to minimize subjectivity but also because I realized that I could not do justice to the parents if I simply summarized their stories with a few direct quotations thrown in for effect. It was important to me that the data be shared in the parents own expressions, and not paraphrased through my lens. As I struggled with this challenge, I found a solution in the form of poetic representation, a type of data display in which qualitative data are reduced into the essential words and phrases and then presented in a poem-like structure (Richardson, 1992; Glesne, 1997). By using this device, I was able to transform the interview transcripts into an accessible form so that each parent could speak directly to the reader. With filler and transition words removed, only the essential words remained. I organized these excerpts thematically, so that the stories had movement and flow. Each parent reviewed his or her narrative, along with the audiotape and accompanying transcript, to ensure that their meaning had been faithfully conveyed. Their response to seeing their own stories reported in this fashion validated my decision to use this approach. In fact, one of the parents told me that reading his experiences that were sequenced into a cohesive story gave him great comfortmuch more than he had felt in visits with a trauma counselor.
Displaying data as poetic narrative brings the story close: you have to treat the dataand the person it came fromseriously because a poem is something you engage in at a deep level. It is not just a figurative transposition but an emotional statement as well (Miles & Huberman, 1994, p.110). Reducing interview transcriptions in this way brings the reader in direct contact with that person (Richardson, 2002). As a result, data come to life and conclusions can be based on elemental understandings. To demonstrate what is meant by this approach to story-sharing, I am including two excerpts from the Columbine study. Both have implications for those who must plan response services.
The first excerpt reveals a parents reflection on the events of April 20th. These few words provide a contextual basis for beginning to understand the chaos of that day.
Excerpt 1: April 20th . . .
I was at a store nearby,
I heard all of these sirens and saw police
I watched where they went
When they turned on Bowles I thought,
Oh my God,
Its at the school.
The kids were running out
They were all crying and frantic
They told me,
Somebodys shooting in the school
I wanted to know where my son was
So I just took off driving toward the school
A policeman came up and said,
Lady, you cant go in there
You cant come any further
I said, My sons in there.
He said, Sos my daughter.
We heard somebody shooting real close
The policeman shoved me into my car
He hid behind my car door,
Then he said, Lady, you gotta get out of here.
Roads were jam-packed
A lot of people on their cell-phones
All the circuits were busy.
I got home and was all by myself
I turned on TV
I did not know where my son was
Hes my only child.
As it turned out, he had been in the cafeteria
Sitting next to the biggest bomb
If it had gone off when it was supposed to,
He wouldnt be here.
He had gone on to class
When he got there,
The kids were flying down the hall
The teacher told them, Get out of here!
He got them all out
He pushed them out
He pushed them down the hall to get out
My son ran
Bullets were ringing by his head
Pinging when they hit the lockers.
He got out of the school and ran across the street
Tons of kids running across the street, crying
So he ran, jumped a fence and hid.
The teachers were there
Kids were there
Kids were crying
Teachers were saying,
Stay down, stay down.
He ended up at someones house.
They were yelling to other kids,
Come here! Come here!
This place is safe
The parents are home at this house
Twenty-five kids showed up at this house
They were watching it on television
Thats how they found out what was going on.
I didnt know where he was for six hours,
My only child.
In the second excerpt, a parent conveys the concern about the imposition of zero tolerance policies after the shootings, his fear about further violence, and his appreciation for the teachers and the chance to go into the building with his son after the shootings.
Excerpt 2: Afterward
The school went overboard,
Saying theres a zero tolerance policy,
You cant take fingernail clippers to school,
Youd better not utter a word on the list,
All that kind of stuff
That just heightens the stress
And the tension
And the worry of the kids who are there.
Zero tolerance policy is for the media and the parents
To convince people its safe for the kids to go back
Understandably, they put those in place, but
To me it should have been more of a rebuilding
Love in the place
As opposed to putting all the negative walls into place.
My biggest concern has been that some nut would look at Columbine
And blow up the school,
Just to say, I did what they couldn't do
I finished it.
I've had that fear since the day those kids went back
My wife and I didn't talk a lot about it but we thought,
Do we put our son in another school?
If we do, it's like they won
And we are not going to let them win,
So the fear you just live with.
That's what I think every parent whose kid went back to Columbine felt
And every teacher who went back to Columbine.
Not a lot has been written about the staff that I'm aware of
I don't know that first year, how those teachers taught,
How hard it was for them to go back into the classroom.
The first time they tested the fire alarms, they let everyone know
A lot of kids didn't go to school that day
Because they couldn't stand to hear that sound.
Teaching takes a lot out of you to begin with
But to have that emotion added on
Maybe something more needs to be done for the teachers.
