“Attackers were as likely to be rich as poor. They are from all ethnic and racial backgrounds (though three-fourths were white). They had intact and broken families, good and bad report cards. A few felt isolated but just as many had a lot of friends. Most were suicidal, but only a few had been diagnosed with mental disorders.” — U.S. Secret Service Study
“Killers do not just ‘snap’. They plan. They acquire weapons. These children take a long, considered, public path toward violence.” — USA Today
At Columbine in 1999, 13 died. In Aurora in 2012, 12 died. In Boulder just this week, 10 died. My heart felt heavy and sad as I watched the news.
I probably should have avoided watching the news, as I have often advised others to do, but I didn’t. My emotions readily welling up as I watched the scenes of people running, people crying, red and blue lights, law enforcement and spontaneous hugs.
Why did I watch? I’m not sure. Maybe to remind myself of my own demons. I am not trying to make a political statement — this is not about gun rights — it’s just what happened.
I’m writing because of my own struggle at answering the “why?”
I grew up in Colorado. My family is there. My parents, grandparents and numerous relatives are buried there. My sisters still reside there. I began my mental health career there. I was first licensed as a therapist there. My first job in mental health was there.
I left Colorado in 2000 to come to Washington state. I was in the Army Reserves at the time and my unit was being deployed. I was given the option of going on deployment or finding another unit. Because of family reasons, I choose the latter. The only unit I could find was in Seattle. But before I moved, I experienced a life-defining event, an event that would haunt, define, give meaning and shape me for the rest of my life — Columbine.
I was working for Aurora Mental Health in the Crisis Services Department when the shooting happened. A week before the shooting, myself and my colleagues had trained in “Critical Incident Stress Debriefing.” We didn’t realize we would be using that training so soon.
I recall the events of April 20, 1999, as if they happened yesterday. I watched the horrible events unfold in real time. I saw students running out of the school. I didn’t realize what had just happened. No one did. But I, like the rest of the world, would soon learn active shooters were at large.
In days following the shooting, local newspapers and area news made it known that mental health professionals from various agencies were available. We fanned out across the city and county and waited to see who would show up. Soon, teachers, students, community members, curiosity seekers and news reporters came. Some were there to talk, others to process and still others to share their story. One teacher’s story was so vivid and moving, I still recall the details of that conversation today.
In the weeks following, mental health workers from all area agencies were asked to volunteer to walk with students and parents returning to the school. In the fear, confusion, chaos and mayhem, students left backpacks, books and personal items — literally everything — and ran. When I arrived at the school, hundreds of students, with their parents, were standing outside of every school entrance. As I escorted students and parents into the school, bullet holes were still visible in the walls and ceiling. Each hole was circled in red and numbered.
Some of the students and parents just couldn’t do it, so they turned around and walked away. I remember thinking at the time, “if I walked away I wouldn’t have to see the students faces, see the bullet holes, feel the heaviness in the air.”
I wanted to run, to just get out — but I stayed.
Hundreds of backpacks lined the floor in the gym. The gym was the last stop for the students as they left the school that day. I don’t recall how many students and parents I walked beside. All I remember is we were at the school most of the morning and late into the afternoon.
During a student and parent escort later that day, I exited one of the classrooms on the second floor. I noticed several teachers cleaning a storage closet. The storage closet was full of textbooks on gray metal shelves. The teachers were sorting and discarding ones with bullet holes.
As I stood in the doorway, a teacher said, “these books saved lives. Had these books not been here, the bullets would have gone through the walls hitting students on the other side.”
As I turned to walk out of the room, I noticed the library just down the hall. The library was where the majority of the students were killed, and where the shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, took their own lives. I stood there for a brief moment imagining what it must have been like for the students and teachers that horrible day.
I sometimes relive those moments when shootings are in the news, especially when they happen in Colorado.
The “why” remains even if we understand the reasons. It is true that memories fade with time. However, there are those memories that last a lifetime.
Columbine is one of those for me.
Dr. Stride has been a practicing psychotherapist. He has worked in behavioral and forensic mental health for over 30 years as a counselor, clinical director and senior executive. He served eight years as a captain in the United States Army Reserve. He enjoys teaching, public speaking and prides himself on being a student of history. He is the current CEO of Cascade Community Healthcare. He can be reached at email@example.com.