Columbine survivors see school safety through lends of history | #schoolshooting


Every weekday after 3 p.m., Cyndi Tunstead’s cellphone chimes with a text from the babysitter that her first-grade daughter has arrived home from school. She glances at the brief message, confirming all is well, and hates what happens next.

“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.

WPLG-TV via The Associated Press

In this frame grab from video provided by WPLG-TV, students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., evacuate the school following a shooting, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018.

“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.”

In this image from television, students ...
CNN, The Associated Press

In this image from television, students escape from Columbine High school Tuesday, April 20, 1999 in Littleton, Colo., after two young men dressed in long, black trench coats opened fire in the suburban high school.

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.



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