The 20th anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., occurs Saturday, just two months after the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
There have been other school shootings, of course, both before Columbine and after Parkland, not to mention too many in between. But those two events are particularly seared into the national psyche. Parkland at one year out is still sorting out the narratives, the lessons, the legal questions, and more. It will be more than two years before all the students who were on the campus on Feb. 14, 2018, when a gunman killed 17 and wounded others, have graduated.
At Columbine, where 13 students and teachers were killed by the two students who then killed themselves on April 20, 1999, the students who were freshmen that year graduated in 2002.
One of those freshman was Laura Farber, who went on to become a cable-TV producer and now a documentary filmmaker. Her first film is “We Are Columbine,” which played at film festivals last year and in limited theatrical release recently and is now available for sale or rental on Apple’s iTunes.
Farber’s film focuses on four of her fellow members of the Columbine High School Class of 2002—what they did on the day of the attack, how they coped afterward, and what they are up to now.
There’s Gus, the Spanish-speaking slacker who was into smoking pot and avoiding the frequent school assemblies where students gushed over the chant of “We Are ... Columbine!”
There’s Jaimi, the multi-sport athlete who treasured her freshman year friendships; and Zach, a soccer standout who lived steps away from the high school. “On April 19 , all I was concerned about was what clothes to wear and how my hair looked.”
The fourth freshman is Amy, who kept a detailed calendar of her school activities and now recalls that everything about her school experience is colored by the mass shooting.
“All I think of [about] my high school experience is the Columbine High School Shootings,” Amy says in the film. “That’s my high school experience.”
Also featured in the documentary are Kiki Leyba, an English teacher then and now who knew Farber and her fellow student subjects, and Frank DeAngelis, the principal of Columbine High during the tragedy, who ended up staying 15 years until his retirement in 2014. (DeAngelis spoke to Education Week for this Commentary Q-and-A that was published this week.)
Much of the 1 hour, 20 minute film is one of the students, or DeAngelis or Leyba, talking into the camera. That can be stultifying in many documentaries, but is refreshingly peaceful here. Farber includes a minimum of news clips of the Columbine shooting. This is not the film for examining all the details (there are plenty of other sources for that), but the documentary does pay attention to the basic failure of police to enter the building to engage the killers and evacuate students and staff members. (The consequences of that, as we now know, were deadly.)
Three of the freshmen subjects were able to exit the building early during the massacre, making them relatively lucky, though it turns out that one or two of them had been seated at a table where the killers left a bag of explosives that never went off. Jaimi, meanwhile, had a tense wait of several hours before learning that her sister had also escaped unharmed. Outside, not realizing the magnitude of the shootings, Zach asked a police officer when he thought they might be able to go back to class. “That seems so stupid now,” he says.
Gus faced the trauma of hours locked in a classroom, with the fire alarm blaring and students wondering whether the killers would enter. And then the classroom door jiggled.
“That was the specific moment when I made my peace,” Gus recalls. But it was a police SWAT team, not the killers. The class of students was safe, but not before a traumatic exit from the building with their arms held above their heads.
If any of Farber’s student subjects were close with those who died, it isn’t discussed in the documentary. But the freshmen had their own traumas to deal with, including the ravenous news media and later tour buses that would drive by their high school. Some returned to the high school for the first time since graduation for the documentary, and Farber says in a video clip on the film’s website that she was so torn up over her return to Columbine that she was vomiting in the parking lot.
The four freshmen are now 34 or 35. One is a musician. Another is a social worker, and one is a nurse. And one is a teacher—at Columbine High School. (There are five teachers there who were students during the mass shooting, we learn.)
In an anniversary week whose natural anxiety was raised by the reports of a woman who may have sought to do further harm to the school community, “We Are Columbine” provides 80 minutes of hope.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.