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Life after Columbine

By April AustinStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Teresa MéndezStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / April 20, 2004



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.

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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.

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."

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