The threat of school violence is all too real for me. As a school administrator’s wife, at two different public systems, I’ve lived through a bomb threat and lock down with my husband inside the endangered buildings. Yet as a journalist, there is no violent episode more personally memorable than the one that occurred in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. Fifteen years ago, employed as a west central Ohio television reporter, I was horrified by the live footage of bloodied bodies being transported on gurneys from Columbine High School that afternoon. What we were witnessing was one of the firsts in school violence. Sadly, now I fear the public is almost hardened to horrific scenes of mayhem at learning institutions. Like the one that recently occurred on April 9, 2014, when a 16-year-old boy in Murraysville, Pa., stabbed 20 fellow students and a security guard.
Unfortunately, April has a history of violence. For example, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. On the same date, 47 years later more than 1500 crewmen and passengers perished with the Titanic. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis on April 4, 1968, and the Oklahoma City Bombing claimed 168 victims on April 19, 1995. On April 16, 2007, tragedy struck on the campus of Virginia Tech, when a student killed 32 individuals, while wounding 17 others, before taking his own life. Last April 15th, 2013, two brothers exploded bombs at the Boston Marathon resulting in 3 deaths and about 260 individuals being injured.
April 20, 1889, is also the birth date of German Dictator Adolph Hitler who led a murderous regime of cruelty resulting in the deaths of more than six million Jewish people, and millions of other individuals. There has been some speculation that it was Hitler’s birthday that might have motivated the Columbine tragedy on the same date 110 years later. But we will never know for sure.
One thing I do recall is that as television commentators shared the biographies of the victims back then, I was drawn to the photo of a blue-eyed, blonde teenager named Cassie Bernall. While 17-year-old Cassie was studying in the school library, gunmen Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris conducted their bloody rampage leaving 13 dead and 23 wounded, before turning their guns on themselves. Nationwide, there were reports that one of the killers pointed a gun at Cassie and asked her if she believed in God. When she answered, “Yes,” he fired, sending her into eternity.
Did this conversation really happen? We can’t be certain, but what we do know is that Cassie did not always ‘believe.’ Before a radical faith conversion, she dabbled in witchcraft, and was obsessed with suicide. According to a statement issued by her parents at her funeral, “….It was for her strong faith in God and His promise of eternal life that she made her stand.” In a generation where there seem to be no absolutes or steadfast conviction, it inspires me that a teenager sacrificed her life for what she believed. Following the Columbine tragedy, Cassie Bernall became a modern day martyr memorialized in t-shirts, books, and song lyrics, spreading the message, “Yes, I believe.”
Beside Cassie’s courageous story, there is the tale of 17-year-old Rachel Joy Scott, who was the first student to lose her life that day at Columbine. “Rachel left a legacy of reaching out to those who were different, who were picked on by others, or who were new at her school,” this according to the Website Rachel’s Challenge, which is the national organization founded in the slain teen’s honor dedicated to preventing bullying in schools. There was great good that came from the tragedy at Columbine as Rachel’s Challenge based on her prolific writings has reached millions of students across the country. Rachel really did leave us with quite a challenge. In her own words, “I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same. People will never know how far a little kindness can go.”
With education, conscious effort, and a little faith, we have the opportunity to transform April’s legacy from one of senseless violence to that of random kindness and courageous conviction.