20 years after Columbine: one parent’s reflection

Why We Wrote This

Twenty years after the Columbine massacre, a Monitor reporter reflects on that day and how it has changed society from her perspective as a former Colorado high school teacher, an education reporter, and a parent.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
The Columbine Memorial honors the people who died in the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999. Twenty years later, Columbine is seen as a turning point in American society.

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Like most of the country, I was horrified when I first learned of the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. In those days, I was a Colorado high school teacher and couldn’t help but picture my students in the place of the students who were gunned down.

Thinking back to Columbine today, two decades later, I’m filled with a profound sadness not just for the students and teachers who were killed and injured that day, but also for the era that it began.

In my years as a Monitor staff writer I have written about many school shootings, each time struggling to find fresh angles apart from the awful specifics that made each event, and the individuals involved, unique.

But perhaps the biggest challenge of the post-Columbine world has been trying to help my children process this era that seems so very different from the one in which I was raised.

The solution that I have found has been to focus on the good. I’d be lying if I said I don’t experience pangs of fear as a parent, wondering what kind of world I’ve brought my children into. But I don’t want that fear to govern my life or theirs.

When news of the Columbine shooting broke, I was sitting in a restaurant in Moab, Utah, on spring break from the Colorado high school where I was teaching that year.

I was horrified: The event seemed unimaginable, unspeakable, and I pictured my students in the place of the students who were gunned down.

When I returned to campus – an alternative residential high school in Estes Park – a few days later, we held a moment of silence for Columbine High School during the first all-school gathering. It’s a tradition that continues at the school, at every morning gathering, to this day.

What I didn’t realize 20 years ago was that that horrific event was ushering in a new era in which mass shootings would come to seem, if not commonplace, at least somewhat familiar, following a script we all had to learn. In my years as a Monitor staff writer – many of them on the education beat – I wrote about school shootings in Red Lake, Minnesota; in Sandy Hook, Connecticut; in Sparks, Nevada; on the Virginia Tech campus. 

Together with my editors I worked to find new angles, apart from the awful specifics that made each event, and the individuals involved, unique. There were school safety debates: metal detectors? Lockdown drills? Gun-control emerged as a major issue: Would eliminating the “gun-show loophole” that allowed people to bypass normal background checks help? What about child access prevention laws? And there were the constant efforts to find a “why” – bullying or mental illness or some sort of reason that could explain such a terrible action.

Columbine was always a touchpoint. It certainly was not the first school shooting, but when it occurred it was the most deadly in the modern era. And it was the first time that it entered our national consciousness that schools were not a haven. In several subsequent shootings, there were signs the perpetrators were inspired by the two Columbine shooters.

And, of course, it wasn’t just schools that were no longer seen as safe. Mass shootings occurred in a movie theater and a nightclub, in churches and synagogues and mosques.

We’ve labeled those born since 1999 the “Columbine Generation,” children who have never lived in a world where school shootings – and mass shootings more broadly – weren’t seen as a danger. These children integrated lockdown and shooter drills into their school routine the way past generations did with the more banal fire and tornado drills. Last year, when a shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida, it shouldn’t have been surprising that many of the students there became a powerful voice for change, refusing to accept this constant threat of violence as a new normal.

As a student of the 1980s and ’90s, I grew up seeing schools as safe territory. But I became a parent in a new era. When the Sandy Hook shooting happened, taking the lives of 20 first graders and six adults, it was the first time I ever asked my editor not to travel for an assignment. I covered aspects of the story from afar, but as a mother whose daughter was the same age as those students I didn’t think I could go into that town and experience the anguish there firsthand and write dispassionately.

My children have lockdown drills, now required by Colorado law. When the shootings occurred in the Orlando nightclub and the Las Vegas concert and in Parkland, they heard about them on the radio and I had to decide how to talk about them, how to explain the inexplicable.

This week, I had to let them know that their school – along with hundreds of others in the entire Denver metro area – was closed Wednesday due to an armed 18-year-old from Florida who was at large and apparently had an “infatuation” with the Columbine shooting. She was eventually found dead by police late Wednesday morning.

My Facebook page Wednesday was filled with anguished parents worried not just about the threat of the shooter, but also how to explain the closure to their elementary-age children. 

The solution that I’ve found in these situations has been to focus on the good. I’d be lying if I said I don’t experience pangs of fear as a parent, wondering what kind of world I’ve brought my children into. But I don’t want that fear to govern my life or theirs.

I was grateful, especially when they were very young, that their school explained lockdown drills as a precaution in case of mountain lions on campus. When I talk to them now about shootings, I emphasize how rare they are, even today: that it’s partly the nonstop news and the feeling of smallness to the world that makes them seem so constant.

I don’t want my children to live in an innocent bubble or think themselves invincible. And I hope they become active, engaged citizens, speaking out for change on issues they care about the way we’ve seen many Parkland students and others of that generation do. But I do want them to realize that the world isn’t all dangerous, that most people are good, that beauty and selflessness can occur alongside violence.

Thinking back to Columbine today, two decades later, I’m filled with a profound sadness not just for the students and teachers who were killed and injured that day, but also for the era that it began.

But then I think about the countless students I’ve interviewed and met over the years who have inspired me with what they’re doing to make the world a better place; my children’s friends who want to speak up and take action to combat climate change or gun violence or plastic pollution or homelessness; the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students who immediately found a voice and refused to be passive victims. We may live in an age when mass shootings are all too common, but it’s worth spending some time also celebrating the many people who are a force for good.

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