Sunday, March 16, 2014

Surviving Columbine - One Teenager's Story (1 of 3 Columbine articles)

Normal stopped for Keith at 11:19 a.m., April 20th, 1999. Memories of Columbine visit him still, like "an old, unwanted friend". It was lunchtime and the scene could not have been more typically American for a 15 year old boy in a suburban school on the infamous day known as the Columbine Massacre. The modern cafeteria was bustling with nearly five hundred students with a view of the parking lot and the Rocky Mountains on the horizon. The library one floor above shared the expansive glass windows. Taking a seat at a table near the stairs, he took no notice of the duffle bag set against the pillar as he dropped his own backpack nearby.

    "I remember a janitor and Mr. Sanders running through the cafeteria. People were getting on the ground and under the tables. There was no room under the table for me, but the boy under the table was asking what I could see."

    What Keith saw was the unexplained look of distress on the faces of students in the parking lot outside. Heavy smoke drifted. An unprecedented attack had commenced, planned and carried out with calculated ruthlessness by two young men who we have called monsters and psychopaths. Keith knew them as Eric and Dylan. Dylan had played roller hockey in neighborhood games with Keith and other friends.

    Less than ten minutes before, the killers had planted bombs in the cafeteria that should blow any second, but failed. Eric and Dylan waited for the fleeing students who had not been killed by the blast to become moving targets or to be killed by other bombs planted along the hallway. Too impatient after the failure of the explosion to kill and maim the people in the cafeteria, the two self-appointed commandos murdered Rachel Scott and wounded nine other teenagers outside then, loaded with weaponry, they entered the school.
    The students nearest the cafeteria windows seemed to become aware of the threat at the same instant. "I'll never forget the wall of people moving toward me. Like a flock of birds rising on cue" Keith said.
    It was 11:24 hours. "I wasn't sure what I was running from. For some reason when I heard the pop pop pop pop pop I wasn't really in fight or flight mode. It wasn't until I heard the shotgun shots that I got up and ran to the stairwell. A cacophony of people shrieking and slamming into chairs and tables. I still didn't know what was going on. I waited for my friend, found him, and half way up the stairs I heard gunshots inside the building. A person fell on my legs, I fell on another. I tried to stand up and persons behind me were pushing against my back trying to get over me. I wrapped my arm against the banister and braced my other arm to the floor and let the people go ahead of me. As I moved I heard another burst of gunfire - short bursts." The attackers were near.
    Keith and his friend, with others, were running fast. He saw buddies running down hallways with no exits and tried to call to them to move out to the exits that Coach Sanders had urged them toward. Keith eventually got outside to a grassy area, looking for friends, relieved to be outside, and talking about what happened. Quickly came a grim realization that not everyone had escaped. "There were still people inside. The whole field got quiet and we heard shotgun shots and every so often heard a loud boom." Shots shattered the doors and the field cleared as students ran into the neighborhoods nearby. Only later did he realize those were bombs going off. And only later could he associate the gunfire with the deaths of Coach Sanders and the other victims from the library and hallways.

    The killers' bullets were shooting up the hallway, now firing at arriving deputies through broken glass, now shooting up the display case, now randomly shooting toward fleeing students, now shooting Coach Sanders who will die despite the efforts of students to stop the bleeding. The two continued to kill, shoot, toss explosives, and attempt to detonate their cafeteria bombs until 12:08, when their last trigger pull is for themselves. The intensity of the event for survivors, the wounded, and emergency responders would last many more hours.
    Much later Keith would get his backpack returned to him. It was charred from the attackers' attempts to ignite the bomb they had planted where Keith had rested for lunch. Yet, it is not his proximity to death that day that occupied Keith's thoughts during the ensuing months and years, nor even the question of why he lived and others didn't. It's the darkness of it all. "I still can't grasp the darkness. I'm glad I can't comprehend it, but it's frustrating. It's like staring at an alien artifact. While we were playing roller hockey he was planning to blow me up. The deeper you get it's just more dark. The void seems to get bigger and bigger."

