EDITORIAL: Diverse Thoughts about School Safety on the Anniversary of a School Shooting

There have been happier months of April in the past for me, I’m sure of it. However, honestly, I don’t remember them. Certain events have a deeper effect on a person’s memories and some have a habit of controlling our lives.

I’ve always been determined to not let the trauma of that day control my life. Yet, it’s a part of me. It’s one that comes to surface more than I’d like to admit. It’s one I read echoed in the events of fellow survivors on social media. 

It’s the one that makes your heart beat fast, hard, to the edge of the “fight or flight,” a complex and deeply rooted response. That call inside of us, the scream, “I will survive this,” or, for some, it’s “God, please, get me through this!”

This pain, this too often re-lived and shared experience, is too difficult to explain, to unpack, to process and digest. More often than not, survivors are told to “please, be quiet about this.” So that those not directly connected to that suffering can go on pretending that “it can’t happen here.”

That response, to ignore and move on, is, in my opinion, extremely harmful and has a habit of resulting in massive cumulative trauma. This unresolved issue packs on more trauma as the years pass after a person lives through an act of violence, especially gun violence and death. It also denies us the opportunity to heal, learn, and grow.

These are not happy topics, some might describe them as “ugly.” It’s certainly not easy to write about them, especially when it’s my personal life experience. 

Yet researching violence, death, and the study of hate after I lived through that event is part of my journey towards becoming a journalist. Something my school did provide a career track for, set towards higher education with a pricey four-year degree. But I hated the news and being a journalist was not something I had ever planned on being, plus I knew that my parents couldn’t afford to send me to college.

Growing up, I had aspirations of being a “grandmaster” scientist and wanted to travel to the moon and beyond. High hopes that were discouraged by teachers who judged me with remarks about how surprisingly intelligent I was despite my gender and color of hair. 

I never did take that leap to become an astronaut, even though sometimes it feels like I am all alone traveling through outer space. 

Though, here I am, twenty-three years later, a journalist with a biology degree focused on ecology and diversity, thinking a lot about safety in schools on the day when that “idea” became a fantasy for me. It’s strange, peculiar, and somehow, oddly healing, and yes I’m going to write a little, or maybe a lot, about it.

On April 20, 1999, two people that I knew—albeit only briefly—brought something much worse than a lamb with them to school. I do not wish to wax poetic about that day. It wasn’t a dream, it was worse than my nightmares. It was real, it happened. These two people were humans, not monsters, and on that day we lost fifteen people to gun violence and suicide, all losses that some think could have been “prevented.” 

After that day, it felt like there wasn’t a day when losses in our community weren’t reported in the news. Strangely—cough, cough—to more gun violence, including both murder and suicide. Safety and privacy became a laughable illusion. Returning to normal was a phrase that did and still makes me laugh. 

How does one “return to normal” when suddenly everyone is literally watching you on their T.V.s? Or rather pieces of your life, reported by the news, usually with a purposeful slant bent on keeping guns safe. What does normal even mean?

Even after the news stopped reporting on life in “littlefun,” our lives never again felt “normal” and it never again felt “safe.”

It still doesn’t, and most likely, never will. Honestly, now, finally, I see the beauty that was hidden from me in that. The beauty in the diversity of emotion, of experience, and learning how to grow despite the pain and fear and move through the isolation. 

Most importantly, the beauty in loving through that pain, letting go of my fear, and forgiving to renew my connection to my community while I try to be my best self. I may not always be kind, nice, or well behaved, but I am very, very human. 

My parent’s have always called me their “hippie child,” though I never really understood why. I am a very open and loving person with a defensive love of nature, animals, and people. I have a wild side fueled by passion and spitfire and sometimes I do like a good fight. Though I prefer to use my words and not my fists. 

I was sexually harassed, terribly bullied, physically, and sexually assaulted during the fifth and sixth grade and was expelled after I tried to defend myself. I became an outcast and would often write about my thoughts of exacting revenge on those who had harmed me and gotten away with it. 

Eventually my parents took me out of private school and placed me in public school, hoping that a larger student population would make my life a little easier. But that’s how I ended up at Columbine.

For a long time I detested the word, hippie. I didn’t think it described me, but I also didn’t know what word did, as if a single word could. Hippie made me feel separate from my parents and family, odd, peculiar, and weird. Different, distant, and estranged from them, very alone and lost in the dark. 

It’s the “middle-child syndrome” in me paired with a case of randomly combined intertwined strands of DNA from two different yet similar beings. The result: an offspring that doesn’t look exactly like either of them. 

Regardless, the nickname stuck, despite my rebellion, as I continued on with my education into biology. I’ve always had a love of life and an undying thirst for knowledge, a perfectly Catholic, without that pesky “k,” pursuit, or so I thought. 

Like many other aspects of our lives the study of biology is also deeply rooted in white supremacy and eugenics. That part of our history has deadly ties to Hitler’s Germany and the Holocaust. So even though you no longer see it, that pesky “k” never actually went away.

The other day, though, I was told that I dressed like “Indiana Jones,” which definitely gave me a good giggle.

While it is fun to pretend that I’m on a grandiose adventure or “dancing with an apocalypse”—please pardon the humble nod—the honest truth is, I’m not battling evil Nazi soldiers whilst trying to save the world and avoid total destruction. 

I’m simply trying to enjoy this beautifully chaotic adventure called life with my community, to love it, even when it’s difficult, and to write about it so I always remember it. Especially, when it’s difficult to see the beauty, both during and after a crisis or tragedy, when one feels entirely empty, broken, and alone.  

