20 Years After The Columbine Shooting, Students And Staff Reflect On What Happened

Apr 19, 2019
Originally published on April 19, 2019 7:20 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Tomorrow marks 20 years since two gunmen at Columbine High School in Colorado killed 13 people. The incident is still relevant today. This week, the FBI says a woman infatuated with Columbine made credible threats, traveled to the area and bought a gun. From member station KUNC, Leigh Paterson reports that, for the last two decades, schools have taken steps to better protect and care for their students.

LEIGH PATERSON, BYLINE: Evan Todd has clear memories of April 20, 1999. He was a sophomore at Columbine High School, goofing off in the library with his friends, throwing wads of paper.

EVAN TODD: And then just in an instant...

PATERSON: There was an explosion. Smoke. And then pops of gunfire.

TODD: As the two murderers got closer, we heard the sounds of the gunshots echoing through the hallways.

PATERSON: The killers came into the library and started shooting his classmates execution style. Todd remembers thinking...

TODD: Someone with a gun has got to come in here and stop these guys, and we're going to get out of here and - nothing.

PATERSON: That day, naturally, has really informed Todd's thinking about safety and guns. He now believes that teachers should be allowed to carry guns.

TODD: In the end, when evil comes, there's only one way to stop it. And a firearm would have saved lives at Columbine.

PATERSON: Teachers and staff in school districts in 31 states can now legally carry weapons in schools, according to a review of state laws and local news coverage. There's no federal policy mandating or prohibiting teachers from carrying guns, but there is debate over whether or not federal funds can be used to buy guns for schools. School shootings are rare so there's not much data to suggest whether or not armed teachers would make students safer. Ken Trump is the president of a consulting company called National School Safety and Security Services.

KEN TRUMP: No relation to the president.

PATERSON: He thinks it's all a bad idea. Too much can go wrong. Instead...

TRUMP: Many of the things that we learned after Columbine are so practical and still very relevant today.

PATERSON: Things like reasonable physical security measures, he says. Schools now have cameras, lockdown drills, metal detectors, armed school resource officers. It's become an industry. According to IHS, a market research firm, the market for school security equipment and services reached $2.7 billion in 2017. But there's another aspect to school safety that gets less attention and generally less funding, mental health prevention. Ken Trump says this is just as important.

TRUMP: That schools need to look for early warning signs of children who have emotional, behavioral, mental health concerns.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

PATERSON: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are you Leigh?

PATERSON: Noel Sudano agrees.

NOEL SUDANO: I am a school counselor at Columbine High School.

PATERSON: She was also a Columbine student 20 years ago.

SUDANO: I think this year in particular, in my own grief process of still processing what happened on April 20, I think I'm feeling more of a calling to really be mindful of this mental health problem.

PATERSON: And by that, she means everything from kids struggling with anxiety, trauma and suicidal thoughts to kids becoming potential threats.

SUDANO: I see little things that can be concerning, like, you're having a hard time controlling your anger, you have a lot of rage built up from things that have happened in your past, you don't have a lot of support in your life.

PATERSON: And now when specific threats or concerns do come up, there are red-flag systems in place, like threat assessment teams and anonymous tip lines to get students help way before there's some sort of crisis. Many of these measures were put in place in Colorado because of Columbine, like Safe To Tell, a website and an app geared towards students where people can report concerns. Colorado's launched in 2004. And last school year, 16,00 tips came in. Several other states have similar programs. But many experts say it's not enough. Mental health services and counselors are stretched thin.

SUDANO: I have my caseload of 350 students, and I care about every single one of them. And I want to think that if there's something we can do preventative, that we can always find this path of redemption or positivity or growth.

PATERSON: A lot has changed over the last 20 years, but what hasn't is that school shootings still happen. For NPR News, I'm Leigh Paterson.

CORNISH: That story came to us from the public media collaboration Guns & America. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.