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Columbine school shooting 20 years later: Victims’ families reflect on what has changed and what hasn’t

Posted at 1:40 PM, Apr 20, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-20 17:14:28-04

(NBC) – Twenty years later, Dawn Anna still saves a seat for her daughter, Lauren Townsend, when she goes to the movies, knowing full well that she won’t show.

Twenty years later, Frank DeAngelis‘ morning mantra consists of reciting the names of 12 students and a teacher he will never see again.

Twenty years later, Tom Mauser literally walks in the size 10½ shoes of his slain son, Daniel, whenever he’s called on to speak about the unspeakable.

For them and for too many others, the massacre at Columbine High School is both past and ever-present, a wound that never really heals because every time somebody with a high-powered weapon unleashes a bloodbath at a school, the scab gets ripped off.

“It seems like every month, there’s a new tragedy of some kind somewhere around,” said Rick Townsend, whose daughter, Lauren, was 18 when she was gunned down. “It just makes you feel sometimes hopeless.”

Columbine has been the target of threats over the last two decades, the most recent incident involving Sol Pais, 18, who authorities said had exhibited an “infatuation” with the shooting. The Florida teenager traveled this week to Colorado, where she bought a gun and fatally shot herself Wednesday as authorities were searching for her.

Experts say copycat shooters often become obsessed with the date of a tragedy that they hope to emulate.

With the 20th anniversary of the mass shooting looming, Townsend and several other grieving parents and survivors sat down with NBC Nightly News to talk about what has changed and what, sadly, has not.

“When there is another school tragedy, which just rips at our hearts every time we see that, the word Columbine will be brought up,” Anna said. “This is an amazingly strong, loving community, and Columbine, that word Columbine, should mean that. United.”

“We know exactly the feeling that these families are gonna feel for the rest of their lives, that hole that’s gonna be in their hearts,” Bruce Beck, Lauren Townsend’s stepfather, said.

Coni Sanders, daughter of Dave Sanders, the slain teacher, said what happened at the Colorado high school changed everything and yet nothing.

“I feel like we have come so far in so many ways, yet we’re still stuck in the same spot,” she said. “I never imagined that we would be where we’re at right now, where there are so many mass shootings that we can’t even keep up … it’s just unfathomable that Columbine wasn’t enough.”

The Washington Post, using law enforcement reports, news articles and various databases, has calculated that as of April 8, more than 226,000 students “have experienced gun violence at school” since Columbine.

Of those, 143 children, teachers and others were killed and another 294 were injured, according to the newspaper’s tally.

The tragedy at Columbine began unfolding at 11:19 a.m. on April 20, 1999, when two troubled students, Dylan Klebold, 17, and Eric Harris, 18, opened fire outside the school, then marched inside, making for the library.

By 11:35 a.m., they had taken 13 lives and wounded more than 20. All their victims were chosen at random, it was later revealed. By noon, both shooters were dead after turning their guns on themselves.

A previously obscure Denver suburb called Littleton was now the epicenter of a national tragedy.

Images of heavily armed SWAT teams descending on a school and the sight of students filing out with their hands up were burned into the national consciousness.

“Columbine played out on TV,” Beck said. “No previous school shooting had done that. There was the unknown of where the shooters were during the entire time that it was being filmed, so I think people connected with Columbine more.”

In the aftermath, many schools beefed up security, began holding lockdown drills, and introduced “zero tolerance” rules meant to thwart massacres by cracking down hard on students who threaten violence.

New programs were developed to prevent bullying and help social outcasts after it emerged that Harris and Klebold, both gifted students, had been picked on for years.

More than a decade later, Klebold’s parents confirmed in a book that their son was an outcast and revealed that police told them during the shooting that he was a suspect.

“And so while every other mother in Littleton was praying that her child was safe, I had to pray that mine would die before he hurt anyone else,” Sue Klebold said in the book “Far From the Tree.”

Sean Graves, one of the survivors, has said in previous interviews that he knew the shooters but was not close to either of them. He said he was across the street from the school with his buddies when the bullets began to fly.

Shot six times and left partially paralyzed, Graves became an inspiration to many when he climbed out of his wheelchair, leaned on a crutch and walked across the stage to collect his high school diploma in 2002.

In anniversaries that followed, Graves would visit the spot where he was shot and light a cigar in memory of his friend, Danny Rohrbough, 15, who was killed there.

“It’s hard to imagine it’s already been 20 years,” a visibly emotional Graves told NBC News. “I was 15 years old when I was shot. … It’s hard for me to picture life, what it was before.”

Graves said everybody who was at Columbine that day was a victim, not just the people who were hit by the gunfire.

“You’ve got people that were physically injured, you got people that lost their lives,” he said. “And you’ve got people that were emotionally scarred for the rest of their lives. And I want people to know that it’s OK to need to heal. Some people never heal. I’ll physically never heal, but emotionally I think that I’m on the right path.”

Graves said he’s both anxious and excited by the anniversary.