After 20 years of telling it, the story of the day you survived a school shooting can get a little rote, admits Renee Oakley, 35. She and her husband, Ben, 36, both lived through the shooting at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.
“I’ve always been able to tell it as though I’m reading a story to somebody,” Renee told me over a car Bluetooth speaker as she drove through Seattle with Ben, who agreed: “It feels automated” for him, too, he says.
In some ways, that’s probably for the best. Both Ben and Renee have shared their story many times over the years, sometimes in public forums, and having a succinct, memorized script can help when you’re reliving a tragedy in front of an audience. But for Renee, the script fell by the wayside when her audience consisted of one particular person: her daughter, Emma.
One afternoon before Renee married Ben, Emma came home and announced that she’d had a lockdown during the day at school. Emma was 7 at the time, and Renee, who lives with what she described as severe PTSD, said she had a small panic attack. She immediately called the school: “I was like, ‘What the hell happened?’” It was a drill, the school reassured her; the students had just been practicing for an active-shooter situation. And that’s when Renee decided it was time to talk to Emma about Columbine.
Survivors of the Columbine High School shooting are in their mid-30s today, old enough to have children of their own who now participate in lockdown drills and campus-safety trainings. The ones who have become parents face an awful new reality: Twenty years later, they are being confronted with the idea that what happened to them could also happen to their children—a notion that some Columbine survivors fear intensely and that others reject almost entirely. As their children grow up, these parents are navigating how to talk to them about the day their high-school memories were corrupted by gun violence.
When Renee first told Emma about Columbine, Emma had a number of follow-up questions. Who had died? Was Renee sad that the killers, her classmates, had taken their own lives? “I was okay until she started asking more in-depth questions,” Renee remembered. “She found out about our friend Matt [Kechter], who died, and she asked me if I ever go to his grave. She asked me [if we could] go to it.” Renee lived in Colorado at the time, about 10 minutes from where Kechter was buried. She and Emma ended up visiting the grave site almost monthly for the next year.
Renee appreciated that Emma—an “old soul”—wanted to be part of memorializing her mother’s friend. Soon, though, Emma began to have trouble focusing on her classwork while at school. Instead, she was paying attention to who was roaming the hallways, and what activity was taking place just outside her classroom.
“I essentially put the fear of God in her that she had to be ready, she had to be prepared that anything could happen,” Renee said. “That was my fault. I put my PTSD, and my fears, and my troubles, on her.”
But then came Ben, who Renee said brought balance into their lives.
The Oakleys, who own a business that performs medical exams on life-insurance applicants, have been married since 2016. After they graduated from Columbine, the two lost touch, but they reconnected in 2015 when, in the span of a few months, they each lost a parent to cancer. Ben adopted Emma in 2018.
Ben and Renee are, by their own description, complete opposites when it comes to how they handle the topic of school shootings with their daughter. Renee believes that there’s a direct line between her having survived the Columbine shooting and her becoming an especially protective parent, but Ben makes a point of not worrying about Emma’s safety at school. Renee describes Ben as the non-“helicopter” parent, the one who lets Emma jump on the trampoline without worrying that she’ll get hurt.
“When I wake up in the morning, I don’t fear my kid going to school,” Ben said. Campus shootings are so statistically rare that he feels becoming distressed over them—or trying to prepare for them—is often unnecessary. Of course, he added after a moment, “I’m not going to be ignorant, because I lived through it. But I’m not going to create a culture of fear around my kid, [or raise her to believe] that you have to be afraid on every corner.”
Kim Peyrouse, 36, lives across the street from Columbine, the high school she attended in 1999, and works as a doula. She says she’s forever proud to be a Columbine Rebel, as the school’s students are known, and to raise her three kids in Littleton, Colorado. But when her oldest, now 9, came home from school a few years back and said that the school had had a lockdown drill—that the teacher had handed the kids Dum Dums and told them they were practicing hiding quietly in case “a bear” got inside the school—Peyrouse felt a lot of feelings at once. She was terrified, angry, and—her voice breaks a little saying it—sad. “It just brings back such memories,” she says, “and it just makes me sad that that’s their reality.” She’s grateful that they have those drills at school; she’s glad plans are in place in case the thing no one wants to see happen again happens again. The last thing you want in an active-shooter situation, Peyrouse knows from experience, is chaos. And yet.
