Today was a very scary day.
I was sitting in my Spanish class, reading through my notes on the class’s vocabulary, when I randomly chose to open Twitter. I often open Twitter and come across news that isn’t good, and can be very disappointing. But this time it was very different.
Almost 20 school districts in the Denver metro area had been closed today. And when I see the notifications that I get from Denver Public Schools that school is closed, it’s always because there’s a snow day. But this was different. Schools were closed today because the superintendents of those 19 districts determined that they couldn’t guarantee student safety.
That has never happened before.
Never before have all the Denver metro school districts closed their doors because of safety concerns. I don’t think one district on its own has ever done that, except for maybe Jefferson County schools the day of the Columbine shooting. But that shooting, that history, today sparked a fear in myself, and in so many other Coloradans, that hasn’t been felt in nearly 20 years.
A young woman from Florida, with obvious mental health concerns, flew to Colorado on Monday, purchased a shotgun and ammunition, and threatened to attack Columbine High School in Littleton, nearly 20 years to the day of the shooting at that school that killed 12 students and a teacher and began the era of school shootings that today, more than ever, we are in the midst of. Considered armed and “extremely dangerous”, those 19 school districts closed their doors and told students to stay home as law enforcement launched into a manhunt for this woman.
Being scared today was something new to me altogether. I’ve had school cancelled many times over the course of my education. We had nearly 1 snow day a year, every year. One year, a norovirus outbreak closed my high school for 3 days. This year, schools have been closed for back-to-back snow days after a bomb cyclone, and many Denver students didn’t attend classes for 3 days due to a teacher strike.
But this morning, as I woke up at 9:30 to the Connecticut shining in my window, an hour and a half earlier, back in Colorado, my mom had quietly opened the door to my sister’s bedroom, and turned off her 6:30 alarm. If my sister had woken up as my mom did that, she would’ve asked why school was cancelled, very curious as to why, with the only snow on the ground being over a week old and the temperature for the day being in the 50s. And for the first time in her entire time as a parent, my mom would have had to tell her child that school was closed for the day because it wasn’t safe to go to school.
I went to high school in a part of Denver known for gang violence. When I would tell people that my high school was in Five Points, people would look at me, then look at my parents, and judge the decision for me to attend school in what was considered such a dangerous neighborhood. Seeing school as unsafe was something that people thought was a concept that was possible, but no parent would ever put their child in that situation intentionally.
In my first year at my high school, it often felt like those judgmental people might be right. It wasn’t rare to go on lockout, where no one can enter or leave the building but business carries on as usual inside. That happened in those 19 school districts yesterday, which sounded frightening, but certainly didn’t scare me. I had many a day when we were kept in the school for nearly an hour past dismissal time because we were on lockout. One time, my soccer team had to cancel a game because we couldn’t leave the building to drive to the game, and our coach couldn’t come into the building. But in those days, even when we would leave school after a lockout, I’d still leave the school, walk through the neighborhood, and spend over an hour on public transit to come back home. Never with any fear in my mind over what might happen.
And on the occasions that the lockout was upgraded to a lockdown, it still didn’t create much fear in us. We carried on as normal, understanding the situation as the way of life we dealt with. It wasn’t always gun violence, although that sometimes occurred, but rather other crimes in the neighborhood. I still left school, not worried about what had just occurred outside the building.
Even when, in my senior year, a man barricaded himself inside his home across the street from the middle school on our campus, causing us to go on lockdown and forcing a strenuous evacuation from the middle school, there still wasn’t much concern about our safety once we left the building for the day. We could handle any situation.
When I was in 8th grade, bomb threats were called in on a couple Denver high schools, causing them to close for the day. But they were a hoax, and everything returned to normal the next day. Only once were we ever in that mindset that something could truly happen to any of us.
On December 13, 2013, a young man, with similar mental health troubles to the ones that the young woman who threatened Denver today, entered Arapahoe High School in Denver and killed himself and a classmate, Claire Davis, who bravely stood in his way and allowed her classmates to get out of the way before he shot her and ran into the library where he ended his own life.
6 months after the Aurora theater shooting, not far from Arapahoe, it was the first time that there was truly any fear surrounding going to school. But the shooting was on a Friday, and by Monday it had been realized that there wasn’t as much concern regarding each individual school.
Through school shooting after school shooting, through bullets found in the school walls to lockouts and lockdowns, I’d never been afraid like I was today. Maybe it was because I wasn’t at home this time, but also because this is new territory altogether.
Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting, it was clear that there would likely be some threats on Columbine High School. But the threat’s extension to all of Denver metro area schools, keeping my sister, my cousins, and my friends out of school today, was something new altogether.
But after it all, I can’t help thinking that the Columbine shooters had won once again. That they had inspired another young person to attack a school, and instill fear in the hearts of so many people, keeping over half a million children out of school. And as badly as I wanted to tell my sister to lock herself in her room all day, I tried not to; I didn’t want the fear I held within me all day, the worry I couldn’t shake, to encompass her as well.
She knows why she didn’t have school today, but for many kids, they might not. How are parents supposed to communicate that to their kids, especially elementary school students? I remember my parents hiding the newspaper the day after the Sandy Hook shooting because they were worried about what fear it might stoke in me and my sister if we learned about it (they didn’t do a very good job hiding the paper). But today, with it being a real concern that our schools are not safe, how do we tell our children why that is? How do you explain this history to them? How do you explain Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland? How to explain the pictures of the sobbing kids, their hands on the shoulders of their classmates, evacuating the school building? How do you explain that dreadful picture from April 20, 1999, of two young men, dressed in trench coats, holding assault rifles in a school cafeteria?
We have to be willing to better understand mental illness. We have to better respond to shootings, to not allow any capacity for the glorification of the shooters. We have to figure out how to best keep people with mental illnesses that threatened the safety of others away from guns. We have to be willing to do something, because I don’t want to be scared like this again.