Six Columbine survivors describe reliving the trauma of school shootings, over and over again.
“There’s a part of me that says, ‘You could have done more. You could have been more active.’”
Twenty years ago, Andy McDonald was a student at Columbine High School when two of his classmates walked into school armed with two sawed-off shotguns, a carbine rifle, and a semiautomatic handgun and fatally shot 12 students, one teacher, and themselves.
It was far from the first school shooting, but the details around the attack — the huge arsenal of weapons (which also included propane bombs and pipe bombs), the much-discussed role social isolation may have played in driving the killers’ actions, panic about the alleged influence of video games and metal music — marked it as the first of a specific kind of mass shooting.
This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. Since then, there have been an average of 10 shootings a year in American schools, according to a Washington Post analysis. It is routine for them to be compared, in one way or another, to what happened in Columbine High School.
Last year, when 17 people were killed by an ex-student wielding an AR-15 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, many Columbine survivors were viscerally reminded of what they went through.
“This one I’ve really tried to stay away from,” McDonald said. “It hit really close for me.” Yet he has also watched the actions of the students at Parkland afterward with deep respect — and a twinge of regret that Columbine students did not do something similar.
Since the shooting at Stoneman Douglas, the students at that school have plunged into gun control activism; they played a central role in the March for Our Lives protest in Washington, DC last month. As the Parkland kids speak out, Columbine survivors like McDonald have been reflecting on how the earlier tragedy continues to affect their lives nearly two decades later. Some feel a sense of hope that policy changes that make such shootings less likely could finally occur, while others remain skeptical. All of them had their lives upended.
These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
“They’re experiencing so much inside that nobody else necessarily gets to see.”
Columbine High School class of ’02. She was 15 at the time of the Columbine attack. A stay-at-home parent and gun violence prevention advocate in Philadelphia, Amo, has three children, ages 7, 4, and 1.
I am diagnosed PTSD. When [mass shootings] happen, I’ll get flashbacks. Memories that seem far away most days come back a lot closer when you see it on the news. It’s been almost 19 years, but it’s not something that you move on from.
I can’t go somewhere and not know where the exits are. I can’t have my back to the door, for example, when I’m in a restaurant. I don’t really see movies anymore — movie theaters make me very uncomfortable. I’ll have panic attacks and anxiety issues. For the most part, I’ve been able to work through these issues over the years. I can leave my house and still do things that I have to do. But on the inside, I’m totally a wreck.
I used to think nothing really significant happened to me on that day. I wasn’t shot. My sister [class of 2000] wasn’t killed. There were people who had it so much worse. And what I know now is that trauma is not about how bad it is for you compared to others. What happened at Columbine really was significant enough that I can say now that it’s okay that this affected me so deeply.
When I see the Parkland kids, it’s inspiring. There’s also an element of concern for them. Are they eating? Are they sleeping? Are they talking to a counselor? Are they taking care of themselves? They’re doing so much. And they’re experiencing so much inside that nobody else necessarily gets to see.
Part of me feels like, why wasn’t this enough to anger people on a broad level before? I’m grateful for it, but at the same time, it’s an interesting thing to wonder. What’s the difference this time?
“There’s a part of me that says, ‘You could have done more.’”
17 when the Columbine shooting occurred, class of ‘00. A social studies teacher who lives in Plymouth, New Hampshire, McDonald has three children, ages 9, 4, and 1.
There’s a part of me that says, “You could have done more. You could have been more active.” I wrestle with that, between my family and other things that I could be doing, those big-picture things that you want to do versus what you need to do right now. It’s hard. Those Parkland kids — that was me 19 years ago. The fact that this has continued to happen and nothing has been done about it is horrible.
One of the things that crossed my mind was, what if there were changes that were made after Columbine on a policy level? What could have been different today as a result? Would it have become part of the culture? That was part of my frustration.
I’ve worked with assembly programs and spoken to students all over the country and in places around the world. Big picture, that hasn’t worked. Maybe it’s worked to a certain extent, I don’t know. But I feel like I’ve tried to take what happened to us at Columbine and turn it into something positive. And every time these things come up, you see that it just wasn’t good enough. And that might not be fair.
“You may have to be more patient with us adults than we deserve.”
Class of ‘00; age 15 at the time of the Columbine attack. She’s now a citywide public schools counseling director in Denver.
I traveled and did some speaking shortly after the shooting, through high school and a couple years of college. I told my story an awful lot, which tends to make you calmer when you’re processing some of those things.
The activism I was involved with after Columbine was more about anti-violence. I traveled for Crime Stoppers International, and I went to schools with the message that this was a very average day in a very average school. It was a campaign of, basically, “See something, say something,” that was anonymous. Don’t think it can’t happen to you, and keep your eyes out and be vocal if you see something that scares you. I traveled with a general message of, “Be kind to each other.”
