NewsColumbine: 25 Years Later


'Post-traumatic growth': After Columbine, father and daughter use their experience to try to help others

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Posted at 5:00 PM, Apr 15, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-19 22:09:29-04

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — "That day changed everything."

That is how AJ DeAndrea recounted entering Columbine High School 25 years ago, as one of the first police officers on the scene when a mass shooting began, ultimately killing 13.

"For me, we can never forget what happened," AJ said. "We can honor those lost by saying we're not going to let their loss be in vain. We're going to push forward. We're going to find whatever avenues we can to be able to go out and combat evil."

Recovery and resiliency were not words AJ, who was on the Jeffco Regional SWAT Team at the time, thought about in the days or weeks immediately following the shooting. The realization that those two things were desperately needed came later.

"I found myself sitting on the deck — I had a glass of bourbon, I had a cigar. And I was crying," he said. "And it was that day, I told myself that if I ever got into a position of power, leadership, more influence — because I was just an officer at the time — that there had to be a better way to do this."

And he has done everything in his power since to keep that promise.

"We started to do active shooter training. So right away, we changed the philosophy of it being a SWAT operation to 'Hey, we need to train actual patrol officers. They're going to be there faster, right? They'll be there quicker. Let's give them the tools,'" AJ remembered. "Literally, within weeks, there was a blueprint of active shooter response that started to get pushed out by the school. In the fall, when the school year started, everyone in Jefferson County was trained."


Eventually, AJ worked his way to a position where he could travel across the country and world, speaking to first responders and school leaders about mass shooting response and the necessary mental health care that follows.

"That became one of my unintended focuses — active shooter training. That really kind of drove my life and my career for the next 25 years after Columbine, whether it be response on the front end, or response on the back end and 'What are we doing for our law enforcement officers?'" AJ explained. "It wasn't just me. [I was] surrounded by a lot of talented, amazing people to try to change the way that American law enforcement responded and then it got bigger... Then it became, 'How's the school responding? How is the fire department responding? How are citizens responding?' And so it's grown and grown and grown. Because we don't stop."

All that time, he had his young daughter Madalena at home taking in his every move.

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"From a very young age, he was Superman," Madalena described to Denver7.

And sitting around the dinner table growing up, AJ would ask her to think through potential scenarios she could face during her life that could pose a risk to her safety.

'"This situation happens. What are you gonna do?' It's those age-appropriate conversations that built a skill for me of scenario-based thinking," Madalena said. "So, what I didn't know at the time is when you're able to think through scenarios ahead of time and build those neural pathways, you're actually going to respond quicker as a result."

Little did either one of them know, those conversations would be put into practice years later to help save her life.

In 2018, Madalena was caught in the Borderline Bar & Grill shooting in Southern California where 12 lives were taken.

"The first text I get was, 'I love you guys.' Well, that was the last words, the only words, that Emily Keyes sent to her father when she was being held hostage before she was killed on Sept. 27, 2006 [at Platte Canyon High School], which was my second school shooting. She knew that story. We knew that," AJ remembered.

Madalena described knowing what a gunshot sounded like because she grew up around guns. She knew she had to find an exit. When she couldn't find one, she hid in the attic above the bar during the shooting.

"I saw things I didn't want to see, I heard things I didn't want to hear. I was in a position that I didn't want to be in," Madalena said.

It has been a long road to recovery for her in the years since.

"I'm so lucky to be able to say my experience has been one of post-traumatic growth," Madalena said. "While I might not be in a spot where it's perfect all the time — I would never lie and say that, right? — I am in a spot where when things do come up, I choose to see them as my brain realizing, 'Oh, it's safe enough now we can bring this portion of what happened up so you can heal it.' ...And then I have tools and a team to help me navigate it when it does... I will not for a second say that healing from trauma is easy, but it's possible."

She attributed the foundation for her healing journey, in part, to the example that was set for her from such an early age.

"He had modeled for me my entire life what it means when something's going on with your brain," Madalena said. "You go talk to somebody just like if you broke your leg. I was able to start taking care of my health and my body and everything to really mitigate some of those effects that trauma have on the body and the brain. And that helped me be in a position where I can start to evaluate, truly, what does it look like? What are those next steps to not only get in a position where I'm now at least functioning again normally, but actually thriving, because that was the goal once I had enough clarity of mind to get there."

The themes of recovery and resiliency wove its way through not only Madalena's personal life, but into her professional one as well.

Following the Borderline shooting, Madalena initially took a position with Jeffco Public Schools as an emergency management coordinator and specialist.

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She has now worked her way to being the senior manager of strategic projects, recovery and resiliency — in service of the district she grew up in.

"I think there's no better thing that could have prepared me for serving in this role than surviving a tragedy myself," she said. "I've lived what it is to have a profound experience of evil and come to the other side of it. Everybody's trauma is different. So I don't ever want to say that I understand somebody else's trauma because it's always apples to oranges. I will never sit in this space and say just because I went through something, I understand somebody else's. But it gives me empathy in a very deep way to be able to navigate this work of recovering."

Madalena's position in Jeffco Public Schools is new for the district, but the hope is it could become a model for others across the country, she said.

In addition to that full-time job, Madalena and her father now travel across the country speaking together about their personal experiences.

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"When we talk, I enlist them to help us make this world a little better place," AJ said. "Let's have an answer at a grassroot level that doesn't divide this country in half with some of the political topics."

The father-daughter duo tries to offer ways others can learn skill sets and put protective factors in place prior to trauma occurring.

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"We'll get emails and phone calls back saying 'Hey, what you taught us saved lives last night or we saved lives yesterday.' And those are huge things, right? That keeps you going forward," AJ said.

"I don't think the intention is ever to be inspiring, but it is to put little seeds of hope," Madalena added. "If nothing else, we get one person who gets a little seed of hope that if their worst day happens, they can be resilient after the fact... That's a win for me. We talk to an audience of four people, right... That is the goal that we want. And the reason we do it is to give people that little grain of hope or those skill sets or those mindsets, that if that bad day happens, there is light at the end of the tunnel."

After Columbine, father and daughter use their experience to try to help others