Since the Columbine High School shooting took the lives of 13 people in 1999, nearly 200,000 students have experienced a shooting at their school.
For Jami Amo, who was a 15-year-old Columbine student at the time, that has meant reliving the horror from her childhood over and over again. “There’s a lot of things the time hasn’t changed,” she said.
But after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last month, Amo felt as though something was different. The students, having experienced something very similar to what she went through 19 years ago, were using their platform to speak out in favor of stricter gun control.
“When I see the Parkland kids, it’s inspiring,” said Amo, herself a gun violence prevention activist, in an interview with Vox. “There’s also an element of concern for them. Are they eating? Are they sleeping? Are they talking to a counselor ... they’re experiencing so much inside that nobody else necessarily gets to see.”
Then the Rebels Project, a group for survivors of mass shootings, contacted Amo to say that students at Stoneman Douglas, including senior Carmen Lo, wanted to start a pen pal program between Columbine survivors and Parkland students. Amo began reaching out to her former classmates, to encourage them to participate.
The following is a transcript of a phone conversation between Lo and Amo, in which the two survivors trade questions and share advice about how to deal with the repercussions of a particularly American kind of tragedy. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
People say that time heals all wounds, but how is the healing process for you, as it’s been 19 years since Columbine?
There’s a lot of things the time hasn’t changed. But 19 years later, it’s not as fresh. The shock is gone. You have time to really process, to go through different stages of grief, not just in terms of literal life loss but normalcy lost, the innocence lost.
When you’re high school, that’s kind of your whole world. And when it gets turned upside down, it takes a while for that to sink in. So as we go through the years, you’ll have hard days and have better days. Some years will be better than others. But in the long term, yeah, there is the potential for healing and peace. But it’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint.
For a lot of us in this time, whenever someone asks what school are you from, we’ll say Douglas, and people won’t know how to react to us. What reactions do you get when people ask you what your alma mater is? Do they still treat you differently?
It was still very much the same when I still lived in Colorado. After I moved to Pennsylvania, though, [people would ask] where I went to high school and I would say, “I’m from Colorado.” That would be the end of the conversation. But then when it would come up that I went to Columbine, you could see the jaws drop and you could hear the gasps. It’s like when you see a wreck on the side of the road. You can tell there’s interest and there’s always questions.
Columbine hasn’t been in the news as much anymore, but when it is, I still hear from people. They still attach me to that. Nineteen years later, that part is never going to go away. And I’m sorry for that. But I hope that what we’re doing, what you guys have started, is changing the dialogue. Now people can say, “Good for you,” because you worked to make all of these changes, hopefully.
If you don’t mind me asking, did you lose anyone close to you? How did you cope with that? For me personally, I was close with Carmen Schentrup [a Douglas senior who was killed in the shooting]. Right now it’s difficult to think about it, and I think about her every day. How do you go about dealing with those thoughts and feelings?
None of my closest friends were killed; my family was intact. One of the victims I had classes with since kindergarten. I had friends in my grade whose siblings were killed. Especially in a community like high school, people are all connected. It was like throwing a rock into the pond and the ripples spread out.
All that being said, it was hard for me to watch what other people were going through. They had lost their brother, sister, girlfriend. That’s hard no matter the context, and to do it in the public eye is even harder.
For us, it felt like there was never going to be any justice for any of the victims because our shooters had killed themselves. That part might be different for you guys — not that anything is ever going to make it better or make it right again — but there may be some semblance of justice that brings closure to you guys.
What I wish I had done more of is really try to collect the memories of the people we lost. At the time, it was all so fresh. You could think of all of these moments you shared together. But 19 years later, that stuff is gone. There’s just a few bits and pieces left.
So how is it going back to school? How was it going back to what they call “normal”? I’m a senior, so I’m going to be leaving in a couple of months. But a lot of the underclassmen, a lot of them are still going to be in the school. That building is going to most likely stay there for the next several years. The security is just crazy now. It’s just hard doing the different things after school. Now they’re imposing new rules, like the clear backpacks [to allow easy inspection] and IDs.
It is so hard to be in that space where you literally can’t avoid the physical reminders of what happened. For people who should be taking a class in the building [where the shooting happened] — and you can’t right now — that’s especially hard. It can be challenging to be in an environment where everything is pretty much the same, but at the same time, everything is totally different.
And of course the media wants to capture every moment. While it’s easy to understand why there is an interest there, it’s also hard to balance the desire for privacy. I hope that your community will continue to ask them for privacy and respect and to let you guys get back to normal.
Everything has changed, but some days will feel normal. You’ll have assemblies and laughter, and there will be fun again. But there’s always going to be, in the back of people’s minds, a guilt that you get to go on and the others don’t. And that’s part of the new normal, realizing that you can’t take for granted all the little things anymore. As a community, I hope you will find strength in each other.
It’s really crazy that the underclassmen have to stay in that environment. For a lot of people, it’s pretty hard focusing in school now. Some are forced to stay in those classrooms where maybe they hid in the closets. They are stuck in that environment and can’t get out. Then the media is always following them, especially with “the movement,” and it’s 24/7 along with security.
Can we compare the differences in reactions between what happened at your school and my school? I know that you guys were the “first” mass school shooting, and of course, you guys are no longer the worst one, which is just crazy to think about: 19 years later, we’re still dealing with this issue.
