Published Online: December 18, 2012

First Person

'I Want to Help': A Teacher and Columbine Survivor Speaks Out

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is Katie Coleen Micek Lyles and I want to be part of the solution to end school violence. I feel I am qualified to be part of this solution because I offer the insight of a teacher, a survivor of school violence, and a person with knowledge of school policy and reform.

Sunday night, I listened to President Obama’s message to the nation as he spoke in Newtown, Conn. He expressed so much of how I feel. I believe we are failing our kids. We are not doing enough. If unspeakable violence continues to occur at schools and we have the audacity to say we are doing enough, then shame on us. I wept in the arms of my husband last night, watching this speech. I wept for those who have died. I wept for those who survived, for those who lost their loved ones, and for all of those who lost their innocence. I wept for the Sandy Hook school community as they begin the endless journey of recovery that shakes even the deepest faiths. I wept out of fear and hopelessness for our nation. I wept for those who believe that this is still a matter of "chance and circumstance" and those that say that this is acceptable—because it has never directly affected them.

And then I had a moment of clarity that made me weep even harder. I feel called on right now more then I have ever before. I realize that my life has led me to this moment and that I must take action to be part of the solution. President Obama said he wanted to bring together counselors, experts, and educators in the next few weeks to work on making schools a safer place to learn. I know that I must be part of this team.

At age 16, my innocence was shattered when two gunmen murdered many and injured countless others at my school. Columbine High School, like any school, promised to be a safe and secure place of learning. And that promise was broken on April 20, 1999. Now, almost 14 years later, things have changed to keep students safe, but not to the point where tragedy is prevented. On Dec. 14, 2012, unspeakable horror was brought against children at another school. This tragedy has scraped off the scabs of healing and has exposed my heart, along with the nation’s. I believe we are at a crucial moment in the history of our schools. We are at crossroads where we can make a distinct choice to enact drastic and sweeping changes about how we keep our kids safe, or we can wait and hope that our school will not be next.

As a teacher of eight years, I do not feel safe in my own school. If we cannot create a safe environment for our children to learn in, how can we even begin to meet their needs? I believe I cannot in good conscience sit by and let others figure this out. I must take action out of respect for the students at my own school, out of respect for my families’ children, and out of respect for the nation’s children. I have declined to speak publicly about school violence to protect myself for so many years. I have been blessed to be surrounded by so many who "check in" with me whenever something tragic happens with schools and mass shootings. I am so tired of hugs and tears, and looks of pity and sympathy. I am so tired of grief counselors being "on call." I am so tired of hearing debates about why the person of violence did what he did, rather than focusing on the victims. I am so tired of people thinking inside the box, thinking that the same actions will produce different results.

Because of this, I want to help. I want to be part of the solution rather than complaining and offering ideas to my small circle of friends who offer ideas, too, but it is all in theory, and not put into action. I want our children to be kept as safe as money in a bank or diamonds in a jewelry store. Surely our future is much more important than these material items … but when looking at the differences in security measures between banks and schools, it does not appear so.

Frank DeAngelis, the principal at Columbine, was recently interviewed on NPR, and he said that Sandy Hook is unfortunately part of an exclusive club that no one wants to be a part of: those who are affected by school violence. I, too, am a member of this club, and though my world includes many others who are like me, we are still (fortunately) a rarity in the nation as a whole. Because of this, I feel like those of us who are affected by school violence need to stand up and let our voices be heard. We offer authentic firsthand experience that cannot be recounted by “experts” in the field, or statisticians digesting data. I want to be part of the solution to end this war against our children’s learning and innocence.

Thank you for your time and your partnership to protect our nation’s future.

—Katie Lyles

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