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Fears of Columbine still fresh

Mass shootings and school shootings - and the ubiquitous threat of them - create trauma that splinters out well beyond the victims, and the families and friends who must forever cope with loss.

Front pages from April 21, 1999.

Front pages from April 21, 1999. Photo Credit: The Washington Post/The Washington Post

For a few hours Wednesday, I relived the panic, fear and anxiety I felt 20 years ago as a high school student in suburban Denver.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colo. On Wednesday, my hometown was consumed in panic as Denver-area authorities frantically searched for a young woman “infatuated” with the shooting and who had bought a gun after recently traveling to Colorado.

Schools throughout my hometown shut down in order to keep students and staff safe. The young woman, not even alive when Columbine occurred, eventually was found dead, according to The Denver Post.

I haven’t lived in Denver for more than a decade. I’ve lost many of the connections that bind us to our hometowns when we move away and create lives elsewhere.

But Columbine, I will always carry with me.

I went to school at Dakota Ridge High School, a few miles down the road. I was a sophomore. It was to be a momentous week for me. I was about to turn 16, get my driver’s license and go to an ’N Sync concert in Colorado Springs.

The first gunshots at Columbine occurred around 11 a.m. that day. But this was long before everyone had cellphones and social media, so it was a couple of hours before we found out what was happening.

I’d just left my French class and went into biology. All the TVs in the school flashed to CNN, carrying the news about the massacre.

The first reports we heard were that as many as 25 people had been killed.

We just sat in class and watched. Some people cried.

Our school went on lockdown. I lent my emergency cellphone to my classmates so they could call their parents. No one was allowed to leave school until a parent signed us out. But the frenzy of parents trying to find their kids turned our front hall into a madhouse. I spotted my mom and we ran out of there.

I was in disbelief. It didn’t even occur to me that this was national news. It took several panicked phone calls from relatives across the country for that realization to sink in.

A couple of days later, our community galvanized and I marched down the street with hundreds of classmates and students from nearby Chatfield High School to support our sister school. We gathered in the park and formed an enormous prayer circle. We all sobbed as someone played “My Heart Will Go On,” then packed into buses to go back to school.

Columbine led the local news every day for months. I would learn about the latest reporting every morning before heading off to school.

Twenty years on, those details are still fresh in my mind.

Mass shootings and school shootings — and the ubiquitous threat of them — create trauma that splinters out well beyond the victims, and the families and friends who must forever cope with loss.

As I learned this week — anxiously awaiting a peaceful resolution to this new threat — gun violence even can weigh upon those of us who only witness it from a distance.

I wasn’t at Columbine and I don’t dare equate my experience with that of those who were: the students and teachers who heard gunshots, were forced to take cover, then flee their school; the parents who received that horrific phone call and waited in agony to figure out whether their kids were safe; the first responders who confronted such cataclysmic horror.

But pain and fear were all-consuming for me and many of my friends.

School was open the next day, but few of us showed up. For those of us who did, there was no classwork. We just went from period to period talking with our teachers about what was on our minds.

That’s when it slowly sunk in that school was not necessarily a safe place. This happened in our neighborhood, and there was little rhyme or reason why it couldn’t have been us.

I switched schools after that year.

Mass shootings have become commonplace and the threat of them is everywhere. Three of this week’s Pulitzer Prize honors were awarded to news media that covered horrific instances of massacre by gun: at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Tree of Life synagogue and the Capital Gazette newspaper.

News media frequently report on close calls, when law enforcement uncovers a threat to local schools and are able to stop it before anything comes to pass.

When Columbine unfolded, as a country we couldn’t believe anything like this could happen. Now we know it can happen; we just hope it doesn’t happen to us, our schools and communities, our children and families.

Columbine isn’t something I think about much. But even when you are far away and so much time has passed, fear has a way of showing you that some wounds never totally heal.

Dawn Rhodes is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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