“I feel this huge relief — like, OK, the day is over and she’s home,” Tunstead says. “I don’t like feeling that way. I don’t like to feel I’m sending her somewhere that something bad could happen.”
Tunstead was a freshman at Columbine High School nearly 19 years ago, when two students’ suicidal rampage changed the conversation about school violence. Now, personal experience melds with each fresh tragedy — most recently the Feb. 14 Parkland, Fla., attack — to amplify the anxiety she feels when she sends her daughter, and soon her 4-year-old son, off to class.
“Not a day goes by that it doesn’t cross my mind something like this could happen in their school,” Tunstead says.
The parents, former students and others who experienced Columbine, at that time the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, have regarded the ensuing bloodshed through a unique lens — one that has prompted them to re-examine how life has changed since then, and how it has not.
For some, the Florida attack echoed Columbine with disturbing clarity.
Television news aerial video eerily reflected the images broadcast on April 20, 1999, that showed lines of frightened students running from the school with hands over their heads. The numbers were similar — 13 dead in Colorado, 17 in Florida — and casualties included a beloved coach who died while trying to get others out of harm’s way.
“People were deeply affected,” former Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis says of the local reaction he has seen to the Florida shooting. “I had former students of mine reaching out to me. It’s not that other shootings are diminished, but there were so many similarities to Columbine.”
For Natalie Brookins, mother of wounded Columbine student Sean Graves, the Florida incident seemed like a flashback to 1999 that proved as traumatizing — maybe even more — than the many other school shootings that have occurred since.
“I admit that I went into shock mode for a good day and worse, I lay low to all related media coverage afterward, as it hits too close to home,” Brookins says.
Graves, married and father to a 2-year-old daughter, also noted how the Florida video footage was “almost identical” to Columbine to the point where it stopped short of triggering post-traumatic stress but definitely conjured painful memories.
Now, as both survivor and a dad, he feels greater urgency to launch a nonprofit conceived with some other former Columbine students that trains kids how to identify threats.
“Just recently, with everything going on, it’s going to be needed,” Graves says. “(The shootings) are never going to go away, but there’s got to be a different way to combat this.”
Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida have responded to the violence inflicted on their community with a torrent of words and actions aimed at the adults they say have not adequately addressed a festering issue. And they’ve seized the spotlight with a fervor — and effectiveness — not seen in the aftermath of previous shootings, including Columbine.
The activism of the Florida students ramped up quickly and spread to campuses across the country. Perhaps most surprisingly, it advanced the discussion, largely around guns, to the point that some companies cut ties with the National Rifle Association; retailer Dick’s Sporting Goods halted sales of the type of rifle used in the attack; and Walmart raised the minimum age for buying firearms to 21.
The students capitalized on multiple social media platforms that didn’t exist in 1999. Technology handed them a megaphone for their message.Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was killed at Columbine, recalls no such powerful reaction to take on an issue like guns at the time.
“One, they didn’t have that tool of social media like we have today,” says Mauser, now spokesman for the gun control advocacy group Colorado Ceasefire. “But I think it was something deeper, too. There were all these explanations being thrown around that (the cause) was bullying, that it was the ‘Trenchcoat Mafia,’ that it was kids picking on Christians, that it was the jock culture that played into the bullying. With those things going on, it kind of diverted people’s thinking to a certain extent.
“(In Florida) you have high school kids saying, ‘We’re being assaulted, being killed, we need to do something about it’ — and they’re not at all happy,” he adds. “That’s the big difference, combined with social media. I’m cautiously optimistic about what could come out of this. After almost 19 years, I’ve seen it before. People think they have traction and nothing happens.”
But in many of those cases, Mauser notes, it’s the adults who “get sidetracked and move on to something else. These kids are not engrossed in Russia, tax reform, fill-in-the-blank. This hits home for them. It’s in the schools.”
The Florida kids’ push for safety strikes a chord for Graves on a couple of levels, as the high school student he was and the parent he is now. Enduring connections with former classmates have led to conversations about a relatively new issue: how to talk to their own kids about the threat of school violence.
When Columbine unfolded, there had been some well-publicized school shootings across the country but nothing on so ghastly a scale. The concept was new enough, Graves recalls, that when he and two buddies watched and heard the gunmen open fire that day, he actually moved toward the commotion.
“For crying out loud, we saw them unload a magazine, and I continued to walk up to them,” says Graves, who was shot just outside the school. “We kept thinking it had to have been a prank. The thought of eluding or evading the situation didn’t cross our minds. We’re going to raise our kids differently, obviously. They’re going to know the difference between what is a prank and what is a threat. We’re going to raise them to be smart enough to get out of the situation, then run and take cover.”
Graves has noticed a tendency, in the wake of the Florida shooting, to focus on the idea that nothing has changed since Columbine. And while it’s true that school shootings continue, he says, many things have changed, and a number of possible incidents have been thwarted by measures such as an increased emphasis on encouraging students to speak up about potential threats.
“That’s one of the big things people are forgetting,” he says, “that we’ve prevented a lot of these based on what we’ve learned from Columbine. Moving forward, we’re going to learn from this (Florida) one that follow-through is going to be a big thing now. We keep learning and adapting. We’ll slow them down for sure.”
DeAngelis agrees. Active-shooter police protocols were revised after Columbine. Communication between schools and law enforcement was reassessed. Lockdown drills designed to protect students from a potential attacker have become standard practice. Anonymous tip lines, such as Colorado’s Safe2Tell, seek to alert authorities to possible threats.
“We hear about the shootings that continue to happen but we don’t necessarily hear about all that were stopped because of things we have in place,” he says. “Before Columbine, we did fire drills. Now we have a standard response protocol, lockouts, evacuation, things of that nature. I don’t want people to feel helpless or hopeless.”
Mauser also allows that much has been done to harden schools as targets, and employ safety drills, anti-bullying programs and early identification of threats. But larger issues such as guns and mental health have lagged behind.
“We’ve done those kinds of preventive steps, but we haven’t done much in the big preventive steps,” he says. “Once somebody is known to be dangerous, what are we doing about it? On the gun side, you keep firearms from them. On the intervention side, we’re still relatively helpless in this country when it comes to dealing with how to intervene in those lives. This one was a prime example. You had police knowing the kid is troubled, but yet what could they do about it?”
DeAngelis, who still speaks extensively on the issue of school violence and has advised administrators at the Florida school, understands the frustration expressed by those students that the predictable sequence of events following a school shooting too often amounts to legislators doing little or nothing.
“I really believe that the students want their voices to be heard,” DeAngelis says. “For whatever reason, there’s a different feel to this, and I’m not sure exactly what it is. I don’t know what will happen a month or two or three from now, but I’ve never seen a groundswell with students in the manner that we see it right now.”
Whether or not the impact of the Florida students will result in policy shifts that have ramifications for future generations, Graves still plans to instill the personal lessons of Columbine in his daughter.
“I’m going to raise her with the knowledge to identify a situation before it even occurs,” he says, “and to know what to do when something does happen.”
Tunstead, who hunkered with friends behind cars in the school parking lot when the gunmen opened fire, notes that her husband, Nick, also was a student at Columbine and lost his best friend in the shooting. They haven’t shared their experience with their daughter yet, but Tunstead knows that the day is coming.
The recurrence of school shootings makes the prospect of linking parents’ history with the everyday reality of school safety all the more daunting.
“How much detail do I go into?” Tunstead wonders. “I don’t want to scare her. I guess I just don’t know as a parent: When’s the right time for her to truly understand it and not be afraid to go to school?”