I am very proud of the Parkland High School students. I think the direction they’ve taken it, the anger and frustration with us as adults, is very appropriate. I would tell the Parkland kids, yes, be angry. Yes, be vocal. Yes, be persistent with us. And take care of yourself and know that these are very complex issues. You may have to be more patient with us adults than we deserve.
What I worry about is that these students will take it personally that it takes us adults a long time to navigate this. I don’t want them to think we don’t appreciate them or love them or value their life. I worry about trauma victims who see the inaction of others as a personal affront, that they don’t matter. All students matter. Do not let us get away with walking away without having the conversation. With the volatility of gun control, I know that we’re going to have to have some really hard conversations because people have ideologized their access to weapons.
“My relationships with these people I went to high school with are so different.”
Class of ‘00; 17 years old when the Columbine shooting occurred. Vandamme is now an accountant in Littleton, Colorado, with two children, ages 5 and 3.
It became hard to deal with because no one understood. It was almost like I was being looked at as, “I know a girl that went to Columbine.” [I was] trying to find out who was really interested in me as a person instead of me being part of something that was unheard of at the time. I struggled a lot with dealing with it and finding people to talk to about it. It was such a unique thing to be part of a school shooting back then.
Then I moved back home and I realized I have amazing relationships with people I went to high school with that I don’t think I’d otherwise have. I think our friendships and our relationships are just stronger because there’s this inherent bond, and we don’t have to talk about the shooting. It’s not something you want to talk about that much. My relationships with these people I went to high school with are so different because they had to be. They’re the only people that can understand what you’ve been through, and who you are today because of it.
“Those kids don’t owe anybody really anything right now.”
Class of ’99, he was 18 years old when the shooting occurred. He’s now a general assignment newspaper reporter in Seattle.
I hope that what the Parkland kids are talking about and what they are advocating for is really, truly what they believe — and it seems to me that they are. But if this is something that’s coming from the adults around them, tell the adults to fuck off. They should make sure they’re not being steered by anybody.
In the tradition I grew up in, there was a strong presence there of a conservative, evangelical bent. People thought Columbine was going to be the start of some kind of revival in the country. Of course they believed that, right? They had just seen their kids get murdered. How do you square that?
There’s a song that my brother and I performed at the memorial service, called “Friend of Mine.” It became an anthem of healing and community, but also it’s a deeply religious song. In the months after the shooting, my brother and I were flown around the country to go appear at different festivals. We went in front of a congressional delegation in DC at the Capitol. Then people would make donations that went to Columbine victims. We were this weird Christian rock star hybrid tragedy survivor thing for a summer, which will fuck with you.
Looking back on it now, that was a really weird time. I’m happy that we were able to raise money for the people who were injured, but I also feel deeply troubled about the fact that we were put in this very strange spotlight afterward.
That kind of stuff is incredibly disruptive. Even from good people whose motives are more or less pure, that stuff can put kids in harm’s way. It can delay them getting help. For me, it led to some very conflicted feelings later on in life. What exactly did I endorse at that time that I wouldn’t endorse now and would never have thought to have done that without somebody sort of steering me in that direction? That’s a hard thing to kind of square.
Because those kids don’t owe anybody really anything right now. They’re victims in this. For all of them, I just hope that they’re getting help.
“You let us bury every child, and then we’ll talk about school.”
A teacher at Columbine High School when the shooting occurred, Reed has two children, ages 27 and 22. She lives in Lakewood, Colorado, and still teaches at Columbine.
I’ve been a part of a Facebook page called the Rebels Project, for survivors of mass shootings, for several years now. I ended up privately messaging a couple of teachers from several schools where there were mass shootings.
I get a lot of questions like, “I don’t know what to do. I’m so angry, but then I have to go to school, and I have to teach, and I have to act like everything is okay because I have to be strong for the kids.” Just for them to just be able to talk to a teacher who can say, “Yep. Been there, done that,” and to give them some pointers for how to get through it.
Teachers are by nature rule followers for the most part, and people know that. So they will ask you to do nearly impossible things. When you’re in shock, you’re even more likely to say, “Okay, I’ll try to do that.” It’s okay to dig in your heels and say, “Don’t tell me what I need and what I don’t need.” They tried to make us go back to school before we had buried the last child, and we said, “No. We’re not doing it. You let us bury every child, and then we’ll talk about school.”
I’m also still pretty jaded. When I talked to the teachers from Sandy Hook, and they said, “Do you think this is going to make a difference?” I said, “Nope. It’s not. The NRA is really powerful, and it’s not going to make a dent.”
Lead image credits: Morgan Levy, Corey Perrine, Sarah Priestap, and Ian Bates for Vox. Family images courtesy of Jami Amo, Andy McDonald, Samantha Haviland, Kelly Vandamme, Stephen Cohen, and Paula Reed.