Surviving Survival - A Columbine Story (1of 3 Columbine articles)

Keith, now 30, married, a father, and still living in the Denver area, was just 15 when the nation reeled from the horror of Columbine. He escaped the cafeteria, then the hallway, then the grassy field outside the school, all to the sounds of gunfire and explosions, and the shrieking and stunned silence of his fellow students at Columbine High School.  He did not escape nightmares and fear, but he is a survivor, not a victim. These are his own words.

"I still can't grasp the darkness. I'm glad I can't comprehend it, but it's frustrating. It's like staring at an alien artifact. While we were playing roller hockey he was planning to blow me up. The deeper you get it's just more dark. The void seems to get bigger and bigger." 

“You go to school with these people then you go home and plan mass murdering them. I don’t have the headspace to understand it. The magnitude of what they planned – it wasn’t a crime of passion, like they were upset and decided on a whim to do this thing.  They weren’t righting a wrong or standing up for some perceived injustice. Not robbing a bank to buy a Lamborghini. The very act was just intended to victimize. It’s the means, it’s the ends, it’s the act. Their suicide is similar. It was very cowardly. They chose a bunch of kids in the cafeteria. Every step of the way was cowardly. It’s just another facet of the darkness”.

“Two or three days after the incident the FBI came to the house. He was great. Very professional. He explained what he knew. It wasn’t hard to talk to him about it. He made it clear that he wanted my help. I had talked to my Mom and Dad about it, and that was very different. The agent put me at ease. “

“The rest of the school year was bizarre. We worked it out with another school to share half a day. Everyone had my best interests in mind, but when you’re living it – that you had a neighbor that tried to blow you up and killed your classmates, but your Algebra is due Friday - it was a strange world to be in. “

“There wasn’t a day that went by without seeing an article or hearing a conversation. The empathy was incredibly helpful but the outrage industry was incredibly hurtful. It has contributed to the whole overblown stranger danger mantra. The message is you have to be fearful of everyone. I think that’s incredibly damaging to a people. I don’t think society fundamentally gets it. Every time something similar happens we keep coming back to the same answers – music, guns, video games, society. A human being did this. Maybe this makes me a horrible person but I am glad they are gone. And yet there is something bitter about the fact that they killed themselves. Justice fits in somewhere. That didn’t happen. There’s just an unfairness about the whole situation. “

“For me the godsend was my school counselor. I went from an A, B student to a D student. She saw that and knew that I was in the category of sensory victimization. She reached out to me and recommended I talk to somebody. I had no idea what a psychologist would do. I saw a guy for six months. It was the first time I was able to ask specific questions. I do think that it helped me to process at that time.  I didn’t want to burden others, didn’t want to relive it, but didn’t want to be alone with it. I felt very isolated in trying to find people that had made it over the mountain.  I did research on how others had dealt with violence from other people, but there were always differences. It’s a very small club. There was no School Shooters Anonymous. “

“I was diagnosed with PTSD.  Before about seven years ago I was trying to figure everything out. I’m so used to it, I’m not hung up on it.  It’s not anxiety or worry – just a feeling of readiness – like I’m in enemy territory.  It’s like living life with an entire side of the house missing.  There’s relaxation and peace, but there’s this reality that at any moment safety can be compromised in a way there is no rhyme or reason.  Whenever I’m in a crowded room and the decibel level reaches a certain point my brain kicks on overload and I begin processing information. It’s exhausting. (The sound of) multiple helicopters, too. There are things I’ve chosen to research to try to understand my enemy. Because I know there are people out there. I’ll probably never face a person like that again, but…”

“I definitely questioned God. I questioned my faith. I questioned the truth of the Bible. I never lost my faith, my belief in Christ – oh man, I wrestled with it though! I can say now I wasn’t wrestling with the truth of the Word or my belief in Christ as my savior. I absolutely wrestled with what people would call the Christian Church in America. There was such a huge disparity between what had happened to me and what had been preached to me. I should have been blown up, shot, and blown up again. Then on Sunday to hear a sermon on how we are not supposed to be jealous of our neighbors – it seemed so insignificant in the light of this darkness I had just lived through. I’d been through a dark valley and was going through more dark valleys. I didn’t need a self-help book, I needed a castle and a weapon to defend myself against the things I’d been besieged with. I was very angry. The Bible does talk about warfare and darkness. I hadn’t seen it there before. I realize now that they not only couldn’t provide those spiritual tools to me but they probably had not acquired them themselves because they’d never sat next to a propane bomb.”

