LITTLETON, COLORADO - When the shooting started, Austin Eubanks couldn’t process what he was experiencing.
“In 1999, there was no real frame of reference for what high-powered gunfire would sound like in the hallways of a high school, so until I actually saw the perpetrators, I didn’t think that what was happening was real,” says Eubanks, who was a 17-year-old junior at Columbine High School when two students opened fire on their peers 20 years ago this month on April 20, 1999.
Eubanks hid under a table in the school library alongside best friend Corey DePooter and watched as one of the teen shooters fired his semi-automatic weapon at DePooter, killing him almost instantly. Eubanks sustained bullet wounds to the hand and knee.
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Former Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis remembers rushing into the school corridor.
“Coming out of my office, I encountered the gunman who was about 100 yards away and shots being fired, and literally my life was flashing in front of me. And I just kept thinking what it was going to feel like to feel a bullet pierce my body,” he says.
When the shooting ended, 12 students and one teacher were dead. The two student gunmen, who’d been seniors at the Littleton, Colorado, school, had also committed suicide. The incident was the first mass school shooting in the United States and remains one of the deadliest.
While Eubanks, DeAngelis and others survived the massacre, no one associated with the attack on Columbine emerged unscathed.
Samantha Haviland was 16 when Columbine happened. She was near one or both of the gunmen during their rampage as they shot at her friends in the school hallway but cannot remember whether she actually saw them. What she does remember is how everything suddenly changed.
“I was a busy kid. I was in sports. I was on the speech team and plays. I worked. I was a volunteer at church. And suddenly, all of that stopped,” Haviland says. “And I think that really messed me up a little bit that I didn’t have anything that was normal. The PTSD developed rather slowly, I think. There were some immediate markers that I had — nightmares, people shooting at me, people chasing me in my dreams.”
Many Columbine survivors suffered serious mental health effects and still struggle to keep symptoms of post-traumatic stress and anxiety under control. DeAngelis sought mental health counseling shortly after the tragedy and encouraged his staff to do the same.
“I was in a bad place. I wasn’t sleeping. I had reoccurring nightmares,” DeAngelis says. “You know, I felt so much guilt. ... Those are my kids. I’m the principal of that school. They walk into my school, they’re supposed to be safe. I’m supposed to protect them.”
By the third year after the shootings, English teacher Paula Reed was having trouble coping.
“I was breaking into hives whenever I walked into the building. My hair was falling out,” says Reed, who retired from teaching at Columbine just last year. “I was suicidal by the end of that third year, which is why I took two years off.”
'Counseling didn't work'
Reed says counseling did not work for her. Instead, she turned to writing historical romance novels.
“I decided that facing your demons is vastly overrated,” she recalls. “So writing romance novels, No. 1, gave me absolute control over the universe. Nothing happened that I didn’t make happen. And good people got rewarded, and bad people got their just desserts, and it always had a happy ending.”
Reed returned to teaching after her break, but certain triggers can still set her back, including fire drills and other school shootings like last year's attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 students and faculty members were murdered.
"I lost it big time,” she says. “I had to pop a Lorazepam. Didn't go to school the next day. I could not get it together."
Haviland is now director of counseling for Denver County Schools. She didn't seek mental health counseling until a decade later — after almost losing control during a lockdown drill at the school where she worked as a counselor.
“Two boys I did not know tried to kill me, and tried to kill me multiple times in a short period of time,” she says. “I can't let that define me in any way, shape or form. That was about them. That's not about me."
"The reality of a school shooting can be terribly traumatic,” says psychologist Donald Freedheim, who has worked with Red Cross disaster response teams and people in trauma situations. “It's how children cope with stress that determines how they're going to live in the future."
Addiction and recovery
An inability to cope proved devastating for Austin Eubanks, who abused pain medication during his recovery in an effort to dull his emotional distress. Almost a dozen years of drug addiction followed.
Now recovered, Eubanks travels the country educating people about addiction and recovery and says his biggest mistake was to withdraw from all human connection after Columbine.
"I chose to get a private tutor my senior year instead of going back to school. I missed out on a lot of the collective healing that the student body experienced in their senior year,” he says. “I remember going through the stages of grief at age 29 that I should have been going through at ages 17 and 18, because I had basically pressed a pause button on my emotional healing with substances."
Today, the survivors are not only united by the experience they shared at Columbine, but also by their anger and disbelief that school shootings have practically become an expected part of American life.
Just this week, Columbine and several other schools were closed after a threat of violence by an 18-year-old Florida woman, who was later found dead of an apparent suicide.
“It is a complex sociological problem that is going to require people coming together to create meaningful reforms. I’m angry that that hasn’t happened,” Eubanks says. “And now, we have a generation of youth that we’re just teaching to hide better.”
“We’re reminding them monthly that they’re not safe, and they’ve started doing this in preschool,” says Haviland, referring to lockdown drills. “So, they’ve got 4 and 5 year olds that know to hide from bad people. Isn’t that nuts?”