Columbine survivors reflect on school shootings debate

The shooting at Columbine High School nearly two decades ago led two survivors to opposite sides of the gun control debate. Despite their differences, the tragedy left both with the same desire to serve others. 

David Zalubowski/AP
Samantha Haviland, a survivor of the Columbine shooting and now director of counseling for Denver Public Schools, talks about political action after the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting on Feb. 22 in Denver.

Patrick Neville was outside, sneaking off to smoke with friends, and avoided the outburst of gunfire at Columbine High School nearly two decades ago, but he did not dodge the heartbreak. A close friend died, and the anguish in his father's eyes is seared in Mr. Neville's memory.

Samantha Haviland was fundraising in the cafeteria and froze, uncomprehending, at the sound of screams just outside the window. Trance-like, she and others fled the room, then pressed against a wall of lockers, windows shot out down the hall. She, too, lost a close friend.

The horror of April 20, 1999 – 13 died when two student gunmen attacked the suburban Denver school – changed Neville and Ms. Haviland's lives in different ways but inspired both to take action and serve others. It's a calling they sadly share with survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who are demanding the nation take action on school violence.

"Nineteen years ago when Columbine happened, we didn't understand it. We were shocked by it. We didn't think this was a thing. We thought we were outliers," Haviland said. "We adults, myself and my generation, have failed these students where we have learned this is a thing and we still haven't done anything."

Haviland, now director of counseling for Denver Public Schools, disagrees with the notion that guns in teachers' hands would deter mass shootings she fears have become all too common. Neville became a Republican state legislator whose repeated attempts to arm teachers and school employees have been rejected by Democrats.

Both insist they'll keep fighting. And both concede a solution is far from reach.

"The vitriol behind this debate is pretty kind of nasty," said Neville, whose answering machine in his Capitol office was full of angry messages, some threatening, over his failed legislation, which he plans to introduce again next year. "That's how they operate, these nasty bullying tactics."

"Theaters. Shopping malls. Concerts. Churches. All of these places that we go to, and we feel safe, and we should feel safe, and we have made them unsafe," Haviland said. "We have failed to make decisions to make those places safe."

Neville was a 15-year-old sophomore when the gunfire began. He fled the school grounds and gathered with others at a nearby elementary school as the ordeal played out on TV.

His close friend – Neville won't use his name publicly as a gesture of respect amid the "hyper-political" school shootings debate – was killed.

"I was probably not making good life choices at that time," Neville said. "The friend who passed was doing everything right. Straight A's. For me, it was a wakeup call that I needed to get my act together and that life is precious."

He graduated, enlisted in the Army, served in Iraq, earned a Bronze Star, and attained captain's rank before leaving in 2013, completing college, and entering politics. Now Colorado's state House minority leader, Neville's concealed carry legislation is one of his dearest political priorities – a way to safeguard children, including his three daughters, by deterring would-be shooters.

Neville's bill was defeated last week – the fourth time he's tried. The next day he was in Washington meeting with President Trump and others on school violence. Mr. Trump has suggested arming teachers as one strategy.

"The folks who are thinking about committing such a heinous act would be forced to know that they're not going inside a gun-free zone," Neville said. "Right now we just throw a sign above the door that says, 'gun-free zone,' which I think just welcomes them."

"Schools are doing everything we can to keep your students safe," said Haviland, who was a 16-year-old junior when Columbine happened. "I can't imagine being a teacher, being responsible for all of these lives, and also carting a weapon."

Like Neville, Haviland became more determined to serve others after the Columbine tragedy. She sees no straightforward solutions to mass shootings – only a lack of will by residents and officeholders to shed politics and vitriol and calmly address every aspect of a confounding issue.

A self-described dorky kid who captained the speech club, was a peer counselor, and played golf, Haviland escaped with other panicked students. She says a teacher saved her life by pulling an alarm that closed a fire door that kept her from running into the gunmen.

"Smiles and IDs, kids. Smiles and IDs," she fondly remembers a reassuring FBI agent telling them when school reopened.

The tragedy strengthened Haviland's conviction that she would be a school counselor one day. She went to college, spoke to high school kids around the country, got her doctorate. As chief of counseling for Denver schools, she's seen it all: the gun debates, the mental health debates, the school security measures. The shock and horror of Columbine has become a norm nearly two decades later.

"I wonder sometimes if our students don't start to expect it," Haviland said.

She sees hope and is inspired by the protests, the outcry, led by the student survivors from Florida.

"They're angry, and they have every right to be angry," Haviland said. "If I could talk to the Florida students, I would say: 'Don't let us get away with it again.' "

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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