“Victims constantly define themselves by their sadness or their anger. You can’t get through a conversation without them reliving their experience at Columbine as though it was two minutes ago. The survivor still feels these things and they understand Columbine changed them. A survivor says Columbine happened to me and I’ll carry it with me all of my life. A victim says Columbine is something I’ll never get over. The survivor can get around, over, or under the mountain. The victim says I’ll never be able to get from point A to point B. Some of my friends saw Dave Sanders die, and they are walking all over the mountain. I would like to think that is a choice.”

“For all the good things – the friendships, the camaraderie, the heart I have for others, I’m very thankful, but the other side is so dark and bitter. I don’t’ want it to define me, but I know that it does affect me. It informs everything. I know somewhere, sometime in the US, something similar is going to happen again. That’s not a prophecy or an omen, just that there are people out there and that they look exactly like us.”

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A suburban American Tragedy (1 of 3 Columbine articles)

There are some words that chill the heart. Pearl Harbor. Nine eleven. Columbine. They are not preceded by explanation or description. They become descriptors of other events and a standard by which  evil and destruction are measured. Pearl Harbor set us off to war. Nine eleven reordered our government. What did Columbine do?

When Harris and Klebold invaded their school as teen commandos the nation responded viscerally in a way that, fifteen years hence, still defies the cool reflection of logic.  It is, in fact, not possible to merely quantify Columbine because should we do so, that emotional scar that is at once national and very personal, is insulted as though mere numbers would diminish our reverent horror.

Everyone wanted a connection to the drama played out on CNN. Friends of my two kids knew that we had moved from Colorado in late 1997. Some heard that I had applied for a job in Littleton and postulated what might have been had we moved there, as though we had escaped the attack by the skin of our teeth. My daughter married a Columbine survivor. When the subject is raised, he doesn’t add his voice to the discussion. The event was so pervasive in everyone’s vicarious experience, it hardly mattered that he had lived it and they had only gathered around the television to watch the iconic images it produced.

Our national narrative must repeat that crime and violence were out of control in 1999 even though the UCR shows homicide and firearms deaths dropping dramatically. Commentators routinely used phrases like “yet another school shooting”, and “increasing school violence” when the reality is that 1999 was part of a downward trend in the already small number of school shootings.

An analysis of 45 school shootings from 1996 to the writing of this article shows a death tally of 77 youths and 22 adults.  The loss of those lives and the grief of family and loved ones is immeasurable. Dispassionately, the number of bodies pales in comparison to the other quarter million murders over the same time period. In 1999 alone there were 964 murders of school aged children in the US. What pricks one’s conscience the most is that of those child killings, 440 were black – a number far out of proportion to the racial balance of our schools.

The panic about how unsafe our schools are infuses the minds of nearly every parent, and certainly occupies significant brain space in the minds of police administrators and school officials. SWAT teams have formed, drills are conducted, buildings are reinforced. All for an institution consisting of about 130, 000 public and private schools that are, by far, statistically the safest places in America.  We invest not only dollars but mental energy in preventing and planning for an event less likely than a lightening strike, a lottery win, and literally one in a million according the Secret Service and US Department of Education.

Finding a pattern around which to design prevention is elusive. Of the 45 shootings I reviewed, six occurred outside the school building. Four assailants were non-students. One shooter was six years old. Many shootings were not random, but motivated by gang conflict, planned fights, or domestic entanglements. While some shooters brought multiple weapons, a killer with a rifle shot ten of the murder victims, 32 by a killer with a handgun, and 3 with a shotgun. Analysis of the perpetrators may show that many were medicated, alienated, or had other dysfunction but those challenges pervade American youth. No policy or legislation could address even half of the unique circumstances of school murders.

No one can advocate a do-nothing stance on the issue of school murder. The real question is whether our political, social, and personal capital is being wisely invested. Fifteen years after the unspeakable memories of young bodies hitting the floor at Columbine, we know something of why this hurts so much. I just wonder why the hundreds of dead in neighborhoods that don’t look like mine hurts so little.