US school shooting: Legacy of Columbine High School massacre 19 years later
Stalking the hallways of an elementary school in Denver’s suburbs, a masked SWAT team cautiously enters the cafeteria.
- No school shooting played out on live television like Columbine did
- Columbine survivors say nothing was done about prevention
- Survivors help other victims, but disagree on solution
“Threat in the doorway! Show me your hands!” one officer yells into the darkness.
Today the “bad guy” is a life-size cardboard cut-out of a menacing figure pointing a handgun, but they were training for the day he is real.
This is part of the Columbine legacy.
Last year, the shuttered elementary school reopened as the Frank DeAngelis Centre, named after the man who was the principal of Columbine High School in 1999 when two armed students stalked the campus, killing 12 of their peers and a much-loved gym coach.
“As I ran out of my office my worst nightmare became a reality because I came through the office doors and looking down, probably about 75 yards, was a gunman pointing a long gun at me,” Mr DeAngelis recalls.
There had been school shootings in America before Columbine — Jonesboro, West Paducah, Springfield — but none played out on live television like Columbine did.
Many lessons were learned after Columbine: In Colorado, police no longer have to wait for SWAT teams to arrive before entering a building where a gunman may be inside, and students across America now regularly have active shooter drills.
“We’ve found really good ways to react; we’ve done nothing about prevention,” Paula Reed, an English teacher who survived Columbine and still works at the school, says.
In the nearly two decades since the attack, she and Mr DeAngelis have been an invaluable source of support for teachers, students and parents who have lived through other school shootings.
‘We are never going to regain our innocence’
When last month’s attack in Parkland, Florida happened both were already counselling teachers in Marshall County, Kentucky, where in January a 15-year-old student with a handgun fatally shot two students and left 18 injured.
“How did we get here? This is normal,” Ms Reed laments.
“We are never going to regain our innocence. But how do we at least regain our indignation?”
In the years after the shooting Ms Reed hit some very low points.
“Honestly, the days and weeks after are not the hardest part, because you are in shock,” she says.
“It really didn’t hit me how bad I was until the third year out and I started to break out in hives when I walked into the school building, my hair started to fall out.”
After the last of the Columbine student survivors graduated, she took two years off and wrote romance novels.
She came back “in better shape”, but admits she still feels the effects.
Redefining what normal is
Many lessons have been learned from Columbine, survivors of the shooting say. (ABC News: John Mees)
After learning of the death toll in Parkland, Ms Reed says she “lost it” and called in a substitute teacher for the next day.
The advice she and Mr DeAngelis give survivors is similar — take it slow, be patient with one another, and stick together.
Their school tried to take steps to make it easier on the students when they returned.
They changed the sound of the fire alarm that had provided a screeching soundtrack throughout the attack. Teachers left doors open so they would not mimic gunfire if they slammed loudly. Chinese food was removed from the cafeteria menu for fear the smell would trigger memories of the meal many students left behind when the gunman entered the dining hall.
But it is never enough.
“People asked ‘when is it going to go back to normal?'” Mr DeAngelis says.
“We had to redefine what normal is and what it will be. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Students across America regularly have active shooter drills — part of the Columbine legacy. (ABC News: Stephanie March)
No clear answer for Columbine survivors
Despite 19 years of reflection, Columbine survivors cannot agree on a solution to America’s mass shooting epidemic.
On the wall of Representative Patrick Neville’s office in Colorado’s State Capitol hang sketches of his three young daughters.
On the opposite wall are his Iraq war medals.
Elected Republican official and Columbine survivor Patrick Neville wants more licensed adults to carry guns in schools. (ABC News: John Mees)
As a 15-year-old student he survived the Columbine attack, but one of his closest friends was killed.
It was a wake-up call for him. His friend was a straight-A student, while Mr Neville says at the time he himself, “wasn’t heading down a very productive path to lead a very productive life”.
Motivated to not waste a life that had been spared, he went to college, joined the military and in 2014 was elected as a Republican to the state house.
In the four years since, he has tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation making it easier for licensed adults to carry guns on school properties.
“I was freaked out the next day after the Parkland shooting, dropping my own kids off, knowing that I leave them totally defenceless,” he said.
When it comes to stricter gun control, Mr Neville points out the Columbine shooting happened amid former president Bill Clinton’s assault weapons ban, and the attackers had intended to blow up the cafeteria with a propane bomb.
“We can’t ban propane tanks and those kinds of things, but what we can do is actually let good people defend students,” he says.
Ms Reed is not clear on exactly what she wants in terms of gun control, but for her, arming teachers is not the answer.
“Cops are taught to think of the gunman, the perpetrator,” she says.
“I understand teachers don’t want to be unarmed, I want to be able to protect my kids, but I think, ‘Really? Really, could you, without hesitation, shoot one of your students?’ That is a lot to ask.
“I would rather we didn’t even need to be having that conversation.
“To me it is how do we keep guns out of the hands of kids so they are not bringing them into schools.”
Restoring the value of human life
For Craig Scott, the solution is not political, but emotional.
His story of surviving Columbine is one of the most horrific.
Mr Scott was a 16-year-old student in the library doing homework with friends when a teacher ran in and told them to hide under their desks.
The gunmen came over and singled out his friend, Isaiah Shoels, one of the school’s few black students.
“The last thing that he said was, ‘I wanna see my mom’,” Mr Scott remembers.
“And they shot and killed him. And they shot and killed my friend Matt. And they left me underneath that table.”
It was only later he learned his 17-year-old sister, Rachel, was the first person the gunmen killed as she sat on the school lawn eating lunch.
Columbine shooting survivor Craig Scott has started a charity to reduce violence in schools. (ABC News: John Mees)
It took a trip to Africa and a chance meeting with a man who had lost 17 members of his family during apartheid to release the anger he had towards the shooters.
Mr Scott and his family have since started a charity called Rachel’s Challenge which works to reduce violence in schools across the world.
He is trying to counter what he sees as teenagers being desensitised to violence.
“My work has been to raise the value of human life in their eyes,” he says.
He recalls how after a speaking event at a Texas school a student handed him a “hit list”, and told him his words had just stopped a massacre.
“I think they can make laws but it doesn’t change people’s hearts,” he says.
Part of the Columbine legacy is that police do not have to wait for SWAT teams to enter buildings where a gunman may be inside. (ABC News: John Mees)
‘Can you hold out that long?’
“I’m not against the things that the [Florida] students are being very vocal about, I just know as a teenager you don’t have all the answers,” he says.
For Ms Reed and Mr DeAngelis, the Florida students are a source of hope and inspiration.
There is a sense of optimism Florida may become what Columbine did not — America’s last school shooting.
But Ms Reed admits her optimism is cautious.
“Do they know they are in for a long game?” she says of the Florida students.
“I think probably intellectually they do. Emotionally is the trick — can you hold out that long?”
While the Columbine survivors cannot agree on what the solution looks like, they can keep trying to find it, all the while knowing the next Florida, or Columbine, is just waiting to happen.
Columbine survivors worry another school shooting is waiting to happen. (ABC News: John Mees)