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A Message of Hope 20 Years After Columbine

Columbine memorial monument

"Two students, cloaked in black trench coats and armed with guns and bombs, opened fire Tuesday at Columbine High School, killing 15 people and wounding 28 others in the worst school shooting in history.”

This was the opening paragraph to a story in the Denver Post on the Columbine shooting, although it sounds more like an excerpt from a disturbing fictional thriller. In 1999, it was “the worst school shooting in history”. Today it ranks as #4 behind Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and Parkland on a leaderboard that no one wants to exist. None of us could imagine the horror that unfolded at Columbine that day, let alone the unthinkable tragedies that have occurred since.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting, creating space for us to pause, reflect and remember. Many survivors - from former students to families that lost children to school administrators - are united not only by their grief but by their hope. They have spent the past 20 years struggling to find a path toward healing. Some became activists, others formed charitable organizations, some published books to share their story. That Tuesday in 1999 forever altered the lives of that community and beyond, but they rise up every day to remind us there is hope - a message they still send two decades later.

They have used the power of connection - both inward and outward - to show that healing is possible. That anger can be transformed into determination. That sadness and despair can be reborn as inspiration. That the town of Littleton, a community whose tapestry has been woven tighter and tighter to create strength and resiliency, cannot only recover but thrive.

The rise in school violence in the last 20 years since Columbine has taught us that no community is immune to tragedy. Because these acts of violence don’t fit any predictable profile, trying to protect ourselves from the unknown can feel a bit like boxing with ghosts. The signs of trouble and cries for help are ever-changing, particularly in a world complicated by everything-digital. But the signs and cries are still there, just like they were 20 years ago at Columbine when death threats were found on bathroom walls - they are just more shrouded in encryption and oftentimes less visible to the naked eye.

As the memories of Columbine wave over us, we have a choice on how we react: either let the nightmare torment us and drive us further apart or maintain hope that deeper connections can bring us closer to a safer tomorrow. We must train our eyes and ears to look and listen in new ways, and assure students they are heard, seen and supported, even if what we see and hear scares us. We must be prepared to deal with the actual act of violence and its aftermath as much as preventing it in the first place."