“Have you heard the news?” came the phone call on my day off, my birthday. “There’s been a school shooting.”
I learned about the April 20, 1999, shooting at Columbine High School while standing in the parking lot at Target with a new bicycle in the trunk of my car, a gift for my daughter’s 10th birthday the next day.
I rushed to the LoDo office of The Associated Press, where I directed news coverage of the massacre and its aftermath for many long days and nights over the following weeks and months.
But, as many working parents can appreciate, I also had to pry myself away from my keyboard hours later to pick up my kids from Cory Elementary School. They had already heard too much about the shooting from a staff breakroom TV that no one apparently could bring themselves to turn off. In the space of an afternoon, Columbine had become a part of our collective consciousness.
“Will there be a shooting at our school?” my daughter asked. “Are we going to be safe?”
Sadly, children and parents have been asking those same questions in the 20 years since that heartbreaking day when two teenage gunman killed 13 people and then themselves. And the honest answers are still halting and difficult. My kids, like many others, soon learned how to shelter in place, how to prepare for the assault that fortunately never came during their time in Denver Public Schools. Others elsewhere weren’t so lucky.
- From the Editor: Columbine memories, issues bind us together.
- Risk: Colorado schools are assessing an astonishing number of student threats
- Ride-along: The 24/7 world of school safety
- Safe2Tell: Inside the post-Columbine tipline.
- Myth: How the media unwittingly helped fuel an unstoppable narrative.
We in the news business are expected to mark anniversaries, particularly when it comes to big stories and tragic events. Over the years, I have edited and read countless Columbine stories, and I’ve seen graphic photos and read details I wish I could forget.
And so now, 20 years later, we here at The Colorado Sun (five members of our 11-person staff were involved in Columbine coverage in 1999) began asking how we ought to remember the attack. What could we report and write that readers haven’t already read? What could we say that people wouldn’t read or hear elsewhere? What could we add to the conversation?
In the next 10 days, people in Colorado and around the country will be reliving Columbine over and over: Helicopter video of students pouring out of the high school, hands over heads. Students and parents weeping and embracing. Photos of victims. There will be stories catching up with the survivors, the principal, teachers and law enforcement officers.
It’s important to remember, and those people have important stories to tell.
But we decided to take a different approach at The Colorado Sun. Today, we are sharing a different set of important stories that focus on the issues that grew out of that tragedy and continue to define the school experience of a new generation of students and parents.
Kevin Simpson, who was part of The Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for its Columbine coverage, takes a look at the evolution of the anonymous reporting system Safe2Tell, how it has played out over the years in ways both positive — it has helped thwart everything from suicides to planned attacks — and negative, such as some students’ misuse of the warning system to harass classmates. He also looks at the passing of the torch to a new director from the program’s founder, who has moved on to address national school safety issues.
Chris Osher and Jennifer Brown found that school districts across Colorado, particularly in cities, are handling multiple threat assessments per day. The numbers have increased dramatically, from less than 20 per year in some districts to now around 1,000. The threats of school violence, as well as reports of planned suicides, mostly come to the districts through Safe2Tell. The increased volume has led districts to ramp up their safety departments, creating teams of officers and counselors trained to triage the threats and take action.
John Ingold writes about how 20 years ago, the media — including him — inadvertently helped create a myth about Columbine that has been inspiring murderers ever since. But, with so much different now about how information is learned and shared, can the media today possibly contain what we started?
Twenty years after the horror of Columbine, the memories of that day — the heroism of teacher Dave Sanders, the resilience of the survivors, the collective grief, the faces of the victims forever frozen in time — bind us together as a community. We are as divided a nation as ever when it comes to guns, politics and mental health treatment, but it’s important as the anniversary approaches for us to pause and reflect on what was lost, what was learned, how our world has changed and how we might go forward together.
That may end up being the most important legacy of Columbine. Those steps we take seeking answers together are the least we can do for those still asking tough questions as kids go off to school.