When school started in the fall, I was once again a parent volunteer. That warm August day brought the kids and teachers back together, minus the graduating seniors from the Class of 1999, and, of course, those whose lives were lost in April. This time, the students in wheelchairs had joined them.
Their return, along with those who had been more seriously injured, served to reinforce the events of April 20th. The library doors had been blocked off with sheetrock, and lockers were placed against that wall. By then, everything except the library had been repaired and remodeled. The damage was so extensive that carpet had been replaced with tile. Reminders of that day in April were everywhere, yet there was no overt reference to it, or to those whose lives were taken, with the exception of a columbine design (to mark the spot where Dave Sanders fell) on the new tile flooring at the top of the stairs, next to the science pod.
It was as though those in charge had chosen to try to ignore all that had happened. It was my understanding then, that there was to be absolutely nothing to remind students of that day in April. This would eventually change, but I’m convinced that students and parents had a lot to do with any memorial inside the school.
I was astounded at the number of strangers who tried to enter the building to take photos or buy “souvenirs” from the student store. I hope it was not a reflection on Americans, but only on the few I observed stopping, and jumping out to pose in Charlie’s Angel fashion in front of the school sign at the main entrance, while the driver took their photo. I was appalled, but it was only one of many incidents where people showed incredibly poor judgment and bad taste. I even saw a Gray Line tour bus slow in front of the school. Believe me, there is no other reason for a tour bus to have been in that area.
After working my shift that first day of school, I walked to the Jefferson County Public Library at Clement Park. My daughter had asked to drive the car to school, and I would never let her be without a means of escape again, so I had to wait for her to finish classes. As I walked through a parking lot, I was talking on my cell phone. (We all had cell phones now!) A woman stopped me and asked if I would call 911, as there was a suspicious car in the lot. I immediately dialed to report a vehicle that was parked with doors locked, lights on, and engine running. It was covered with signs declaring vengeance for one of the shooters.
We watched as a canine unit arrived and a dog checked out the vehicle. Meanwhile, sheriff’s deputies apprehended a man, who we were told was crawling on his belly toward the school. They told us he was unarmed, but I wonder; I know they didn’t want to alarm students and parents if they could help it. According to one deputy, things like that happened every day. Threats and attempts to access the school were ongoing. It didn’t make me feel any better, but my daughter, along with most of her teachers and fellow classmates, was determined to get her life back.
Life would never be the same, nor was it anywhere near what we had previously viewed as normal, but everyone was on the road to recovery. And that is not an easy road for most, even parents, first responders, journalists, and neighbors whose yards were turned into triage units.
I slept with my daughter until sometime in November, when she wanted to try sleeping alone. It was very gradual, as I would often be awakened during the night to camp out once again in her bedroom. That’s okay because I wouldn’t have had it any other way. There were nightmares, and there still are, but that’s to be expected. After she moved out of the house, my phone rang in the dead of night. We met at the Starbucks next to Clement Park, then took our coffee, and sat wrapped in a blanket, talking until the sun ushered in a new day. Those are the times that reinforced the mother/daughter/survivor bond that will never be broken.
Life had changed; it had been redefined. Life as we knew it ended on April 20, 1999. Two boys wanted our children dead. That was their goal. I’ve heard people say, “Well, you weren’t directly affected, so it shouldn’t bother you.” Such audacity was commonplace, and still is. This incident has deeply affected everyone involved. Our children, now in their 30’s, still find themselves dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
A few years ago, I was driving down C470 when numerous emergency vehicles began passing me. They were headed to a standoff in an apartment complex, but that didn’t matter to me. I was instantly engulfed in a state of panic; taken back to a time when I needed desperately to find my daughter. I happened to be in the same area where Dana's pager had gone off when I was on my way to Columbine that April day in 1999.
Of course, we have learned how to stop, take a deep breath, and focus on here and now. As a parent, I feel the panic. I know from watching my daughter and her friends, what can happen when smoke alarms go off in the house, or when someone accidentally opens an alarmed door in an airport. I’ve seen those kids freeze in terror, curl up in a fetal position, run outside and pace frantically, or seek to hide beneath an airport chair. My cousin, who is a Physician’s Assistant for a psychiatrist, still sees new patients who were at Columbine on that fateful day. Money for treatment ran out long ago, but the need for psychiatric care still exists. In terms of repercussions, there were many – and they are still surfacing.
Despite the intensity of those days, we have all moved on. Some have moved farther and faster than others, but those physical and emotional wounds have now become scars that we carry with us. What was the impact of the events that surrounded April 20, 1999, and what have we learned? Although we gleaned a lot of information as to how to handle such events, and hopefully prevent loss of life, I’m not so sure the majority of Americans believe that “it can happen here”. It’s not if, but when and where some of us will become victims of such acts of terrorism.
*Since I wrote the bulk of this piece four years ago, our nation has suffered more school shootings. I’ll focus on that subject in another piece.