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20 Years Later, Columbine Remembers School Shooting Tragedy

On Saturday, the day before Easter, people gathered in Clement Park next to Columbine High School, with hundreds in blue folding chairs and hundreds more sitting on the green lawn surrounding a stage.

"We are here on the sacred day, on this sacred ground to be a community of healing, redemption, faith and service," Pastor James Hoxworth said.

As the wind blew and the bright, sunny sky turned to gray, speakers remembered April 20, 1999 during an event to commemorate that day.

"20 years ago seems like a lifetime ago. At other times, it feels like yesterday … I remember feeling confused walking out of Columbine thinking we were evacuating for a fire drill," said Mandy Cooke, a Columbine survivor who is now a teacher there. "… Each one of us has our stories, but in the days, months and years following April 20th, 1999, we gradually found our new normal."

In 1999, two students killed 13 people at Columbine High School, an event that shocked Colorado communities and captivated the attention of the nation.

The theme of the 20th anniversary event was to remember, reflect and recommit. Speakers talked about the resilience of the Columbine community, the struggles survivors and loved ones have faced, the changes in school safety and a deep love for the school.

Speakers included current and former Columbine staff, students and former President Bill Clinton who addressed the audience in a pre-recorded video.

"On this 20th anniversary, I hope you will continue to be made stronger in the broken places through your love and the memories of the 13 people we lost," Clinton said in a video message played during the event. "The greatest tribute we can pay them is to live our own lives in a way that redeems the years they didn't have. I wish you well. "

On April 20, 1999, after the shooting, Clinton addressed the American public from the White House. He visited the area, met with families and helped raise funds for the memorial.

Columbine, though hugely important in the American story of school shootings, was not the first. In the years leading up to it, there were shootings in Kentucky, Arkansas and Oregon.

But a powerful combination of media coverage, gruesome details and rumors, growth of internet access and the materials the killers left behind has left an imprint on the American consciousness.

Columbine has continued to stay relevant, in part, because school shootings have continued to happen in the U.S. Survivors have been re-traumatized by school shooting incidents like Sandy Hook and Parkland. Mass shootings make up a fraction of all gun deaths; in 2017 nearly 40,000 people died from gunshot wounds.

Threats of violence against schools, including Columbine, have continued as well.

This past week, law enforcement in Colorado launched a massive manhunt for an 18-year-old student from Florida, who they say was infatuated with the Columbine High School shooting. She had made what the FBI characterized as "credible threats," so when she traveled to Colorado on Monday and bought a gun, a search ensued, prompting hundreds of Front Range schools to close. On Wednesday, law enforcement said they found her dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound near Mount Evans.

Patrick Ireland, a Columbine survivor who was badly injured that day in 1999, spoke about how important forgiveness has been to his healing process.

"The key to forgiveness is to stop focusing on what others have done to us and to focus on all of the good things and blessings of what has been done for us," Ireland said.

Dawn Anna, the mother of Lauren Townsend, one of the students killed, thanked Gov. Polis and Gov. Hickenlooper for attending and acknowledged how difficult it is for some of the families to attend.

"Can it truly be 20 years since I've seen my Lauren? I mean sincerely," Anna said. "... You know, there's a question that all of us have been asked a lot. How are you doing? How are you doing after all this time? It's a valid question. And personally, I need to kind of stop and gut check. How am I doing? How are we doing after 20 years without our loved ones? ... Surviving ...

"You don't get to escape the pain. You simply and bravely face it. Every second of every minute of every day. Surviving takes every breath that you struggle to take. And then, one day you realize it's not so dark. The sun is shining. And you can feel the warmth on your face again."

As KUNC's Senior Editor and Reporter, my job is to find out what’s important to northern Colorado residents and why. I seek to create a deeper sense of urgency and understanding around these issues through in-depth, character driven daily reporting and series work.
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