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Columbine: 10 years later

How lives changed in the decade after a school shooting.

By Jeff KassContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 20, 2009

PLACE TO REMEMBER: A visitor lingers at the Columbine Memorial. The site honors the 13 people who were killed when two students opened fire on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

Melanie Stetson Freeman /Staff

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"We are Columbine." Before April 20, 1999, it was a high school spirit chant shouted at assemblies and pep rallies. Ten years ago, however, Columbine changed and the world changed.

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Two students rampaged through Columbine High School, killing 13 before turning their weapons on themselves. "We are all Columbine" the phrase became. The 10 years since have brought school shootings deadlier than Columbine. Yet Columbine remains the world's most iconic school shooting, its name affixed to all those that have followed.

A return to Colorado's Jefferson County finds that the emotions of 10 years ago still animate each day. For former student Devon Adams, hearing about a school shooting overseas can feel so raw that she closes her office door to avoid people. Former Columbine teacher Rich Long now mows a golf course because, after the shootings, "it was time for me to get out of that profession."

"Some people did not want [the shootings] to define them," he says. "But ... I think it changed everybody."

For Mr. Long, Ms. Adams, and Kirsten Kreiling – who knew no one at Columbine and yet took it upon herself to raise $1 million for the memorial – April 20 is an anniversary that marks a fulcrum in their lives. And Adams thinks that's the way it should be. "If Columbine did not change people, then it's a really sad commentary on them," she says.

For many of the people of Jefferson County, we are all still Columbine.

For a teacher, no more teaching

Long has found some peace mowing the greens of Homestead Golf Course. It is, in part, an antidote to what he witnessed on April 20. He had taught at Columbine for 27 years – all but two of his career. But a year after the shootings, he stopped teaching. "It just didn't feel right to me," he says.

There was a sense of culpability, he adds, because the shootings "happened on our watch."

Long had reached 30 years in the classroom when he retired – the threshold that allows him to collect 75 percent of his salary. But the milestone had little to do with this decision, he says.

"I don't know how good a job I did that last year, either," Long adds.

He knew killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. He had taught them computers when they were "wide-eyed freshmen" but later saw another side to each boy when they got busted for stealing school locker combinations. Yet when Long watched Eric and Dylan the day of the shootings, he saw something he can only characterize as evil. "That's the only way I think I can describe Eric and Dylan's actions," he says.

In the days that followed, however, he also witnessed something equally as powerful in meetings with fellow faculty members: call it compassion. "There's a certain force that the human nature can also use to deal with those situations," says Long, who still lives in the area. "I found that very powerful. Just as powerful...."