Columbine: 10 years later
How lives changed in the decade after a school shooting.
Melanie Stetson Freeman /Staff
"We are Columbine." Before April 20, 1999, it was a high school spirit chant shouted at assemblies and pep rallies. Ten years ago, however, Columbine changed and the world changed.
Two students rampaged through Columbine High School, killing 13 before turning their weapons on themselves. "We are all Columbine" the phrase became. The 10 years since have brought school shootings deadlier than Columbine. Yet Columbine remains the world's most iconic school shooting, its name affixed to all those that have followed.
A return to Colorado's Jefferson County finds that the emotions of 10 years ago still animate each day. For former student Devon Adams, hearing about a school shooting overseas can feel so raw that she closes her office door to avoid people. Former Columbine teacher Rich Long now mows a golf course because, after the shootings, "it was time for me to get out of that profession."
"Some people did not want [the shootings] to define them," he says. "But ... I think it changed everybody."
For Mr. Long, Ms. Adams, and Kirsten Kreiling – who knew no one at Columbine and yet took it upon herself to raise $1 million for the memorial – April 20 is an anniversary that marks a fulcrum in their lives. And Adams thinks that's the way it should be. "If Columbine did not change people, then it's a really sad commentary on them," she says.
For many of the people of Jefferson County, we are all still Columbine.
For a teacher, no more teaching
Long has found some peace mowing the greens of Homestead Golf Course. It is, in part, an antidote to what he witnessed on April 20. He had taught at Columbine for 27 years – all but two of his career. But a year after the shootings, he stopped teaching. "It just didn't feel right to me," he says.
There was a sense of culpability, he adds, because the shootings "happened on our watch."
Long had reached 30 years in the classroom when he retired – the threshold that allows him to collect 75 percent of his salary. But the milestone had little to do with this decision, he says.
"I don't know how good a job I did that last year, either," Long adds.
He knew killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. He had taught them computers when they were "wide-eyed freshmen" but later saw another side to each boy when they got busted for stealing school locker combinations. Yet when Long watched Eric and Dylan the day of the shootings, he saw something he can only characterize as evil. "That's the only way I think I can describe Eric and Dylan's actions," he says.
In the days that followed, however, he also witnessed something equally as powerful in meetings with fellow faculty members: call it compassion. "There's a certain force that the human nature can also use to deal with those situations," says Long, who still lives in the area. "I found that very powerful. Just as powerful...."
Sense of isolation dogs a student
Devon Adams was 16 the Saturday three days before the attacks. Though she was only a sophomore, she was at the senior prom, dancing to the classic '80s track, "Take My Breath Away," with Dylan Klebold. She was not his date, but they were friends – close enough that she wanted to tell him how much that friendship meant to her. She never did.
Now it is a lesson she has carried every day since. "Not only do you have to appreciate what you have, but you have to express that appreciation. If there are things that are left unsaid, it's a lot more difficult to heal."
She is 26 now – an information-systems manager for a solar-energy company in Denver and is, at times, downright perky. But any mention of April 20 can turn her mood in an instant. Driving by Platte Canyon High School – site of another Colorado school shooting – can be a jarring reminder. Yet those who know her background and try to be overly sensitive only make her feel awkward.
"I don't have the right to be mad, because it's not a big deal to everyone," she says.
Last month, she shut her office door and put up a "Do not disturb" sign when a teenage student in Winnenden, Germany, killed 15 students and himself. "I feel isolated a lot," she says. "I feel very different [from other people]."
There is also mixed emotion: At Columbine, she was friends with two of the students who were killed, along with one of the perpetrators.
"You stop trusting yourself," she adds. "You stop trusting your own judgment."
Adams says the shootings forced Columbine students "to grow up in one day."
A caring community, found
Kirsten Kreiling was at work on April 20. When she first heard the news, she thought it must be a senior prank. By the end of the day, she was watching thudding helicopters in the sky above Columbine on the news.
The blond, plump-cheeked owner of Maverick Press did not even know anyone who attended the school. But "We all suffered a loss that day, one way or another," Ms. Kreiling says. "That was a loss of knowing something like this could happen."
Yet she also gained something: a sense of togetherness. Five years after the shootings, fundraising for the Columbine memorial had stalled at $1.2 million, Kreiling says. She stepped in to help raise $1 million more to show the families of the victims "this community still cared."
Kreiling sees some positive changes in the community: She hears that many Columbine alumni have become medical and mental-health workers. There are scholarships in the names of the victims. "I'm much more aware there's such a bigger, broader sense of community than I ever thought there was."
• Jeff Kass is author of "Columbine: A True Crime Story, a victim, the killers and the nation's search for answers."