'It's Always There': Going Back to Columbine 19 Years Later


“We’ve grown up knowing nothing more than the fact that we may be shot in our school,” 16-year-old Kaylee Tyner said as she dipped her spoon into a cup of frozen yogurt. Her tone was so frank she almost sounded bored. We were in Littleton, Colorado, about a three minute drive from Columbine High School, where Tyner is a junior. “That’s blunt, but that’s the reality,” she said. Behind us, other students were laughing at something on someone’s phone.

We were surrounded by a dozen or so teenagers, cackling and scarfing down fro-yo in what happens to be my hometown. Some students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School and survivors of the Parkland shooting were clad in maroon #MSDstrong T-shirts. They had traveled here for a rally happening Thursday night, the 19th anniversary of the 1999 shooting at Columbine, and spent Wednesday bonding with their peers and dancing to music at Tyner’s home.

Organized by Tyner and Emmy Adams, a senior at Golden High School, which is about 15 miles from Columbine, the event focused on grieving and reflection. “After what happened at MSD, I just felt like, I can’t sit around anymore. I have to do something,” said Adams.

The rally comes at a historic moment for the school shooting conversation: Though the two attend the same school district, Tyner and Adams met at the March For Our Lives nearly 1,700 miles away in Washington, D.C. But for 19 years, Columbine and the surrounding community has commemorated the victims of the shooting in a much more apolitical, subdued manner.

“No matter how long ago it was, it’s always there,” Tyner said. “The community heals and stuff, but it’s part of my high school experience.”

Here in Littleton and the surrounding areas, a lot of people don’t think about the Columbine tragedy, at least not for 11 months of the year. After all, it’s been nearly two decades. But since some Parkland survivors began to loudly advocate for gun control, and an emerging student movement called for a national walkout on the anniversary of the 1999 school shooting, the country has focused on the activism of school shooting survivors.

But for Littleton and the Columbine community, the legacy of the tragedy runs deeper than such tangible actions as the walkouts and protests of the last months, although plenty took part in them. The memory of the tragedy permeates how people interact: in the community’s compassion and vigilance, and how they try to balance outspokenness with introspection.

Every year, the week of April 20 in Colorado brings a lot of press and attention to Columbine, which has magnified in light of Parkland and the national political conversation the survivors ignited. The event on Thursday would unite the survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School and Columbine High School shootings, two painfully similar tragedies that happened nearly 20 years apart in what feels like two different worlds.

The first part of the evening was a “Vote For Our Lives” rally, encouraging people to translate the activism swelling across the country to electoral participation. Following the rally was a vigil, marking a change in tone that is more familiar to the student activists across Jefferson County than most others across the nation.

During my quick visit home, it became clear that while for the rest of the world Columbine remains the symbol of school shootings, for the members of the community that legacy is far more complex—especially for students like Adams and Tyner who weren’t even alive when Columbine happened, but have never lived in a world where shootings were not a common occurrence weaved in and out of day-to-day lives.

On April 20, 1999, our gym teacher called us off the field prematurely. We were six miles away from Columbine High School. I never asked why out of nowhere, our gym period was suddenly extended indefinitely. We weren’t allowed to leave the gym and go back to class, but we didn’t realized we were trapped, either. Our P.E. teacher, Missie Graebing, kept running into her office intermittently. We didn’t notice that she was desperately trying to get information about what was going on outside the building. Some kids watched Winnie the Pooh on a television she carted out.

“Really we didn’t know if it was a countywide thing…We didn’t know if it was students, we didn’t know if it was some crazy,” Graebing says now. She recalls putting on a happy face and trying to entertain at least two dozen eight-year-olds for several hours. In between she ran to her office, and tried to get any information at all about what was going on. The act that she put on for us only got more devastating when she learned that the school was Columbine, where a few of her former students attended.

“I was just petrified for you all,” Graebing said.

Graebing managed to get through what I think was at least a four-hour “gym class” without any of us suspecting a thing. Of course, when our parents picked us up and we learned what had happened, everything changed, though I was too young to make sense of the images I saw that night: Older kids running in line with their hands behind their heads.

Looking back on that experience—a primitive form of school lockdown that would be unrecognizable by today’s standards—I don’t remember feeling safe. But that’s because I never though to feel unsafe at all. As an eight-year-old who had never truly felt endangered and who was completely unaware of the tragedy taking place just a few miles south, the concept of safety just wasn’t relevant. It was something I had the privilege of taking for granted, something people like Emmy Adams, and the other students I interviewed, have never known.

Now, Graebing tells me, “you’re always having to shift your eyes back and forth, who’s coming in your room.” She used to worry about kids who didn’t get enough sleep, or weren’t eating well. “And now it’s ‘Who’s going to come in and shoot up the room for no reason?’”

The flipside of the teachers’ worry and caution is an attentiveness most apparent at Columbine High School, where it’s less a product of palpable fear and more a sense of duty. But finding your area to be the symbol of modern school shootings, especially this year, can be complicated.

Normally the anniversary of Columbine is somber. Columbine High School students don’t have class. The faculty goes to the building for a breakfast, and former principal Frank DeAngelis reads the names of the victims on the intercom. Last year, the high school initiated a day of service, encouraging students to use the day to get engaged and do community service in the Littleton community. This year, April 20 has been a lightning rod for activism; high school students across the country are participating in a national walk-out to protest gun violence. But students from Columbine High School and across all of Jefferson County won’t be taking part.