There’s a lot of conflicting feelings about that. What happened to us, our community in particular, was really devastated and totally shocked. But the reality is that it can happen anywhere. And the safety that we live in is really nothing more than an illusion. That’s sad.
Nineteen years ago, it was shocking to a big portion of the country. There was a lot of outrage. We felt like politicians were on our side. When they said they wanted to help, we thought they meant that. It’s been frustrating that all this time later, obviously we’re not really better off than we were.
In terms of the reactions of the students, though, the difference is massive. There’s absolutely no doubt that what you guys have done in response to your tragedy, how you’ve taken charge of your narrative — there’s a lot of people who are really inspired by it.
So how did your views change, if they did, after what happened at Columbine?
I was only 15 years old. I hadn’t given any thought to politics. After [Columbine] it became apparent that we need to do something with gun control. When no meaningful legislation happened after our shooting, a lot of us became jaded and cynical.
We just accepted the scale of the battle and accepted that this wasn’t going to be solved in one year or five years. We’re getting to a point now where I hope this year, we can see things are different as a direct result of the response that you guys have called for. For me personally, I have become much more involved with my legislators, I’m speaking at the march here in Philadelphia. So that part is different. My feelings are the same, but my willingness to act out on it has really changed as a result of what you guys are saying. Thank you for that.
For the most part, people in my school are for commonsense gun laws. Being that you are also a survivor, what do you want to see done?
I would like to see more people acknowledge that gun ownership is a privilege. It shouldn’t be a blanket right, with no exceptions, no limitations. I don’t think that’s appropriate with where we are in our society today. I wish more people would take that seriously. But change is coming. People are going to be voting in November to choose candidates who support that.
Are you guys doing okay? Are you taking care of yourselves and trying to sleep? Are you staying hydrated?
We’re as good as we can be. I mean, obviously, the wound is still very fresh. It’s only been a month, but there’s just so much to do. I think a lot of people were in shock at the beginning and in denial. Like you said, a lot of people just don’t think it’s ever going to happen to them. But the reality of it is it can happen anywhere, at any time.
The worst part of it is that a lot of people thought that this was a drill because we had been preparing for that. After that, I think everyone kind of turned their sadness into their anger and their activism. I think the sadness comes and goes for a lot of people. I know a lot of people are having difficulty focusing while they’re in class. But I think they’re really trying to push through.
It’s interesting you said you thought it was a drill because when it happened to us, I was in the elevator, and one of the boys said to me that it was probably just a senior prank, that it wasn’t anything to worry about. Then the hallway was full of smoke and you could hear gunshots. It became very obvious that it wasn’t a senior prank.
I hope that you are taking the time to experience your feelings, even the painful ones. It’s [also] okay to let it go and focus on something that makes you feel better. And you guys have your activism. You have memories of your friends that you can focus on. I think that’s important to try and balance your feelings with what you have to do and what you want to do.
A common sentiment was that what happened to us wasn’t that bad. What did I need counseling for? But what I know now, 19 years later, is that this is traumatic for everyone who was there.
Take the time and be patient with yourself and with one another. When you see somebody struggling, let them know that it’s okay if they need help to reach out. I know there’s a lot of resources right now. They’re not gonna be there in five years, 10 years, 20 years. It’s hard to find a counselor that you can connect with, but if you can find one, processing all of this in a healthy way is going to benefit you in the long run. There’s a lot more information about how to accomplish that now than there was 19 years ago.
We’re more united as a school and a community now more than ever before. It’s really nice to be able to talk to anyone about it; even strangers in school will come up and hug you now. We’re really appreciative of the staff and administration. The therapy dogs really actually do help. The dogs just come by, and everyone in the hallways will pet it and everyone has a smile on their face again.
There’s a lot of people that are on your side. People like me, we’ve been wanting change for such a long time. We’re cautiously optimistic, and it’s because of how you guys have changed the dialogue.
One thing I know some of us are curious about: As a student who has studied [school shootings] in this country going back to Columbine, how do you — I don’t put any words in your mouth — feel about our response compared to your response? The actions we did and didn’t take?
I definitely wouldn’t blame it on any survivors, on any students. I definitely don’t think it’s their fault. I don’t want to play the blame game, but I mean, if I had to say what we think we are kind of disappointed that it’s taken so long for action to be taken. And that legislators, even to this point, won’t support us and what we’re seeking. We really hope that after this, change can be made.
There are some of us who feel, and it’s not helpful, but we wonder: What if we had done more? What if we had been a vocal as you guys are being? We didn’t have social media, and we were very much at the beck and call of the media. They could print or air whatever they wanted, and we didn’t have a say. That led to some really mixed feelings about the media in our community.
But still, some of us wonder [whether] if we had done more, maybe we wouldn’t still be in that situation. I just wanted you to know that there is very much a feeling like that among other survivors. It’s angering to feel that people have grown complacent with it and they just accept it as part of the risk that comes with living in a free country. We don’t agree with that.
I just hope you know that it’s not that we didn’t try. It’s not that we didn’t speak out. It’s just that nobody listened.
You guys were just kids at the time. And this had never happened before. How would you guys know how to react to that? I don’t see this as your fault.
For us, I think because we’ve grown up with social media and it’s so easy for us to communicate with people across the country and around the world, that’s really been one of the most beneficial things for us. We’re able to utilize what we’ve grown up with to our advantage to get the word out and to spread the message.