This article was originally published on Crimeology.com on April 20, 2017.
On April 20, 1999, at 11:19 a.m., countless lives in both Littleton, Colorado, and the rest of the nation changed forever. Two very disturbed teenage boys attacked Columbine High School, murdering twelve students and a teacher and wounding many more before completing suicide at the end of their rampage. It is a tragedy that forever altered the public school experience, along with society’s views on gun control, mental illness, parenting, and children’s safety. The word “columbine” itself no longer draws an image of the delicate purple and white state flower; it is instead interchangeable with “violence,” particularly for other mentally ill individuals who plan similar attacks on schools.
I remember one year after the shootings – I was eight years old at the time – my mother kept me home from school because of possible threats on the first anniversary of the attacks. As many know, April 20 is also the birthday of the infamous WWII dictator Adolf Hitler, which may or may not have had an influence on why that date was chosen. I lived in Wyoming – just over a hundred miles from Littleton – and as an elementary school child, I did not grasp the concept of people being murdered in their school; I was simply happy to be kept home that day, free to watch TV and play outside.
Seventeen years later, I visited the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park in Littleton and reflected on the thirteen people I never had the opportunity to meet, but who I’d read so much about. I also reflected on my own high school experiences, including a day where notes were sent home with each of the students informing their parents that someone had written on the bathroom wall this horrific threat: on a day in the near future, “all Christians and jocks would be shot.”
Despite the panic and looming anxiety, the indicated day fortunately passed without incident. Security was heightened for the remaining one-third of the student body who attended that day, and they passed out free candy as if to thank us for risking our lives. Years later I heard a rumor that the student who had written the threat went on to shoot his own father to death as he lay in his bed, sound asleep.
As an adult, the nightmarish reality that some people go to school and don’t come back because of deranged individuals – both children and adults – is still difficult to comprehend. While attacks on schools occurred prior to 1999, the events that took place at Columbine High School were deemed the worst high school shooting to ever happen.
However, instead of focusing on the carnage and the despicable actions of the perpetrators that day, let’s instead honor the memories of the thirteen victims and the short yet profound lives they each led, as well as the heroic and selfless actions that took place.
Cassie Bernall – 17
Cassie was a young woman of great faith who dreamt of attending school in England to become an obstetrician. She loved all sorts of outdoor activities, including snowboarding and rock climbing. Before she rededicated her life to Christ just two short years before her death, she was an extremely troubled teenager who struggled with depression and self-harm; her mother, Misty Bernall, documents the obstacles her daughter overcame in her seventeen years on earth in her book, She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall.
Steve Curnow – 14
Steve was a freshman at Columbine High School, and the two loves of his life were soccer and Star Wars. The former he had been playing since he was only five, and the latter he was such an enthusiast of that he had memorized – and could recite – entire scenes of the films as he watched them. Steve had wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Navy, and he was buried at Fort Logan National Cemetery. His parents stated their son was “a delight to know…he was a great kid and it’s hard to imagine life without him in it.”
Corey DePooter – 17
Corey was a student athlete who dreamt of joining the Marines after he graduated high school. He was an avid fisherman who was saving up money to purchase a boat. He and his best friend were planning on going fishing the afternoon of April 20 – something they did often, even traveling to Oklahoma for a big fishing trip. Corey loved the outdoors and was described as “respectful,” “patriotic,” and “the kind of guy people like to be around.” He was made an honorary Marine after his death.
Kelly Fleming – 16
Described as a “gentle soul,” Kelly was a shy and creative student who had moved to the area only a year and a half before the tragedy. She was a passionate reader and a very talented writer, even penning her autobiography in her free time. A poem Kelly had written titled “Can That Be?” was posthumously published in Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul III. Her parents kept the chair Kelly had last sat in while inside the library on April 20.
Matt Kechter – 16
Matt was a football player, weight lifter, and straight-A student at Columbine High School who was cheerful and ever-optimistic. He was very family-oriented and ambitious, and desired to be a starting lineman on the school’s football team later that year, as well as a future engineer. The football team dedicated the following season to Matt, and won the state championship that winter. His parents later adopted a daughter, stating, “We were not trying to replace Matt, but we have a lot of love to give. We feel more complete as a family.”
Daniel Mauser – 15
Author’s Note: I had the opportunity to speak with Daniel’s father, Tom Mauser, while doing research on Columbine. I extend my deepest gratitude to him in allowing me to ask him questions about his son. The following are the words he shared with me.
“Daniel remains alive in our memories when people speak of him. Daniel was very shy, gentle, caring, a teen not ashamed of hugging his mom. He was very intelligent, in the National Honor Society and named the top sophomore biology student. What most impressed me about Daniel was that he took on his weaknesses. He was extremely shy, yet he joined the debate team at Columbine, where he had to speak in front of others. He was not athletic, yet he joined the cross country team and gave it 100%, even though he didn’t even make it to the JV squad. I have used him as an example to become vocal in the gun control debate, overcoming my own introvertedness. And while it’s very tempting to get upset with all the crap I’ve taken from extreme gun rights activists, I’ve worked hard to stay calm like Daniel and not let it get to me and not stoop to the behavior of my opponents.”
