Life after Columbine

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

On April 20, 1999, Michael Johnson was sitting on the grass with friends outside Columbine High School during his lunch period when two gunmen started shooting.

A bullet shattered part of Mr. Johnson's jaw and severely injured his leg. He was among the first students to be carried from the scene and treated, but it still took several medical procedures, months of patience, and his family's prayers before Johnson was able to eat solid food and walk freely.

As a result of that experience, Johnson says, "My faith was accelerated." He harbors no ill will toward the gunmen or anyone connected to Columbine. For the most part, he's just grateful to be alive.

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Five years ago Tuesday, two young men - Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris - walked into their school carrying a small arsenal of weapons. They killed 12 students and one teacher, and injured more than 20 others before taking their own lives.

Tuesday night, the Littleton, Colo., community will gather for a candlelight memorial service in a park near the school. Some in the town remember the event as one that increased their faith and turned them to God for comfort. Others see it as a day in which a community lost its innocence. And still others are bitter toward school and law-enforcement officials who, they believe, failed to protect them.

But for the students who were in the school that day, the challenge of the past five years has been finding a way back to normal life after the nation's worst school shooting. The entire country felt the impact of what happened that day at Columbine, but it was a few hundred teenagers who - along with their teachers and school administrators - actually lived it.

"Right after it happened I was very scared," says Stephanie Salmon, who that day - then a freshman in high school - was in the library where most of the shootings occurred. "I had a lot of anxiety for about a year but it's gradually decreased."

Today Ms. Salmon is a sophomore at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She studies kinesiology and exercise science and hopes to become a physical therapist. She also takes classes in modern dance simply because "it's a blast."

But among her many activities she also finds time to call home often. Her mother, she says, was perhaps even more frightened by the events at her school that day than she was.

"She gets worried very easily," says Salmon. In fact, her mother's fears were a factor in choosing a college. Once she might have considered schools in Florida or California. But after the shooting, she says, staying close to home made more sense.

Salmon's classmate Elizabeth Kwerneland says there has not been a day during the past five years that she has not thought about what happened on April 20, 1999. "I can still remember every detail," says Ms. Kwerneland, who was an acquaintance of Dylan Klebold's.

Today she is a sophomore at Northern Colorado State University in Greeley. She's studying psychology and hopes to become a counselor - a decision shaped in part by her gratitude for the help she received from therapy after the shootings.

Sometimes when people find out she graduated from Columbine, she says, they "look at me kind of strangely, like 'Uh oh, is she going to cry?' "

But cry she doesn't. She is coping well, she says, as are her family members, including her brother who was also a student at Columbine on the day of the shootings. But Kwerneland says she does sometimes resent assumptions others make about what the school - and the survivors - must be like.

"People who went to Columbine were not crazy," she says. It's just, she adds, that "we're dealing with something that not a lot of people have dealt with."

For Brooks Brown, however, a senior at Columbine on that day and a friend of the gunmen, the shootings were an indictment of the school's culture of bullying. He has since written a book "No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine," to try to explain how the authorities missed signs that Dylan and Eric were planning a massacre.

On the day of the shootings, he was leaving school to smoke a cigarette and passed Eric Harris in the parking lot. Brown had been a close friend of both Klebold and Harris and says he knew about the extraordinary isolation and alienation Dylan and Eric felt. About a year before the shootings, Brown and Eric had a falling out but then reconciled.

Brown was not harmed in the attacks. His connection to the shooters, though, later earned him death threats from other students, and school officials asked him not to return when classes resumed.

He finished his senior year on his own.

In the past, Brown has spoken out publicly about bullying and bullying prevention. He calls Columbine "the largest learning experience anyone can have."

He is convinced that Dylan and Eric weren't monsters, or if they were, then "they were made by that school." He claims that a culture of constant bullying and verbal intimidation existed at Columbine, and that, combined with the boys' personalities and Harris's mental instability, created the lethal mix that led to the massacre.

But today Brown says he's done speaking about bullying. He wants to put Columbine behind him and focus on a career in filmmaking.

Like other students who were at Columbine that day, Michael Johnson agrees the experience shaped him, but battles against allowing it to define him. He recognizes, however, that it's hard to escape the notoriety entirely.

"If people ask, I'll tell them," Johnson says, "but I like for them to get to know me first."

Johnson and his family are members of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints. He, along with two other LDS students from Columbine wrote about their experiences in a recently released book, "Surviving Columbine," which emphasizes the role of religious faith in helping them recover.

The reputation of their school, however, remains a concern for some of the students who feel the media offered a distorted image of the school and the town that they knew.

"I never saw any bullying problems," Salmon says. "I'm sure it was there, but I never had any problems. And it wasn't really a violent school. The lines between jocks and different cliques were not as heavy as the media makes it out to be."

But the storm created by the media attention continued to hang over the town, and its return to normalcy was perhaps delayed by further tragedies. In the years following the shootings, two Columbine sophomores were murdered at a Subway sandwich shop, and the mother of one of paralyzed survivors, Anne Marie Hochhalter, committed suicide.

But in some ways, insist the Columbine survivors, there is a positive legacy they carry with them today. They have a perspective on life - and perhaps a passion for it - they could not otherwise have achieved.

Salmon agrees that she was deprived of a "normal" high school experience. "That happened when I was a freshman in high school so my whole high school experience was pretty abnormal."

But today she says she realizes that "Columbine influenced me to make something of my life, and [to] enjoy my life," because she learned she says, "how easily it could be taken away."

Kwerneland says she felt her brother expressed it well when they recently spoke of Columbine.

He told her, "We have witnessed the good and the bad of things. We're different people for what we have seen. That doesn't make us bad and that doesn't make us good. It just makes us different."

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