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23 Years Later: What Have We Learned? (My 500th Post)

While I would have liked my 500th post (an amazing milestone that I can scarcely believe) to be about a positive subject I have learned never to turn away from the difficult, the complex, and the sorrowful. While school shootings still happen, we as educators and citizens must not turn our collective backs on the causes and reasons these shooting continue happening. What is it about our county and our values and the way we fund and support mental health and the ease of availability of high powered weaponry that lets these killings happen at an astounding rate?

What have we learned in the 23 years since Columbine? I will let you answer that question for yourselves but I do want to share a few statistics: according to the Washington Post, since Columbine, there has been at least 554 victims in school shootings. It is estimated that 311, 000 children have been exposed to gun violence in a school setting.

I returned to the Columbine Memorial in Littleton, Colorado this time with my mother, a former educator , Steve and Sharon. Since my first visit I am convinced that every educator in the land (if not every resident) should come to this shine of death, destruction, and renewal.

I had visited the memorial in April of 2021, when there was still snow in the deep shadow areas that will not see sun for another few months.

We visited Clement Park, the park behind Columbine High School, and we could not find any parking near the memorial because, and I’m not making this up, of a Unicorn Festival.

Sharon dropped us off and we walked up towards the memorial to the 13 killed and the many injured and changed forever by the acts of two Columbine High seniors on April 20, 1999.

My mother at the memorial.

To me, this should have been a clarion call for major reforms in gun controls, mental health, and school protocols. Sadly the killing in schools just keeps happening. What have we really learned from Columbine?

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Columbine

April 20, 2021

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” ~ Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

With the recent shootings in Boulder, Colorado, I headed to the memorial to one of the most tragic school shootings in United States history.

Indeed the word “Columbine” is code for a school shooting and unfortunately there have been many Columbine copycat crimes. This tragedy took place on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

When I knew I was going to be in the Denver area and looking at a map, I realized that Littleton was a short drive from the Denver metro area. I knew as a American and as an educator I had to visit the memorial to the victims and those wounded in this tradegy, in a park behind Columbine High.

So on the morning of April 2, 2021, almost 22 years after the shootings, I headed down to Littleton to the Columbine Memorial in Clement Park. Littleton is a town without a downtown or really a main street. It is full of tract homes of various sizes, strip malls, big box stores, big box churches, parks, and schools.

When I arrived at Clement Park, two workmen where shoveling dirt at the entrance and a woman was jogging around the memorial. It was the quintessential picture of “life goes on”. I had the memorial to myself, except for a brief visit from a Say’s phoebe and a western meadowlark.

From the top of the memorial looking out to Columbine High School. The baseball field is named after “Mr. D” the much-loved principal at Columbine at the time of the shootings.

The memorial consists of two concentric circles. The inner circle, called the Ring of Remembrance, honors the lives of the 13 victims of the gunfire. Much of the memorial is made out of local red sandstone. For me the most touching and emotional rock slab honors the teacher that was killed on April 20, Coach Dave Sanders.

Each panel of the Ring of Remembrance is dedicated to each victim with statement written by family members, some including quotes from scripture, and one included a poem written by a victim shortly before her passing.

The outer circle is called the Wall of Healing and contains statements from the Littleton community. This is the part of the memorial that I chose to sketch. Across from the redbrick sandstone wall was a low bench for reflection. It was here that I chose my spot, looking across to the wall with a line of snow underneath.

Sketching is capturing the outward but also turning inward. Sketching, in other words, is a mediation. And I though about this tragedy and how it altered the Littleton Community and the wider world. It was startling to think that two students could turn death and destruction on their own peers. As an educator, could I seen signs of this in the eyes of my own students? At what point does innocence end?

“Why?” is a frequently asked question about the events that unfolded 22 years ago. And there is much misinformation and speculation in an attempt to answer this seemingly simple question. I have no answers to this question and at times we have to come to terms with not really knowing the full truth, or settling with an incomplete answer.

But this memorial is also a testament to hope and is a statement to one community’s response to violence. Some of the statements on the Wall of Healing reflects this hope. One panel reads, “Rather than a loss of innocence, I’ve got to hope that something like this encourages us to be better people.”

The above photo was taken from Leawood Park, the park across the street from the high school. Many of the students evacuated to the park on April 20, 1999. One student noted that a line of teachers spanned the street in front of the park to protect the students. This is a strong metaphor for the love and compassion all teachers have for their students.

Another panel on the Wall of Healing, written by a faculty member, simply states: “The children and Dave are what we need to remember.”