Echoes from Inside the Tragedy
By Carolyn Lunsford Mears, PhD
I first became interested in sharing voices of experience after the shootings at Columbine High School, where my son, a sophomore there at the time, lived through the rampage that has forever changed our quiet community.
On April 20, 1999, the peace of a gentle spring morning in Littleton, Colorado was shattered when two heavily armed students entered Columbine High School, prepared to cause maximum destruction and death. The gunmen had been planning the attack for more than a year and in a matter of minutes murdered twelve students and one teacher before taking their own lives in the school library. Twenty-four injured students and faculty were transported to six local hospitals, and 160 were treated at the scene and released. Over 2,000 students and several hundred faculty, staff, and parents who were in the building were directly exposed to the assault and the chaos that ensued during the rescue phase. Countless others in the community—parents, students, faculty of nearby schools, crisis responders, neighbors, clergy, and others throughout the Denver area—were also deeply affected.
How could this be happening in this safe, comfortable middle-class neighborhood, in a high school noted for academic excellence; where arts, music, and theater were prized; where parent involvement was without equal, and graduation rates were among the highest in the state. It was simply inconceivable, and yet it had happened . . . here, at Columbine.
After the shootings, advice and offers of support came pouring in from well-intentioned people around the country; however, not everything that was offered was needed, and in fact in some cases it turned out to be detrimental. We appreciated what everyone was trying to do, but, as my friends and I often noted, people just didn’t get it. They were trying to understand a situation with limited knowledge of the ongoing trauma that made their simple solutions (just get over it, don’t think about it) impossible. It was clear that the stories of what happens in families and communities after a shooting were not known elsewhere. I decided that one way others might “get it” would be for someone inside the community to take on the task of communicating across the boundary of experience. I wanted to collect and share stories, not in the way that a journalist might report those accounts, but as evocative stories that revealed multiple perspectives into this very complex yet personal tragedy on a human level. I wanted the voices of lived experience to put faces on lifeless generalities about what should be done and what “those” people needed. I decided that if I wanted our experiences to be taken seriously, I needed to do more than collect stories, I needed to conduct research.
To prepare for this effort, I enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Denver and completed a dissertation into the aftermath of the shootings. The study, Experiences of Columbine Parents: Finding a Way to Tomorrow (2005) was named Dissertation of the Year by the American Educational Research Association, not only for its findings but also for its development of a distinctly new research approach that valued and elevated voices so they could evoke deeper understanding.
That approach introduced a distinctly new way to gather, corroborate, and share narrative data, and will be considered in future postings to this website. For now, I’d like to share from the narratives of the six parents who contributed to my study.
Part II of this treatise is an excerpt from the “Columbine Mosaic,” which I created by reducing pages of interview transcripts into the elemental and evocative soul of the experience.
Powerful expression, when honed to its core, with transitions and softening language removed, makes urgent the message in a way that demands attention and respect.
END OF PART I – Go to Part II