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As the threat of violence kept students across Colorado from attending school on April 17, Colorado Community Media reached out to students in and around Jefferson County, ground zero for one of the most infamous of school shootings. Here are some of their thoughts and feelings about school security on on the 20th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting.
Charles Wiebeck, a junior at Arvada West High School, says it was through other students he knows at Evergreen High School that he first heard about the school lockouts on April 16. Later in the day he learned more about the woman behind the threats — identified by law enforcement as 18-year-old Sol Pais — and her motivations.
“It’s really sad that people take too much of a deep look at the original Columbine shooting, and idolize Eric and Dylan,” said Wiebeck. “It’s like a shadow that will stick with the state forever.”
Wiebeck, like every public school student of his generation, has spent his whole childhood in the shadow of Columbine. He says school security features are just a way of life, as are live shooter drills.
“Three times a year having to hide in a corner in the dark, until the lights come back on and a cop says, ‘good job, you didn’t make a noise.’”
On one hand, Wiebeck says most of his classmates have become desensitized to school shootings, and the word Columbine used almost as a joke. Even recent shootings do not seem to make as big an impact as they might have.
“It’s awful that it happens, but it seems like everybody moves on too quick,” he said.
On the other hand, Wiebeck says, the awareness that a shooting could happen anywhere is something his classmates know well. He said that the metro area school districts closing schools on April 17 was “very necessary,” while there was still a chance of school violence.
“I would have felt on edge,” if school had still been held. “And I think I can say that for a lot of students.”
Wiebeck said that had the source of the threats, Sol Pais, not been found, that anxiety would have only gotten worse the closer it got to the April 20 anniversary of the Columbine shooting.
Intellectually, Wiebeck knows that the chance of being in a school shooting is very low, but he also knows that if it did happen all those precautions and security measures are not likely to save him if the shooter is determined, and knows how the school operates.
“Honestly,” he sighs, “I don’t know how you’d make schools safer.”
Growing up in the aftermath of the Columbine High School tragedy is like “having a shadow looming over us,” said Molly Babitz, a senior at Golden High School.
“We’ve all heard about it (and) it shapes how we react” to any threat, she said.
But, she added, school threats “are part of our everyday life.”
Babitz was in math class when she heard that some area schools went on lockout status, April 16. There was some confusion about it, she said, and most students thought of it as a small threat — something similar to when there is police activity in the nearby vicinity of a school, Babitz said.
Golden students knew other schools in Jeffco were on lockout, Babitz said, but because Golden wasn’t, most of the students didn’t know the reason why until well after school let out for the day.
Then, waking up on April 17, it came as a shock to learn that schools across the metro area were closed because of the threat, Babitz said.
But “the minute something like this happens, everyone rallies together,” Babitz said.
Students across Jeffco, according to both Babitz and Horn, were texting each other to make sure their friends from other schools were safe and to ask how they were feeling emotionally.
Columbine and Golden have a lot of similarities with their school spirit and sense of community, Babitz said. She serves as the Golden High School Student Body President and noted that she sees Columbine students regularly at student council events, as well as sporting events when the two schools play each other.
Babitz believes her fellow students at Golden likely used April 17 as a day to reflect on why all the schools closed that day.
People “took it a lot harder than when school is cancelled for a snow day,” Babitz said. Even though some academics and school-related activities will have to be re-scheduled, “it’s better for people to feel safe than be at school worrying the whole time.”
“Kids these days have a general fear of being at school,” said Sydney Horn, a senior at Ralston Valley High School in Arvada. “It takes an emotional and mental toll on everybody.”
This generation is “completely different” than any other that came before it, Horn said. School shootings and gun violence in general, she said, have become “normalized” for this generation. And, Horn added, constantly hearing about these types of tragedies creates a “cycle of mourning that never ends.”
At Ralston Valley, Horn believes students didn’t take it as seriously as those at Golden.
A school threat is “a very hard thing to confront and understand,” Horn said, adding that many students may “block it out unless it’s right in front of you.”
She hears jokes about school violence on nearly a daily basis, Horn said, adding it becomes easier to handle when you can joke about it.
“It’s easier for some people to not feel that fear, so they turn it off,” Horn said. “But it’s important for people not to be afraid to feel that fear, because it’s human.”
And when you feel human emotions, Horn said, “that’s when you can start driving it towards change.”
As a senior at Fairview High School in Boulder, Emi Ambory was affected by the recent school lockouts and closures.
However, as the state director for the Colorado chapter of the March For Our Lives organization, she's thought about school safety more than most. She's also part of a network of student activists who take such threats quite seriously.
On April 16, "I'm starting to get texts from dear friends of mine from Columbine," she said. The worried texts and calls kept rolling in through the day. Ambory said she was talking to other March For Our Lives activists till 2 a.m., discussing the situation and the effects of the nebulous threat on the entire state.
"I'd characterize most of those calls, some as crying, but many as angry and frustrated," she said.
March For Our Lives is a youth-centered organization for gun violence prevention.
Then came the closure of many Front Range schools, including hers, on April 17.
“I think, 'how could we be 20 years after Columbine, and we have half a million kids out of school?'" said Ambory.
But at the same time, Ambory said she felt personally relieved to have to make the choice of whether to go to school or not, with an armed individual on the lose.
“As a leader in my community, I felt like it would be unfair to my community and to my school to stay home.”
With the threat over, Ambory said she agrees with the official's decision to close the schools, believing Sol Pais to have been a threat to the community, and to herself.
"She’s an example of glorifying mass murderers in our community. With glorification, I don't know why it resonates with some people ... but it does."
Ambory said that too often, events like the region-wide threat gains a lot of public attention, but that attention is quickly lost.
"That awareness doesn’t go away for us, with bomb threats, and regular shooting drills," she said.
She adds: at least in this case, on this Columbine anniversary, no one else got hurt.
“It’s really important following something like this that involves student safety, to talk to students about what they’re feeling and what they’re thinking.”
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