What helped us a lot was to go back with our kids
After everything was cleaned up,
They allowed us to just roam around
Our son took us down to the cafeteria
He showed me the door and said,
I went through this door, and
Then we walked up here and
We came out the hallway here, and
I saw the broken windows down here.
Saw the bullet holes in the wall
Then I understood.
I understood more of what he was going through
And that would be important for others to learn from this
Let the families come back and go through the school with their child
Because that is helpful for them
And for the child,
To say, Here's where I was
Here's what happened to me
To go back into the school with support
Walking with you to better understand.
Here we all are, walking through it
That was an important thing for them to do
For them to know they could face it.
While the stories of the six parents in this study cannot possibly convey the whole of the Columbine experience, they provide a perspective that can move beyond the specific event and have implications for other situations and settings. Parents offered many insights that can benefit educators, service providers, support personnel, and policy-makers elsewhere in preparing for this contingency. They described their struggle with the ongoing nature of the trauma, the stress caused by intrusions by the media, the feelings of being judged negatively by outsiders, the fear of future attacks, the search for information, the contributions of teachers who returned the following year, the importance of family, and the need for proactive educational planning and mental health services in the K-12 system. In their stories, common impacts of primary as well as secondary exposure to traumatic violence can be seen:
Loss of sense of security and safety
Shattered worldview and life assumptions
Loss of ability to trust in others, in a system, in predictability
Extended grief states
Disconnection from what had been conventional wisdom
Difficulty with language (a type of aphasia)
Trouble describing experience (Words no longer have the same meaning.)
Separation from those who have not shared the experience (trauma membrane)
The effect on families was quite simply that traumatized parents were raising traumatized children. Accounts of family experiences described impacts and responses such as the following:
Parents suggestions for assisting in the aftermath of a school shooting can inform those who must respond to community-wide tragedy elsewhere. While the Columbine shootings pale in comparison to many tragedies, such as occurred on September 11, in Hurricane Katrina, or on the campus of Virginia Tech, this study offers insights that could help in planning for emergency preparedness and response. For this reason, I have provided an extensive list of recommendations from parents in Appendix 1.
In addition, a review of the parents experiences and their recommendations reveals recurring patterns that transcend the specifics of the situation to create a set of fundamentals that can have significance elsewhere. Common themes reveal issues related to location (sense of place), intention (perceptions about what motivated offers of assistance), and connection (the journey through chaos to reconnect with others and with self). In brief, the most positive forms of response address the school communitys need to reclaim a sense of place that supports positive beliefs about personal security and identity, to trust the intentions of those providing assistance, and to recover from the disconnection caused by exposure to trauma.
Location. The importance of place echoes throughout the Columbine study. Parents struggled with questions: Where is my child? Where were you when it happened? Where do we finish the school year? How could this happen here? These concerns lie at the heart of the chaos and consequence that swirled into motion with the mass murders at Columbine High School. When students, faculty, parents, and community members were terrorized by unimagined acts of violence, they lost their sense of place. Finding a way through the chaos required that they find a way to return to an assumptive world that incorporated their experience with trauma and loss. The world had proven itself to be unsafe and unpredictable. The challenge was to reclaim a tenable concept of a world that they now knew carried risk and uncertainty, a world that was bounded by a trauma membrane.
Intention. As parents talked about the resources that were made available, they considered some to be generous gifts and offers of assistance, while similar offers from others were viewed with suspicion. The distinction lay in the perceived intention: The opinion of what had motivated the offer shaped the response to it. Those who gave of their time, energy, resources, or support, simply for the purpose of helping the students and community heal, were considered to be helpers. They sought only to help lift the burden by sharing a message of hope, planning a special event, listening to stories of experience, or simply continuing to teach. These apparently wanted nothing special in return for their efforts except to know that they had done what they could to help. Others, the takers, were perceived as wanting to take personal benefit from their association with the school in mourning. Those who exploited the situation for personal gain by sensationalizing, proselytizing, or politicking, only served to further victimize and wound a grieving community.
As an aside, counselors and support personnel in a follow-up study have noted that some offers of assistance came with a message that seemed disempowering. Misguided offers of assistance that conveyed a message of, Oh you poor thing, you need someone to do things for you, had the potential for prolonging feelings of victimhood and building co-dependency. Those who offered assistance while seeking to empower the individual or group conveyed a more positive message: Ill help you with this task but you dont need me for everything and you wont need me forever. This approach helped to rebuild feelings of competence and fueled recovery and resilience.
Connection. The attack on Columbine ruptured the fabric of everyday life. Parents who had seen their children off to school that morning abruptly had to face the horror that they did not know where their children were and that they did not know if their children were alive. Reconnecting with their sons and daughters was an integral part of their stories. Parents expressed a sense of discomfort, anxiety, and fear that lasted until they knew where their children were and had reclaimed them. Parents advised that crisis response plans include a viable and detailed strategy for reuniting families and that procedures be in place before a tragedy strikes. Parents and students need to know of these procedures before the unthinkable event happens.
