Gun Violence and Lock Down Trauma

When I was a senior in high school, I had first-hand experience with gun violence. I worked at Chuck E. Cheese at Illiff + Peoria where Nathan Dunlap shot five of my co-workers, killing four, on December 14, 1993. I had worked there for over a year and worked beside Nathan in the kitchen. He was fired months before he decided to return to the restaurant with a gun. Days before the shooting, I cut my thumb wide open cutting pizza dough. Marge Kohlberg was the manager that day and she called my parents to take me to the emergency room for stitches. That was the last time I saw Marge—she was the manager the night Nathan returned. Three other teenagers, Sylvia Crowell, Colleen O’Connor and Ben Grant were also killed. Bobby Stephens was also shot in the face, but he survived. My really close friend Russell Foltz-Smith was the last co-worker to safely leave that night before Nathan opened fire. Russ talks about his experience here 19 years after the shooting

That Chuck E. Cheese never reopened after that night. I remember feeling the most sadness from that. Not only had four co-workers been killed, there were many grieving co-workers I never saw again.

I was 17 at the time. I worked with the shooter and everyone that was killed. My experience occurred before Columbine. Looking back, I don’t think my young brain knew how to process what happened, so I just tried to erase it from my memory. I do remember my parents—especially my dad—being very shaken. 26 years later, the whole ordeal still feels surreal.

Nathan is on death row and his sentence was reprieved by Hickenlooper in 2013. Nathan was 19 at the time of the shooting. I remember him being troubled and infatuated with gangs. On Wikipedia it says he never met his biological father, he was abused as a child, he attempted suicide twice in high school and psychological testing showed he had hypomania but didn’t receive treatment.

I attended Rangeview High School in Aurora and graduated in 1994. At the time, the front doors were unlocked all day with more than 2,000 students inside. We didn’t have lockdown drills and it never crossed my mind that a shooter might enter the school.

Russ Smith now runs a small school in California and I reached out to him about school security and this is what he said: "Most crimes/violence at schools occur because of social isolation and acute problems in the home. Kids usually are quite good at signaling deeper problems and early enough that redirection is possible. Extensive physical security and shows of force only increase stress and tension and fear. We believe it is far more effective long term and frankly cheaper to aid kids and families with mental health and community support before a breaking point than to attempt to put the community back together after a tragedy."

We need to prioritize the emotional health of our students. DPS did the right thing by employing full-time psychologists in every school, but more can be done. Smaller class sizes, appropriate school start times and family support outside of school can all help. Most importantly we must reduce the growing stress of academic achievement on our students. Per a recent Pew study, academic achievement is the primary source of stress and depression in teenagers—even more than bullying.

We can also reduce or rule out ineffective approaches. While it is important to practice fire drills and other safety plans, we simply don’t yet know the psychological effects of lockdown drills. We need to closely monitor research about whether lockdown drills help more than they hurt. One thing is clear: the last thing we need in our schools is more guns. I stand with teachers who want to keep guns out of public schools and I support evidence-based measures that put the health and safety of our students first and foremost.

Had Nathan Dunlap received the help he needed, I wonder if the Chuck E. Cheese shootings could have been avoided.

My goal is to provide all DPS students with the resources they need to thrive and love to learn.