Columbine survivors still waiting for change 20 years later
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Austin Eubanks has been answering questions about “that day” for the past 20 years.
“I would say memories like that don’t ever really leave you,” Eubanks said Thursday while traveling from New York City to Indianapolis for speaking and media appearances. “It’s still with me today.”
The Columbine High School graduate, who lived in Steamboat Springs for several years and served as chief operating officer of The Foundry Treatment Center, has been open about what he experienced inside the school library on April 20, 1999. In fact, he has told the story so many times the details have become all too routine.
“It’s sometimes difficult for me,” said Eubanks, who was a junior at the time of the shooting. “I’ve told the story so many times … It’s so robotic when I reiterate this story that I don’t even feel like it does justice to the magnitude of that tragedy anymore.”
Saturday will mark the 20th anniversary of the day when two shooters, both Columbine High School students, entered the school with semi-automatic weapons, sawed-off shotguns, bombs and knives.
On the day of the shooting, Eubanks had just met his good friend Corey DePooter in the library when they heard loud noises that they first dismissed as fireworks they thought might be associated with a senior prank.
However, when a teacher ran into the library and told the students to hide under tables, they realized the situation was serious.
The shooting left 12 students and one teacher dead and many others seriously injured. DePooter was shot and killed by one of the gunmen as he hid under the table. Eubanks, who was laying next to his friend, was shot twice but survived.
In another part of the school, Beth Lavely, who now lives in North Routt and is the program coordinator for Routt to Work, was in biology class.
“We heard loud noises,” said Lavely, who was a sophomore at the time. “It sounded like when you are going down the track on a wooden roller coaster. There were lots of popping noises and yelling. I remember students running by our classroom and someone yelling that there were gunmen. “
Lavely hid in a large closet with her teacher and 33 other students. They remained in the confined space for four hours knowing the gunmen could walk through the unlocked door at anytime. They could hear gunshots, explosions and the killers running up and down the halls, laughing and yelling that they wanted to “kill the world,” Lavely said. Several times, bullets flew through a window in the classroom and hit filing cabinets.
“We were just petrified,” Lavely recalls. “We had to be real quiet. I remember that I was pushed against a table, and I couldn’t move. I was scared to move because of the noise it would make.”
The students were eventually discovered in the closet by SWAT team members and led outside past all the death and destruction. They were questioned by law enforcement officers, loaded onto buses and taken to a nearby elementary school where they were reunited with anxious family members.
“The one thing I will never forget in my life is the face of my father as he was looking for me in all of the windows of the buses we were on,” Lavely said.
In the days, years and decades that have followed Columbine, Lavely and Eubanks have had to deal with the trauma of that day and how it impacted their lives.
“Too often, we talk about what happens in the four hours or the 24 hours around a tragedy,” Lavely said, “but not what happens in the year, the five years or the 10 years after.”
The survivors also recognize that the Columbine shooting changed the world in which we live.
Schools, once a place where students felt safe, have become targets. Today, lockout, lockdown and active shooter drills are commonplace at schools in Colorado and across the U.S.
“None of us had any idea that it was going to be the tipping point for what is now a cultural phenomenon,” Eubanks said. “We now have 20 years of steadily building examples of this since Columbine — not just with school shootings, but with mass shootings in general. Looking back, Columbine was really the catalyst that started all of that.”
Those changes can be seen in Steamboat where visitors are required to check in at local schools to get past the front office and where students learn to react to threatening situations the same way they used to run through fire drills.
But survivors, like Eubanks, are not convinced that is the answer.
“Instead of coming together to work on eradicating the issue for future generations, we are simply trying to teach kids how to hide better in active shooter drills,” Eubanks said. “In a lot of ways, we have desensitized and, in some way, traumatized entire generations of youth because we are basically normalizing this.”
Eubanks thinks there needs to be more change.
“The biggest frustration I have is, that when a tragedy like this occurs, by in large, we fracture into one of two camps — either gun legislation or mental health,” Eubanks said. “The fact is both play an enormous role in this.
“There is an issue in our culture in the way we are educating and socializing youth that’s creating a detached, disconnected, depressed, lonely, isolated population of youth, and those are the ones that are breeding these perpetrators,” Eubanks continued. “Then, when you add in accessibility of weapons, specifically weapons that are intended to kill large amounts of people in a very short period of time, it’s no wonder that we are where we are at.”
Lavely also has spent the past 20 years waiting for change.
“I’m actually really angry that we have resigned ourselves into accepting active shooter drills and ‘shush’ drills over actually creating effective gun legislation and addressing issues around mental health,” she said. “Gun violence extends into other things that have resulted in xenophobic and racist attacks on churches and mosques and nightclubs.”
In Steamboat Springs, change can be witnessed in the way law enforcement and schools now interact.
“I remember being glued to the television,” Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen said of watching the news report following the shooting at Columbine. “We knew that our world had changed. From a professional standpoint, it impacted us in how we view school safety, and we are constantly trying to learn and do things differently.”
Schools also responded by focusing more on student safety and campus security measures.
“I remember hearing about it and watching the events on television in my office horrified about what I was seeing,” said Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Brad Meeks. “It definitely changed the game. All of us in education understand that this can happen anywhere, and it causes all of us to look at areas of vulnerability in our buildings and what type of training do we get for staff. We changed everything.”
Today, Meeks said the public will find more security at school entrances and a heightened level of awareness about people entering the building. School resource officers have a larger presence, and buildings are being designed differently.
“I’m an optimist,” Christensen said. “I see a day when we don’t have to do this, but I don’t have an easy solution. If it was easy, we would have solved it by now.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.
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