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Columbine Survivors Reflect, and Reckon With Specter of Future Shootings



LITTLETON, Colo. — This is where I hid from the gunmen, the survivors told their children. That is where the gunmen entered the school, they added. This is how I escaped.

Twenty years after two students attacked Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killing 12 of their peers and one teacher and marking the beginning of an era of school attacks and mass shootings, Columbine’s survivors are now parents.

On Saturday, the anniversary of the attack, many of those survivors returned to the school, walking its hallways with their children before heading to a memorial in a nearby park. The faces of their dead classmates flashed on a video screen as armed deputies stood by and the sun fell behind the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

For survivors, it was both a celebration of their rebirth and a lament of a harsh reality: The violence they experienced could come to their children, too. The events of the past week, including a regionwide search for an armed woman who the authorities said was “infatuated” with the Columbine shooting and “extremely dangerous,” only emphasized that.

“I’m terrified to send my son to high school next year,” said Kari Bryan, 37, who was a senior at Columbine during the attack. She is now a mother of four. “It wasn’t until my kids started school that I realized how much it was affecting me,” she said. On her oldest son’s first day of kindergarten, she sat in her car and cried for hours.

In some ways, much has changed since the shooting at Columbine. Lockdown drills are commonplace in schools across the country. Colorado has employed Safe2Tell, a tip line for reporting possible dangers, and passed laws that require background checks for all gun buyers and that permit the authorities to confiscate firearms from potentially dangerous people. By next year, every elementary school in Jefferson County, home to Columbine, will have an expert in social and emotional development.

But nationally, the country has not been able to stop these shootings, as officials struggle to close gaps in mental health care, and as gun defenders and gun control advocates fight over appropriate prevention measures. Many in Colorado thought the Columbine attack would be remembered as a uniquely horrifying moment, never to be repeated. Instead, they have watched similar attacks play out again and again. On several occasions, new perpetrators appear to have found inspiration in the 1999 shooting.

Every time there is a new attack, said Tami Diaz, 36, another survivor, “everything has to reheal — it’s like ripping off a scab.”

At the memorial, hundreds of people crowded the lawn by the school, many of them pushing strollers or carrying children on their shoulders. Some wore T-shirts bearing the image of the columbine, a five-petal plant that is the state flower.

A sign bore the victims’ names: Cassie Bernall. Steven Curnow. Corey DePooter. Kelly Fleming. Matthew Kechter. Daniel Mauser. Danny Rohrbough. Dave Sanders. Rachel Scott. Isaiah Shoels. John Tomlin. Lauren Townsend. Kyle Velasquez.

Onstage, Sean Graves, class of 2002, described being shot six times during the attack, which led to 49 operations.

He now has a 3-year-old daughter. “I didn’t quite understand what my parents had gone through until I put myself into their shoes,” he said. “It took me having a baby for me to truly understand.”

His friend Patrick Ireland, class of 2000, then described being shot twice in the head. As far as healing, he told the crowd, “many of us are still working through that process.”

In the audience, Missy Mendo, class of 2002, held her 11-month-old daughter Ellie on her hip. Having a child, she said, had been both healing and terrifying. After the shooting, Ms. Mendo had terrible insomnia. When she could sleep, she did so with her shoes on, convinced she would have to run at any minute.

Ellie was proof of her own recovery, she said, a sign the perpetrators had not won.

But she began worrying about her daughter’s safety almost as soon as she learned she was pregnant. Ellie crawled across the field, a green pacifier in her mouth.

“I hadn’t had anxiety for many, many years,” Ms. Mendo said. Now she begins shaking when she thinks about sending Ellie to school. The run-up to the anniversary has been like the initial ascent on a roller coaster, she added, in which tension mounts as the rider moves further and further from safety. “It’s the fear of not being able to protect her.”

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