I do think the saying goes something like ‘the only thing you take and leave in death are memories.’ Some memories are paper-thin but words tend to live on. Studying biology, even with its ugly past, taught me that diversity is the spice of life and chaos is usually the rule, if a thing such as a rule even exists. 

Talking and writing about our lives in all aspects, both good and bad, is a form of self-care and wellness, and very much a “normal” part of life. Beautiful music and art is molded, formed, and created this way. So today is certainly a good day to write away my pain hoping others find a human connection within my words. 

Following the shootings, I resented being told to “be quiet” or to “calm down” and though we had a spotlight of attention, we were asked by the leadership and authority in the school and the district at that time to “not talk about it.”

Basic mental health services were offered after. But not right away and it took a long time to get it into place as there were few psychologists willing to work with teenagers. Some didn’t seek out therapy due to a belief they would be viewed as weak for needing to see a “shrink.”

Before long though, the concern was that two weeks was too long to be out of school. So, before we were ready, we were sent back to school with fresh wounds trying to pretend that we “are” okay.

We were asked to behave well all the time. Certain activities were banned. We were locked-in and under constant surveillance. It was obvious to me that the adults didn’t trust or really know what to do with us. In effort to prevent another shooting and for the charade of safety, certain security measures became commonplace.

Before the shootings, Columbine had cameras installed in the cafeteria. The aim was to catch students behaving badly to discipline them and to prevent and deter other bad behavior. In essence, the janitorial staff was tired of cleaning up after rude students who didn’t tend to their own trash and those who put gum under the tables. 

Unfortunately, those cameras didn’t prevent gum from being stuck in all the wrong places, trash from being left behind, or the shootings, they only recorded those actions for prosperity. 

As it turns out, there were plenty of people who reported instances of concerning behavior to adults, teachers, other authorities, and the police about both of the boys. Yet, some of those concerns were never followed-up on and were simply ignored and shrugged off as typical bad young male behavior. Boys will be boys, right, and nice white boys are not considered criminals. 

Prior to the shootings, both boys had been caught destroying and stealing property and were finishing up correctional behavior sentences. In other words, they were already supposed to be under constant supervision, being disciplined, and correcting their bad behavior; petty sentences for petty acts of theft and violence. 

Still, none of those caring adults, behavior modification programs, or cameras stopped bullets from flying or people from dying on April 20, 1999.

Due to the scale of the violence and after it made national news, security measures and concerns were raised across the country resulting in the School Safety Initiative, a collaborative effort by the Secret Service and Department of Education.

That initiative aims to promote “school safety.” Most of these safety plans include an increase in surveillance through additional cameras, school resource officers, and safety monitors. While urging people to spy on and report each other, promoting fear of others and differing behavior often through negative and racially biased stereotypes. 

Very similar tactics to Hitler’s educational plan, if I remember my history lessons correctly. By the way, April 20 is Hitler’s birthday, and in later years its become the socially and acceptably recognized “marijuana holiday.”

In the twenty years since, school safety and wellness plans have revolved around providing an illusion of safety and mental health access because they are really aimed at lawfully catching what is viewed as bad or unwanted behavior. In order to discipline and correct it, while doing everything possible to avoid accepting liability for any suffering, trauma, violence, or death. 

Schools now try to assess and determine the risk that a student’s behavior will lead to mass violence. Something the district doesn’t want to be liable for and that same treatment is applied to suicide. 

Though the name of the role has changed to make it less triggering that is the entire intention of the behavioral assessment coordinator. This 4J training video highlights the importance of the role, the need for increased security, how to profile and identify risky behavior, and who to report it to. 

After all, “you are the key connection” and a safe school achieved by removing and eliminating threats from those deemed to be criminals; locked up, with love, by the SS.

A slide from a slideshow. It has a white background with the black text "you are the key to connection!" at the top. In the middle is a photo of a bronze lock on a black chainlink fence. The board has "S [heart] S" on it in black.
A slide from the slideshow.

Risky behavior and warning signs include:

  • social withdrawal
  • excessive feelings of isolation and rejection
  • being a victim to violence, and feelings of being picked on or persecuted
  • low school interest and poor academic performance
  • expressions of violence in writing and uncontrolled anger
  • patterns of impulsive chronic hitting, intimidating, and bullying behaviors
  • histories of discipline problems, and violent or aggressive behavior
  • intolerance for differences and prejudicial attitudes
  • drug use and alcohol use
  • affiliation with gangs
  • inappropriate access to, possession, and use of firearms

I’m not sure if the creator of this video spotted the irony in placing “intolerance for differences and prejudicial attitudes” directly above “drug and alcohol use” and “affiliation with gangs” or if the placement was intentional. But the clear prejudicial bias and intolerance for differences in this list is disturbing, to say the least. 

The use of the lock with the heart and “SS” is bone chilling. After all, it’s the same set of letters identifying members of Hitler’s top, and most deadly, gang. 

Still though, cameras are recording mass shootings all too often and many people think these are “isolated events” that shouldn’t be talked about. 

So they spend their time ignoring and gaslighting instead of addressing the need for more access to a diversity of mental wellness programs and providers. Or working to eliminate the undue oppression and suffering caused by a judgemental law and order system with easy access to guns and a major white male superiority complex. 

But what do I know, I’m just an overly sensitive mean girl who should just shut up, get over it, and move on. Be more calm, caring, and kind, right? Pretend like it isn’t April, that another mass shooting didn’t just happen, or that we didn’t just lose a lot of young lives locally to suicide.

The problems with that are; this woman isn’t nice, I have a hard time remaining silent, nor am I blinded by gaslight. Happy 4/20.

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