Even the most fiery of Jeff Co student activists reserve April 20 for reflection and reaching out to the community. “You can talk about gun control, you can talk about all that politics any day but the 20th,” Emmy Adams, co-president of Jeffco Students United for Action, a student activist group, told me. Adams said she had voiced her concerns about the national April 20 walkout to the organizers, themselves student organizers from Connecticut, but little came of the conversation. Parkland survivor and activist David Hogg did acknowledge Columbine on Twitter.

“It ties the school’s name to a political agenda that could make us attacked in a way,” Kaylee Tyner, the girl I spoke to over frozen yogurt, said. She didn’t speak on behalf of the entire school, she noted, but “there’s a lot of kids at our school who don’t agree with any of this and that it’s not representative of them and Columbine.”

But opting out of a walkout and out of the polarized political debate surrounding gun control among isn’t an abandonment of protest. Uniting Stoneman Douglas survivors together with Columbine survivors is a form of activism itself.

“I’m here because I want to make the change I want to be part of it,” Jorge Florez, one of the Stoneman Douglas students who traveled to Colorado for the rally, told me. “I want to feel proud of myself. When I get my kids when I get my grandchildren, I can tell them, look, I was part of the United States of America’s history.”

Florez, 18, is gregarious, animated, and eager to talk, but as soon as we began the interview he became more pensive. He told me he was feeling self-conscious about his Colombian accent. We were outside Tyner’s home, while the others were inside relaxing and getting to know their Coloradan hosts, playing music, and taking part in an interview with the local CBS affiliate. Those kids know what they’re doing, and this time of year, locals are used to having the press around.

Florez gazed into the distance as he recounted the day of the shooting—he was in another building of the high school campus and did not witness the shooting himself. But he described how his friend was shot five times and survived.

“Just thinking about this makes me feel like, I don’t know, that I could have done something, and I didn’t,” he said.

I tried to reassure him. There was nothing for him to feel guilty about. He was skeptical.

“I think kids understand our history and they are protective of this place,” said Scott Christy, the affable current principal of Columbine High School. This is Christy’s first year as the principal of Columbine. He joined the school in 2008, and he’s pragmatic and forthright, the way that principals who used to be athletic directors should be.

I was in Christy’s office, speaking with him and Frank DeAngelis, the principal at Columbine in 1999. He had returned to the campus for the week, to support Christy, particularly with all the media queries this time of year, which have increased exponentially in light of Parkland.

DeAngelis is a tireless man whose wistfulness is mostly concealed by an enduring sense of hope. He retired in 2014 after a 35-year career at Columbine. He continues to speak about school safety, remaining a pillar for the Columbine community and providing support for other communities affected by school shootings. This support ranges from consulting and consoling other principals and administrators to more practical advice. He advises schools not to have balloons on campus after a shooting because the sound of balloons popping can trigger PTSD.

He has been an indispensable resource for those other principals who have joined what he calls “a club that no one wants to join,” but it’s not like he has the answer. While DeAngelis supports the student activism after Parkland, he is wary of focusing on a single aspect rather than looking at the whole picture.

“I worry when there are people out there stating that if we tougher gun laws then there will never be another school shooting, and I think you can’t say that,” DeAngelis said. He believes fostering welcoming communities goes a long way.

“I worry a little bit about them,” Frank DeAngelis told me of the student activists—particularly the Stoneman Douglas survivors. “They’re just being inundated. Three months from now, I really believe the media is going to move onto their next story. I hope these kids don’t lose hope.”

DeAngelis experienced that himself 19 years ago. The media descended on the community for a year following the shooting, and eventually the students and alumni who had been speaking out became exhausted. For him, taking time to take care of themselves is crucial for the students. “We’re so proud of what they’re doing, but also they’re kids, and we want to make sure there’s that balance.”

Part of the doggedness and fearlessness that makes the most recent activism so unique is the unfortunate fact that while Columbine forever changed America, these kids have only known post-Columbine world, as Tyner explained to me. For me, school safety consisted of fire drills and tornado drills for tornadoes that never came.

Graebing, my former teacher, described a particularly long active shooter drill—one where the students didn’t know the threat was fake. She had a class of first graders with her in a locker room. “There was no talking, no movement,” she said. “And then they get worried and they start crying.”

I was shocked that children were forced to practice something like this and familiarize their bodies with such extreme stress and trauma. It was clearly very difficult for Graebing as well. But for kids born after Columbine, they haven’t known anything else. It’s essentially the antithesis of the safety and security I never had to think twice about as a child in school.

“At this point for us, it’s just common,” Caroline Schenk, 18, told me. She’s in the IB program at Dakota Ridge High School, a Jefferson County school that dealt with its own threat of a school shooting just days after Parkland. “We’ve been doing it since we were younger. The saddest thing is, it doesn’t even faze most of us anymore. It’s kind of just like, okay this is a drill, let’s do it.”

Even when they had a credible threat, they were a little shocked: “But it was also kind of like, it was bound to happen to us sometime,” she said.

Hearing teenagers speak so candidly about facing their own death, particularly so close to where I grew up, is truly jarring. It made me realize how lucky I was that the only lockdown procedure I remember going through was devoid of fear and violence.

When I shared with Graebing the bizarre and almost shameful sensation of saying I had fun and I was happy the day Columbine happened—I had been stuck in my favorite place, and got to play my favorite games—I realized it was a fossil of an experience, an emotional artifact from another time.

“I’m so glad you remember it that way,” Graebing said. “We were fortunate to have that day. That you didn’t have to, as an 8-year-old, know that there was someone at a neighboring school who was killing people.”

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin