Lessons of Columbine: A Father Remembers

 (By Don Lee) The date was April 20, 1999, twenty years ago—but it seems as though it was just yesterday, when I represented a grieving community in the Colorado House of Representatives, attempting to make sense of a senseless act; the Columbine massacre. 

In just my third month in office, I experienced what I pray you will never experience in your community: the random murder and wounding of dozens of children and a teacher, in what was thought to be an unthinkable place, your children’s school.

Many emotions erupted. Many questions  were asked, questions that still linger—and the “if only’s” continue to be posed.

Many of the websites created in memory of those killed or wounded have either disappeared or are dormant. Books have been written in an attempt to make sense or explain Columbine, or a way to heal wounds. Wounds from 20 years ago — physical, social and emotional, that to this day have yet to heal, and most likely will not. 

Those of us who lived through the Columbine massacre have a mark on us, one that will never go away. Columbine embodies our innermost fear, the inability to control the future, and the inability to prevent the past from happening again.

Columbine shocked the nation, and I hope more importantly, the nation’s parents into a sense of what’s important in life, and what is not. I believe parents had a change of focus after Columbine, where appreciating the blessings of their children outweighed their own ambitions, or their children’s shortfalls.

We experienced a shifting perspective from “Boy, wait till they come home” to “God, please let them come home.” It made the difference between a child coming home to an empty house, and his or her coming home to the warm embrace of a loving parent. 

There’s More We Must Do

I believe the day of the Columbine massacre set a world record for parents hugging their children — a day of appreciation and thankfulness.

On the other hand, I believe Columbine exposed a “be and let be” culture, to the detriment of moral absolutes. We discovered we should no longer tolerate the intolerable. That we should not have to tolerate evil when we see it, but to confront and stop it. 

Thankfully, several Columbine copycat attempts have been thwarted due to this shift of philosophy, but there is more we have to do. 

We know the lives lost and wounded at Columbine were not in vain. Columbine was a watershed moment that was the catalyst for many changes in how we try to ensure safety in our schools. 

But unfortunately, we realized from the Parkland massacre last year that many things learned from Columbine, even today after 20 years, still need to be addressed, such as passive and hardened security measures for school buildings. 

Why is it that we spend millions on fire safety at our schools, but a fraction of that on school building security? We can and must do  better.

Robust and Resilient 

You’ve probably seen the Columbine license plate that is in circulation. I advocated for it with Columbine parents to commemorate that horrific massacre. It is by far the most popular specialty plate in Colorado. There’s a depiction of a columbine flower in the middle of the plate, with the words “Respect Life” across the bottom.

The columbine, Colorado’s state flower, is not only lovely but robust. It has a high resistance to insect infestation and disease. And it possesses a high nectar content, a sweetness that hummingbirds and bees love to seek, further enhancing the natural beauty of our Colorado landscape. 

So I like to think that just as the columbine flower has a high resistance to things that would attempt to harm it, Columbine High School has shown a resistance to an infestation of evil 20 years ago.

As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Columbine massacre, let us not forget the lessons learned. As we well know, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Let’s not doom ourselves to another Columbine. 

As a Columbine dad, I’d ask you to do me four favors. Ensure that YOUR school is adequately addressing school security.  Give your child or loved one a big hug to commemorate this sad anniversary. Say a prayer for those who are still suffering its tragic effects.  And resolve, all of us together, to do everything we can to keep this from ever happening again.

Don Lee represented the Columbine and Ken Caryl community in the Colorado House of Representatives, 1999-2005. All three of his children attended Columbine High School at the time of the 1999 massacre. Contact: donplee@pm.me

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