Back in April 1999, I was at the FBI Headquarters in Quantico trying to make sense of the Columbine tragedy. As a newly recruited FBI visiting scholar, I had a front-row seat to watch everything unfold from a law enforcement perspective. I didn’t understand how children could be influenced in such a way that they could become victims and people who could offend at the same time—and that the adults in the room were going to miss that. It led me to shift my career so I could dedicate my life to helping children and families as technology changed our world.
22 years later, what exactly have we learned about school violence, students’ motives, and mental health? In a recent op-ed featured in USA Today, I discussed my experience during and following Columbine, how and what kids share online, and current trends in school violence and student mental health. But what about those who personally experienced the Columbine tragedy? How are they doing 22 years later?
I recently interviewed American author and activist Sue Klebold for the premiere episode of my new podcast, “The Point With Dr. Lisa Strohman.” If her last name sounds familiar, that’s because her son, Dylan Klebold, was one of the Columbine shooters. Since the tragedy, Klebold has shared her story and the signs of mental health concerns she missed in Dylan in her book, A Mother's Reckoning. She strives to help others, sharing her insight about the traumas and challenges teenagers go through, ways to detect mental distress, and resources for suicide prevention.
“As I look back on the things I regret as a mother, the thing that I regret most is those moments when I was so busy trying to guide and influence, that I don’t feel that I adequately listened. I don’t think I just shut up enough and just let my children tell me what their feelings were,” said Klebold. She also shared what she believes is the point of her journey, saying, “Don’t be afraid to ask if someone is having suicidal thinking.”
I also recently had the opportunity to interview Eric Ebling, a deputy sheriff with Jefferson County in Colorado who currently serves as an SRO at Columbine High School. Back in 1999, Ebling was a 16-year-old high school junior at a neighboring school district when the Columbine attack occurred. His girlfriend at the time, who attended Columbine High School, was shot during the attack. Just three days prior, they had attended prom together at the school.
This event ended up being a calling for Ebling into his role. “I always knew I wanted to be a school resource officer, never really imagined it could be here—really at ground zero for what we now know as school safety,” he said. Ebling’s personal trauma led him into his career path, but news of student safety incidents travels much faster today than it did in 1999. While it took some time to learn the details of the day back then, Ebling learns about incidents occurring at nearby schools almost instantly. “Now, we hear about things happening in neighboring school districts within minutes because of social media, phones, text messages,” said Ebling.
22 years after the Columbine tragedy, we still feel the effects of that day. Whether it’s a greater consideration for student mental health, school safety initiatives, or more awareness of what students are doing online, that day had a profound impact. We’ve learned just how much students are struggling, but we’ve also learned how to listen and help. By working together and staying vigilant, we can watch out for the early warning signs to help keep our kids safe.