Feeling disconnected, misunderstood, and negatively judged were common responses. Connecting with ones family, with counseling services, with ritual, and with friends and community was only a part of the process. Another challenge confronting each individual was the need to reconnect with self. Taking time for self is an essential step to recovery. Reflecting on the meaning of the experience and integrating awareness of a different sense of the world are actions that require making connection with oneself.
The Columbine tragedy brought a level of controversy that still abides within the community. Few agree on what caused the tragic events of that day. Some question the appropriateness of the police response to the crime. Assertions that greater vigilance by parents and educators could have prevented the tragedy have served to separate some in this experience from others in the community and from their prior assumptions and beliefs. The struggle for connection is faced on many levels.
In assessing the significance of this study, two factors should be remembered. First, the stories of six parents, while not uncharacteristic, cannot represent the full range of experience. There were over 2,000 students enrolled in Columbine in April 1999, and each student, parent, and educator faced multiple and varied challenges. Drawing conclusions about the whole of the experience is not possible. However, this study does contribute a deeper insight into the impact of trauma through first-hand stories of experience. Second, since the entire population of Columbine High Schoolall students, faculty, staff, resource personnel, and families was impacted, significant challenges were faced on a daily basis, at home, at school, and at work. What otherwise might be of limited concern if only involving one or two students has major implications when everyone in a school or community faces those challenges. The impact of trauma is intensified when an entire community is affected.
The Columbine community still lives with the consequences of this tragedy. Its effects are played out in many different ways, including, for some families, stress-related illness, accidents, family disruption, and ongoing uncertainty. These would be appropriate topics to investigatefor another researcher. My intention was simply to collect stories and offer a gateway to understanding so that others could be better prepared should tragedy of this sort strike their community. In the words of one of the parents in my study,
You have to learn from what you see
What you experience . . .
If it can happen here,
It can happen anywhere.
Subsequent to the dissertation research, I have continued to study the impact of the tragedy, talking with additional parents as well as crisis responders, clergy, school personnel, and counselors. At present, this effort is limited; however, I am seeking support for a broader study into other perspectives of the impacts and needs following a community-wide tragedy. Preliminary discussions have supported findings from the initial study. Participants describe the ongoing nature of the trauma and consider the interventions and responses that were offered in the aftermath to be of varying degrees of benefit. Their recommendations are shown in Appendix 2.
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APPENDIX 1: PARENTS RECOMMENDATIONS
Excerpted from Experiences of Columbine Parents: Finding a Way to Tomorrow
Recommendations for Schools, Communities, and Service Providers
Recognize that the unimaginable needs to be imagined and planned for. Plan ahead for disaster. No matter how impossible it seems, it can happen in your community.
Plan ahead to develop networks of support. Site-based counselors and strong communication among groups and agencies providing services in the community are essential.
Plan specific procedures for reconnecting parents and family members with their loved ones. The chaos that erupts when students and faculty flee a building under attack needs to be recognized when developing plans for reuniting families. Posting lists on walls is not a viable solution. Information should be accessible from remote sites.
Plan for counseling and support services to be available throughout the community. Assistance through informal networks is preferred to formal settings, so services need to have an element of outreach into existing organizations, such as youth groups or even video arcades for students and workplace or civic organizations for parents. Outreach services offer potential for drawing in fathers who might reject counseling elsewhere.
Provide opportunities for those exposed to the violence to reconnect with others who had shared the same location during the assault. Parents who attended the locations counseling found the sessions to be beneficial.
Treat violence in schools as a mental health issue. Funds are needed for school-based counselors or psychologists throughout the school system so that students who show signs of being at risk dont feel empowered when their troubling behaviors are tolerated.
Dont glamorize school shooters and dont make excuses for them. Using labels like Trenchcoat Mafia or saying shooters were bullied can make them seem like heroes to other students.
Likewise, dont demonize the shooters. Describing the shooters as less than human makes it easier to ignore real problems that need to be addressed.
Avoid imposing rigid policies following a shooting that increase anxiety for students. Parents pointed specifically to the implementation of zero tolerance policies following the assault as a source of added anxiety and uncertainty, since students now had to comply with new, high-stakes policies that they did not fully understand. After a shooting is not the time to introduce such policies.
Design smaller schools and smaller classes. It is difficult to manage the large numbers of students in schools today. Every student needs at least one adult at the school who is interested in him or her.
Attempt to retain faculty, administrators, and staff. A return of the existing staff gives the school stability and lessens the amount of change that the students must adjust to.