When asked what he misses most about his son, Tom responded, “His dry sense of humor and his inquisitiveness about everything.”
Tom wrote a memoir about his son titled Walking in Daniel’s Shoes, which depicts the life of his son and the events that occurred at Columbine High School.
Daniel Rohrbough – 15
Known as “the boy who held the door open,” Daniel was reported to have lost his life holding open an exit to the school so other students could escape. He was close with his family, and each day after school he would help his father with his home and auto stereo business. He was described as “kind, unselfish, and caring,” and on Daniel’s stone memorial in Clement Park his mother wrote, in part, “What will the world miss? A precious gift from God with an engaging smile and beautiful blue eyes that would light up the room, sensitive and caring, always quick with a comforting hug.” He had turned fifteen just a month before the shootings.
Dave Sanders – 47
Dave had been a teacher and coach at Columbine High School for twenty-five years when the massacre occurred. He was hailed as a hero after alerting countless students to the shooters as he ran throughout the school, saving numerous lives and earning him the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage following his death. Dave’s daughter described him to CBS as “a wonderful man” who enjoyed helping people, especially kids. His wife, Linda Lou Sanders, published the memoir, Dave Sanders: Columbine Teacher, Coach, Hero, five years after her husband’s murder. His final words were engraved into his cenotaph at Clement Park: “Tell my girls I love them.”
Rachel Scott – 17
Rachel was a popular student known for her deep faith and her theatrical talents. She had recently starred in the play, “The Smoke in the Room,” and had also performed in talent shows at the school. Rachel wrote voraciously in her journals; a diary close to her was reportedly struck by a bullet when she died – one whose pages contained a prayer specifically for one of the Columbine shooters. Predicting her early demise, Rachel wrote in an entry on May 2, 1998, “This will be my last year Lord. I’ve gotten what I can. Thank you.” Instead of focusing on the future, Rachel chose to concentrate on caring for others and being used for the Lord’s glory. The morning of the massacre, Rachel had drawn an image of two eyes crying tears onto a rose – thirteen tears total. A memoir, Rachel’s Tears, was written by her family and published one year after her death.
Isaiah Shoels – 18
Isaiah was a well-liked athlete at Columbine High School who had a passion for sports and music. He dreamt of attending the Denver Institute of the Arts and produce records like his father. He overcame difficulties with a heart defect at a young age, and grew to love weightlifting and play on the school’s football team. On his memorial at Clement Park are the words, “He is one of the beautiful flowers God has picked for his Heavenly Garden, to shine and to be an everlasting light,” along with three Bible verses from the book of Isaiah engraved beneath them.
John Tomlin – 16
Two primary ways family and friends described John were that he was a follower of Christ and a fan of Chevrolet trucks. He had saved up for his own Chevy for a year and a half – a truck that was later turned into a memorial in the school parking lot. John had planned to attend prom the following weekend with his girlfriend, who described the care and love he showed for her at his memorial service. He cared for others as well, and drove his beloved truck to Mexico in order to do missionary work building houses. John’s parents described him as “a perfect son” who’d wanted to join the military after he graduated high school.
Lauren Townsend – 18
“I am not afraid of death for it is only a transition. For, in the end all there is, is love.” These inspiring words were written in Lauren’s diary and were engraved into her cenotaph at the Columbine memorial. She also wrote of a desire to sit with Jesus in a field of flowers and kiss His wounds, manifesting an even clearer picture of her Christian faith. Lauren was an athletic student as well, serving as captain of the volleyball team, and made straight-A’s during her time at Columbine. Her kind spirit was evident in her volunteerism at a local animal shelter, and she had plans to attend Colorado State University after her graduation.
Kyle Velasquez – 16
Kyle was affectionately described by his family and friends as a “gentle giant.” He was a loving and tender-hearted teenager who had only attended Columbine High School for three months before he died in the massacre. Kyle loved computers, helping his father around the house, and dreamt of one day becoming a firefighter or joining the Navy. On his memorial, he was said to have “taught those who loved him so much about unconditional love, compassion, forgiveness, perseverance, and acceptance.”
There are not enough words to accurately and efficiently describe the depth of each life lost on April 20, nor are there enough for each person affected by the events of that day. As the poet e.e. cummings wrote, “for life’s not a paragraph/and death I think is no parenthesis.” The parentheses that embrace the dates of birth and death for each of the thirteen people who died do not represent their entire existence; only their transitions into and out of this world. It is important to remember not only the significance behind their deaths, but behind their lives and the love and goodness that emanated from each of them as well.