“My daughter came home from school one day this year and she said, ‘Mommy, if I’m in the bathroom and there’s a [person with] a gun or something, I’m going to put my legs up on the [toilet] and lock the door so they don’t see me,’” Peyrouse says. “I was like, ‘I’m so sorry that you have to even think about that.’”
Healing after trauma can be a long—sometimes lifelong—and nonlinear process. While some see grief and stress dissipate gradually and become manageable, others have those feelings abate and then intensify, abate and then intensify, again and again, over time. And raising kids while you recover from trauma yourself can be unspeakably hard, says Suzannah Creech, who researches how trauma can affect families for the University of Texas’s Dell Medical School and for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans.
On days when certain events might trigger unwanted memories or difficult emotions for survivors of trauma, “if at all possible, [they should] take some extra care. Can they take a little time off? Can they schedule an extra therapy session? Anything that might help put them in a good place,” Creech says, “especially if they’re responsible for a little one. Because that’s so much more added stress.” Communicating to kids that “Mom is feeling sad,” or that “Daddy feels anxious,” or that “Dad’s going to take some time for himself today,” she adds, can also help kids learn to label their own emotions and better regulate them.
And when parents have PTSD symptoms or symptoms of another mental-health disorder, Creech says, they should tell children what the symptoms are. “Children can make assumptions,” she says. “That it’s about [them] or that they did something wrong, when often it’s more like, Mom or Dad is having a lot of anxiety today because it’s around the anniversary of something that happened. Or, Mom didn’t sleep well last night. Things like that to sort of let them know what they’re dealing with—that it’s not about the child.”
Frank DeAngelis, the former principal of Columbine High School, vowed in 1999 to serve as principal until every student in the Columbine system at the time of the shooting graduated, and then he stayed on for two more years after that. He retired in 2014, but over the past few years, he’s talked to multiple Columbine survivors about the new challenges presented by becoming parents.
In his book, They Call Me Mr. De, DeAngelis describes hearing from one former student (“one of my kids,” as he still calls them) that she found herself seized with panic upon dropping her daughter off on the first day of kindergarten. In an interview, DeAngelis told me that several former students he has spoken with feel like they’ll always be wondering if their children will one day have to experience the same thing they experienced at Columbine. He also said that when another survivor, who had been shot at Columbine, asked for his advice about how and when to tell his 8-year-old about what had happened to him, DeAngelis recommended having that conversation before she was old enough to hear stories about—or see footage of—the massacre elsewhere.
DeAngelis acknowledged that he himself will likely have to have a conversation like this someday soon: His granddaughter, whose pictures he stores on his iPhone and shows off unsolicited, is 5, and he suspects that it won’t be long before she asks why her Papa’s picture is on a book. He said he’ll likely seek the advice of a child psychologist before he tells her the story, because “it’s all in how you explain it.” He wondered aloud how Holocaust survivors and 9/11 survivors have talked to their children and grandchildren about what they saw.
Sharing the story of a disaster or an act of mass violence with children is never easy, and experts recommend talking about it in what Creech calls a “bird’s-eye view” kind of way: just the who, what, when, and where, without the details about what it sounded like or smelled like or looked like. “For trauma survivors, it’s often the sensory details that are the most on their minds on a regular basis, particularly if they have PTSD,” Creech says. “But those are details that we find loved ones really don’t need to know.”
Like the “children’s version” of 9/11 or the “children’s version” of the Holocaust, the children’s version of what happened at Columbine can be a ghastly thing to try to imagine, but the survivors of Columbine have been thinking about it for years. While almost every survivor I spoke with for this story mentioned wanting to protect the kids in their lives from the truth about what happened at their high school (at least while they were little), those who hadn’t told the story yet were, like DeAngelis, already thinking about how they would go about doing so.
Crystal Woodman Miller was 16 when she survived the Columbine shooting, and seven years later, she published Marked for Life, a book about the healing process that took place afterward. For a few years, she traveled frequently, speaking to audiences about her experience. Today she’s raising three children in the same area where she grew up, about a 15-minute drive from Columbine. She recently came across her oldest child, a 7-year-old, reading Marked for Life.