Provide extra pay for teachers who stay in a school following a rampage shooting. The added stress and demands of teaching in a school that has been traumatized by a shooting deserve to be compensated.
Remove physical reminders and redesign space that is associated with the shooting. Removing or remodeling visible reminders of the shooting can help to reduce psychological triggers.
Allow the students and parents to return to the school together before resuming classes. Sharing the experience with loved ones is an important step toward mutual understanding.
Maintain good communications with parents but dont overuse the system. Parents are shell-shocked, and receiving calls from school can increase anxiety.
Provide a variety of options for students. Some students will be able to return to class; others will want to transfer, and some will need small-group instruction or home-based teaching.
Help parents know what is normal. Parents need more guidance about when to be concerned about student behaviors and support with parenting issues.
Screen offers of assistance. Some offers may be of genuine benefit while others may actually cause harm. Also, plan how to deal with the massive amount of gifts, cards, and letters that will be sent.
Create ways that the student body and faculty can work together to help others. Service projects allow students and teachers to feel that they are using their experience to benefit others. Design projects that demonstrate the positive identity of the school and community.
A permanent memorial is needed. A permanent memorial that honors the victims as well as the survivors can take the focus off of the school facility.
Recommendations for Parents
Get help for yourself and your family as well as for your child. All are hurtingthe child that was in the school as well as the entire family. It is your responsibility to get the support.
Dont allow children to stay in denial. Dont assume that if your child says everything is okay, it is.
Listen. Hear what lies beneath the words, because the meaning of the words, like the world around you, may have changed. One mother emphasized that she had interpreted her daughters concern for a friend in light of previous thoughts about boy-girl dynamics. That friend later committed suicide. In the aftermath of a school shooting, issues are potentially more serious than what might have been assumed in the past.
Take time off from work, if possible. Be home with your children. Allow time for yourself.
Build on parenting skills you already have. Parents said that their relationship with their children was especially important in this situation. Accessing guidance about how to parent traumatized adolescents can help, too. If the printed guidelines that are distributed to parents are not sufficient, ask for more information and get the advice you need.
Try not to let relationships with your spouse suffer by focusing exclusively on the child. The experience causes severe stress, and couples need to support each other and recognize that each may grieve differently.
Go to those you know, where you have existing relationships. All parents noted the value of friends and family as sources of strength and cited pre-existing social networks and churches as significant resources.
Heal togetherdont turn outside. Parents pointed to the resources provided in the community and in the school, feeling that those inside can understand in ways that those outside cannot.
Turn to pain; experience it. Dont try to deny the pain because it will take longer to get through it.
Open up to the experience and see what you can get from it to help others. Learn from the experience and recognize that you will be changed, but use the experience to grow and help others.
Know there is hope. Be reassured that the pain will end.
Stay connected. Find different means of being in contact with your children and your family.
Create new traditions and rituals. Create opportunities to connect with extended family members and friends; establish traditions that foster those connections.
Participate in rituals and go to funerals or memorial services as energy permits. Ceremonies are rites of passage that help people take a step forward, but recognize when you have reached your limit.
Find ways to begin the return to normalcy. Even though it will take time for the world to return to normal, returning to some routine activities can begin that process.
Remember that the things you valued in the school or community are still there. Parents felt that it helped them to stay in the community and see it recover. Volunteering or completing public service projects can help in regaining a sense of purpose.
APPENDIX 2: ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDATIONS
Crisis responders need to let students know theyre safe.
Dont say, Things are going to be okay. Youll get over it.
Realize that all students and teachers were victims, not just those who died.
Dont make rules that punish the survivors.
Dont connect every other bad thing that happens in schools to this event.
Provide support that is empowering rather than disempowering.
Give sanctuary (safety) for people to deal with their grief.
Create a forum for sharing divergent views in ways that would not impede the healing of others.
Teach people about the trauma response so that they could better understand their own experience.
Honor commitments and protect confidential information.
Dont try to heal anyone, just walk alongside on the difficult journey to recovery.
Dont judge students who may not act like otherseach will deal with the experience differently and may need different accommodations.
Create opportunities for survivors to take action and become part of the helping process.
Avoid fueling judgments about the situation.
Provide models for communicating the experience to those outside.
Be careful about allowing speakers and events that will divide the community.
Recognize this as a time that requires strong leadership.
Provide opportunities for healing together that address the complexity of the situation.
Dont be too quick to settle on a why for the tragedy. A school shooting most likely doesnt result from any one single cause.
Realize that it is murder-suicide.
Recognize that children show us only what they want us to see.
Consider ways of helping that take into account the long-term impacts on the community.
Provide support for families of the perpetratorsthey are hurting too and are totally isolated from their community by nature of the event.
Create environments that allow for the potential of forgiveness.