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Nicolais: When Columbine became more than a rival high school

The tragedy transformed Columbine from just another JeffCo school into a national touchstone that changed all of us

The 20th anniversary of Columbine marks a special milestone for me. I’m 40, and, consequently, I’ve lived as many years post-Columbine as I did before.

Columbine has now been a part of the American lexicon longer than it was just another rival school in my life.

Mario Nicolais

Green Mountain, Columbine and Pomona high schools all opened in 1973 to relieve the strain caused by a population boom in Jefferson County.

Sister schools with nearly identical layouts when they opened, none were meant to be anything more than temporary. Had everything gone as planned, there wouldn’t have been a Columbine by 1999.

Instead, by the mid-1990s all three underwent major renovations as permanent fixtures in JeffCo. My memories of Columbine at that time include competing for Green Mountain’s debate team and hitting a homerun over the left field wall of their baseball field.

By the time two now notorious killers walked into Columbine and transformed it forever, I had graduated and been at CU for two years.

But it shook me to the core when I got home from class and found my roommate — an Arvada West grad — fixated on the television and beckoning me over.

After my initial shock, I panicked and called to check on my two brothers, both Green Mountain students, just to make sure neither had been at Columbine that day.

While I had experienced other cultural touchstones through a media lens — the Challenger explosion and the bombing that began the Iraq War — none ever felt as personal or intimate to me.

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I had walked through that school for debate tournaments and run across its lawns to play a game. Now I watched, horrified, as students ran for a darker, existential purpose.

Columbine changed everything overnight. The combination of horror and media coverage shattered our national sense of safety.

Places we thought protected from violence became targets: concerts, churches, synagogues, movie theaters, and, maybe most awfully, elementary schools. Tragically, Columbine became a grotesquely twisted point of inspiration for many of those attacks.

Our new fear fostered adaptation and change in both our daily life and worldview. For me that became apparent in two separate instances.

The first came when my wife, a middle school teacher, texted me while hiding inside a locked classroom after police responded to an armed suspect down the street. In the moment I didn’t even question that it could happen, but instead focused on getting Twitter updates from the Parker Police Department.

Pre-Columbine, my wife wouldn’t have had the emergency locks on her doors or been drilled on the exact difference between a lockdown and a lockout procedure.

Pre-Columbine, I likely would have been stuck in a state of disbelief, my mind fighting the reality my wife explained. After Columbine, it may have been scary, but not incomprehensible.

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And then six months ago police escorted me out of my hotel after a despondent active shooter holed up in the lobby. At the time I commented that “his story will almost certainly be lost to societal indifference as time passes.”

And I probably wouldn’t have thought about it again but for the context of this column. An armed standoff simply registers as a blip in a post-Columbine dominated by body counts.

Even the word “Columbine” changed over the past 20 years. In the immediate aftermath, survivors reclaimed their school name with the heart-rending “We Are Columbine” affirmation.

Time, though, has distilled it into catch-all phrase for invoking the interaction between gun violence, mental health, policy debates and safety procedures.

Gun control advocates use it as a cudgel at the same time as gun rights supporters — including one very prominent Columbine survivor — see it as reason to support legislation allowing concealed carry of firearms on school campuses.

And so with each passing day, the Columbine from the first half of my life fades further into the background, subsumed by its own special place in American history, and adrift from the simple rival high school I wish it could have remained.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


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