“I came over and I said, ‘Baby, I’m really sad. I would love to share this with you, and Mommy will, but it’s just a little too soon.’ And she said, ‘Why, Mom? I really want to read it. This is the book you wrote,’” Woodman Miller recalls. “I said, ‘I know. But there’s some stuff in here that could be very scary for you right now. I’m just not ready to share that with you.’” Woodman Miller’s daughter handed the book back to her.
Woodman Miller isn’t sure when, exactly, she will be ready. Her daughter has done lockdown drills in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade, but Woodman Miller doesn’t know when she’ll talk to her about Columbine. She knows what she wants to say when the moment arrives, though. “I’ll have to choose my words very carefully,” she says, “and I’ll have to make sure that the whole thing, the whole conversation, is surrounded in assurance. Well, baby, this is something that happened to Mommy, but you are safe. There’s a lot of things that have changed. Your school’s very safe.”
Kim Peyrouse only recently explained to her children what happened, and she gave them just the most basic version. But first, she told them what the “bear” really was.
“We just sat our kids down and were like, ‘A bear? Can you ever imagine a bear ever coming into your school? We live in Littleton. That’s probably not going to happen. But what they are referring to is some tricky person’—and we always say ‘tricky person’ because it could be a girl, or a boy, or a grandma, or a grandpa, or, you know, it could be anybody,” Peyrouse says. “So we just say someone who is tricky and that wants to bring harm to others. Basically, that’s what the bear is.”
“Our kids are old enough now that they know, like, Mommy went to Columbine and that’s where two of her friends—” Peyrouse stops. “Well, you know, not friends. But Mommy’s classmates came in and made a really bad decision. They shot a lot of Mommy’s friends and a coach, and they died.” For now, she says, that’s the extent of it.
Andy McDonald, 37, doesn’t live in Colorado anymore; 12 years ago, he and his wife moved to New Hampshire, where he now teaches social studies at the school two of his three young daughters attend. For him, the fact that his daughters have lockdown drills at school isn’t terribly alarming; as a teacher, he’s been doing them longer than they have. Still, it’s “bizarre” to think about, he says. What he witnessed when he was 17 was supposed to be an anomaly.
In February, McDonald and his wife traveled with their daughters to Denver, and McDonald took his oldest, a fourth grader, to Columbine.
“It was kind of a snap decision—I was like, Wow, we’re actually right here,” McDonald remembers. “I looked at my wife and I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to take [her] up.’” He had actually meant to wait another year, but then there they were, and this is how he’d always wanted to do it. So McDonald and his daughter walked to the Columbine Memorial, a short distance from the high school.
“This is where Dad went to high school,” McDonald remembers saying. He can’t recall perfectly what he said next, but he thinks it went something like “There were students who died here. They were killed by other students.”
McDonald wanted his daughter to know what had happened to him, but he didn’t want to instill fear in her about going to school. “I told her, at the end of the day, this isn’t normal,” he says. “This doesn’t happen most places.” And then he let his daughter take it from there. “I tried to approach it as, if she has the question, I want her to ask it. But I also didn’t necessarily want to volunteer too much, ’cause she’s still 10,” McDonald says. “So we’re of the mind-set that if you are mature enough to come up with a question, then it deserves an answer.”
McDonald’s daughter did have questions. She asked about Rachel Scott, who had been McDonald’s friend and homecoming date that year, and who was killed in the shooting. She knew that her dad had done presentations in schools with a violence-prevention group called Rachel’s Challenge, and she recognized Scott’s name when she saw it listed on the memorial. “She asked if I knew the boys that did it. I said I did not, and I explained how big the school was compared to [the school] where she’s at,” he says.
“That was really about it,” McDonald continues. “Honestly, a lot of it was very quiet.” After a while, they left and picked up the rest of the family.
McDonald left Columbine that day feeling like he’d made the right choice. Today, though, he wonders whether the visit to Columbine will ultimately mean more to him than it will to his daughter. “I don’t know how much of that day she’ll remember, in the grand scheme of things. But for me,” he says, “that was a big thing. It might’ve been just one of those things that I built up in my mind. I guess we’ll see.”