Nothing of consequence happened in Mrs. Carlson’s fourth-grade classroom on April 20, 1999. It was simply just an ordinary day. The morning bell rang, we opened our textbooks and moved from lesson to lesson until lunch and recess. Then we went back to our lessons until the final bell of the day.
For the students at Columbine High School, however, it’s a day they will never forget, when two of their classmates opened fire, killing 12 students and one teacher. I remember Tom Brokaw delivering the horrific news over the air waves as my parents and I sat around the kitchen table eating dinner.
The next day at school, however, was exactly as it was the day before. Mrs. Carlson stood at the front of the classroom, delicately wiping the chalkboard dust from her hands as we passed notes to one another. There were no drills, assemblies, or safety plans put into place. Columbine, as tragic as it was, was an isolated incident in Colorado.
I was never scared to go to school. For me, especially in elementary school, there was a comfort in being at school. I knew I was safe there. The worst thing that might happen is I’d have to take a spelling test. But sadly, that stability has long since left society.
On the 20th anniversary of Columbine, ABC News reported that “Since Columbine, there have been 11 school shootings that were considered mass shootings — where four or more victims were killed. Three of these shootings — Sandy Hook, Parkland and Virginia Tech — were deadlier than Columbine.”
As I write this column, news reports are flooding in regarding a shooting on the campus of the University of North Carolina. These stories, still horrific, sadly no longer hold the gut-wrenching question of “how can this happen?” Because it has become part of our lives.
By the time I was graduating high school, in the mid 2000s, we were beginning to practice active shooter drills. We did them once a year, just like a fire or tornado drill. But still, the thought of a school shooting in a place like Clarke County seemed absurd. But they probably thought that in Sandy Hook and Parkland.
I was watching a news report from NPR, I believe, on the anniversary of the Parkland shooting. They had gone out and talked to a dozen or so teenagers about their relationship with firearms and school shootings. For these kids, the thought of a school shooting in their district didn’t seem absurd, but more of an eventuality.
March for our Lives, an organization started by survivors of the Parkland shooting, released a PSA this week that shows the reality of what gun violence and school shootings have done. The PSA, titled Generation Lockdown, begins as a group of adults gather for a staff meeting where they are told an expert will lead their team building event for active shooter training. The room gasps as a child walks in.
“If there was an active shooter, you’d all be dead,” she says as the group falls silent. “When you talk out loud, the shooter can tell where you are and where you’re hiding. Sometimes we play the game who can be the quietest the longest so we all remember.”
The young girl then describes how they could barricade themselves into a room, remember to black out the windows so the shooter can’t see in. And that if they’re caught in the bathroom, they will have to stand on the toilet while squatting down so they can’t be seen.”
“You can’t cry, it gives away your position,” she says, as images from previous school shootings are intercut into the announcement.
The most heart-wrenching part of the PSA is when the girl sings a nursery rhyme designed to teach young children what to do in the event of a school shooting.
I grew up in a house with guns. From an early age, my dad taught me about gun safety and respect. I lost a lot of games of cops and robbers with the neighbor boys because one of my dad’s rules was not to point a gun at a person, real or fake. As a teen I went hunting with my dad and as an adult, I’ll go out to the range with him to bond.
This is not everyone’s experience. As I sit here on the eve of my 30th birthday, I realize how lucky I was to be raised in this kind of household. But I also see the reality of gun violence. I’ve been on those phone calls with district superintendents after a school shooting wondering what kinds of changes they’re going to make to their active shooter plans with the latest developments. And I live in a world where I make note of exits in movie theaters and during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, in the back of my mind I wondered how we would get out of there in the event of an attack. This is the world now and I see the benefit to finding practical gun law reforms.