Student Well-Being

Columbine Shooting Survivors Form Pen Pal Group for Stoneman Douglas Students: ‘There Is a Way Forward’

By Evie Blad — April 10, 2018 6 min read
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Jami Amo can relate to the grief and trauma students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are feeling after a mass shooting there in February. And she can also anticipate some difficult life experiences they will likely face as their grief and memories age with them.

Every time Amo meets a new person, there comes a point when they ask where she grew up, and she knows a difficult conversation is about to begin. Amo was a freshman at Columbine High School outside of Littleton, Colo., in 1999, when two students planted explosive devices there and shot and killed 12 students and a teacher.

A simple “where are you from?” conversation can quickly take her back to that day. It’s something she wants students at Stoneman Douglas to be prepared for.

“People say ‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ and I never know what to say,” Amo said. “Why do people apologize? It’s not their fault. Do they feel bad that we weren’t the only ones? That it didn’t stop with us?”

Amo is one of about 115 Columbine survivors who’ve signed up to be pen pals with Stoneman Douglas survivors. Organized through networks and Facebook groups for survivors of gun violence, the Columbine alums have also recruited a few of their former teachers to correspond with faculty of the Parkland, Fla., high school.

“We want to show them not that there’s a specific road map, but there is a way forward,” Amo said.

There were school shootings before Columbine, and there have been many since, but it’s hard not to draw parallels between that attack and the one that happened in Parkland. Both were of a scale rarely seen in school attacks—ranking among the 15 deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history—and both happened at high schools, presenting unique challenges and visibility to survivors.

At Columbine, for example, 1999 seniors considered themselves a “lost class,” Amo said. They never returned to school after the April shooting, and spent time processing the event as they headed off to college and post-graduation life. Similarly, seniors in Parkland, where students returned to class two weeks after the shooting, are trying to balance grief and counseling appointments with college plans and year-end tests.

Shortly after the Stoneman Douglas shooting, which left 17 students and educators dead, Amo heard that students there had become active on social media, calling for changes to the nation’s gun laws. Now a mother of three and an advocate for gun restrictions, she re-activated her long dormant Twitter account and started reading their stories. Many of them seemed very familiar. Students spoke of struggling to sleep, pondered if they could have done anything differently that day, and shared detailed and horrific accounts of their experiences in the classrooms of the building 12, where the shooting took place.

Among the budding calls for activism came a request from a Stoneman Douglas student: Would any of his classmates be interested in becoming pen pals with Columbine survivors? Would that even be possible?

Amo replied quickly, offering her help. She remembered the piles of cards and letters that Columbine students received from well-meaning people around the world, but none meant as much to her as messages from people who could relate, including the survivors of some smaller shootings that happened in the years before Columbine. She was eager to offer that to students in Parkland. At the same time, another Columbine survivor began working with another Parkland student to coordinate a pen pal network. The school offered sign ups to interested students this week, and organizers are eager to see how many will participate.

Help Processing Grief and Trauma

Mental-health professionals say people process grief and trauma in a variety of ways. Some may be eager to discuss their experiences, some may be more reserved and hesitant. Most will take a while to move past the initial layers of shock and begin processing the deeper, underlying emotions, like the overarching loss of security they feel after experiencing violence.

Amo has been energized by the work of some of the more visible Parkland students, who helped organize national demonstrations about gun violence. But she recognizes that they are probably struggling in ways the public can’t see. Are they sleepinig enough? Are they talking with someone about their feelings? And there are some 3,300 other Stoneman Douglas students, many of whom are quietly struggling with vivid and difficult memories. She hopes trading some emails with Columbine survivors will help those students process.

“Some people are going to be more ready to talk than others,” Amo said. “Not everybody gets there so quickly. We know that the voices that you’re hearing [in the media] aren’t the extent of the voices. We know that there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that they’re not talking about.”

Amo also has advice for students: Don’t police your own grief. She was in the cafeteria at Columbine when the attack started. For a while, she questioned whether she deserved to feel the pain she did when she wasn’t injured or in the library, where a majority of the shooting took place. But the gunman had planted a bomb in the cafeteria that day, and Amo would have surely died in the blast had it not malfunctioned.

Some Stoneman Douglas students may also be tempted to scrutinize their own pain or the pain of others, Amo said, and they should resist the temptation. No matter how close they were to the building that was hit or how many of the victims they knew, they all experienced something tramatic, she said.

“I really caution people not to assign a value to a trauma,” she said. “A trauma is a trauma. It’s not in hindsight how much trauma you were in, it’s what happened in that moment.”

And she wants them to be aware of tough moments ahead that they might not be expecting, like the pain she feels every time she hears of another mass shooting. There was also the day she was volunteering at her son’s school and watched his class perform a lockdown drill to prepare for the unlikely event of a school shooter. For the first time, her view of school violence shifted from that of a student who was directly affected to that of a parent who hopes her child never will be.

“We know that the real challenge is a year from now, five years from now when people aren’t talking about it,” Amo said of the Columbine survivors. “We want to help them. We will always be 19 years ahead of them.”

Top photo: Grieving students head to a library near Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, where students and faculty members were evacuated after two gunmen went on a shooting rampage at the school in Littleton, Colo. --Kevin Higley/AP-File

Bottom photo:Students embrace one another at a makeshift memorial for their slain classmates on a hilltop overlooking Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 24, 1999. --Bebeto Matthews

Related reading about trauma, grief, and Parkland:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.