I Went To Columbine And Knew The Shooters. Here's What I Struggle With 25 Years Later.

The author, who was one of Columbine's valedictorians, at her graduation in 2000.
The author, who was one of Columbine's valedictorians, at her graduation in 2000. Courtesy of Krista Hanley

It has been 25 years since the Columbine High School shooting, and I am not okay. None of us are.

I feel anguish for all the people who will become mass shooting victims over the next 25 years, for the communities who have yet to endure the tension and grief of trauma anniversaries. As a mass shooting survivor, this quarter-century reminder brings me back to April 20, 1999, and all of the ways we failed and continue to fail the children of this country in the aftermath of that day.


“Get down!”

The yell came from somewhere behind me. I was in the school’s crowded cafeteria, standing in line at the food counter with a friend. A boy ran through the room, shouting, while hundreds of my classmates sunk to the tile floor underneath lunch tables. In unspoken agreement, my friend and I crouched down too.

I wondered what was going on. I didn’t know what had made that boy run and shout, but I assumed it was a senior prank. It was spring — only a few weeks until graduation and the end of the school year.

It never occurred to me that it was a school shooting.

I was a student at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. As I knelt on the floor of the cafeteria, I had no idea two boys were killing and injuring our peers right outside the school. I only knew that I had English after lunch. I knew I had an essay due. I knew our other friends were at the table where I’d tossed my backpack a few minutes before.

I didn’t know I wouldn’t be going back to class that day, that we wouldn’t be returning to Columbine until the next school year. I didn’t know it would be months before I saw my backpack again. I didn’t know who would be killed or who would be injured or paralyzed. I didn’t know how my life, my friends’ lives and schools all over this country would be forever changed.

Over the past 25 years, I’ve come to a place of reluctant acceptance. I have accepted that we live in a country where gun violence is the norm — where any of us could be the victim of a shooting in a cafeteria, classroom, workplace, church, theater, grocery store, shopping center, concert venue, bar, salon, park, small business, parade and on and on and on. I have come to accept that we are never safe.

A few minutes after everyone in that cafeteria lowered themselves onto the floor, I saw my friend heading towards us. He was doubled in half, weaving around the tables, chairs and people. He scooted over to me on his knees.

“What’s going on?” I whispered. I couldn’t see much out of the windows lining the far side of the cafeteria — just the bright sky of a warm spring day.

“I looked out the window,” he said. “I saw someone with a gun.” He held my eyes and I knew he was serious. This was no prank. Then he told me the name of the person with the gun — someone we both knew. Someone I had called a friend.

A neighborhood memorial for the Columbine High School shooting that was created near the school (1999)
A neighborhood memorial for the Columbine High School shooting that was created near the school (1999) Courtesy of Krista Hanley

While researching that day for my memoir, I sought out the surveillance video from the cafeteria cameras. The footage’s quality is too poor for me to identify myself in the terrain of tables and chairs, but I was there, immobilized on the floor as my peers were murdered and maimed not far away.

From that moment on, my life changed. Minutes before, when two propane tank bombs that had been placed in the cafeteria — feet from where I stood — failed to explode and destroy the school, two teenage boys that I knew made the decision to become mass shooters. I continue to grapple with the guilt of not having known their intentions — of not being able to have done something to prevent what happened.

Columbine has continued to impact my life in significant ways. After a scant six months of therapy, funding for mental health services for Columbine survivors ended. We now understand that wasn’t enough. I went to college a year and a half after the shooting with anxiety so acute I couldn’t sleep or breathe — anxiety that made me feel like I was dying.

I wanted to be a writer, but it’s hard to write when the story you need to tell is trapped in your throat. I wanted to be an artist, but it’s hard to create when the themes you want to explore are buried deep inside a place in you that is dangerous and painful to touch. When you’re exposed to violence as a young person, your future is stripped away and your talents feel hard to access.

In the early 2000s, mass shootings were a new kind of event, and those of us with that particular trauma didn’t know how to talk about it. For me, the shame of Columbine’s notoriety and the guilt of knowing the killers meant that I hid my past. I stayed mostly silent about my experience for over ten years. The trauma kept me frozen in time — forever crouching on the floor of that cafeteria. I still struggle with revealing my story, but I have since learned how important it is to share what I went through.

I have tried to function in a body that experienced that kind of unthinkable trauma at a young age, but eventually, after many years, I realized there is no “getting over it” or “going back to normal.” The fact that we don’t get over it is not a comfortable narrative for other people. I believe the media and the people in power who create and uphold laws would like us to all think that trauma helps people be stronger or more resilient or offers some other false flag of hope. It doesn’t.

The Columbine High School cafeteria boarded up after the shooting (1999)
The Columbine High School cafeteria boarded up after the shooting (1999) Courtesy of Krista Hanley

If we all understood just how deeply this kind of trauma affects someone for their entire life — and that we don’t automatically become tougher, better, and more driven people because of it — would we let this continue one more day?

While there have been numerous studies on the effects of gun violence — especially mass shootings — I believe this research has only scratched the surface in proving how devastating this kind of trauma is for the people and communities that experience it. I’ve seen the effects bleed into and taint every part of a survivor’s daily life, including our relationships, our ability to hold work or make money, our productivity and our tendencies towards addiction, chronic illness, mental illness and suicidality. And still, little has been done.

This nation refuses to solve this problem. It wants survivors to stay stuck, stay down, stay silent. What is more silencing than the same offensive messages we hear every time a new mass shooting happens? Politicians and leaders offer “thoughts and prayers” and claim “now is not the time” to do something about guns in this country, instead of acting. What is more silencing than how the Newtown survivors, Parkland survivors and other mass shooting survivors are treated — victims of disbelief, harassment and threats, some of which even come from people in our very own government?

People would rather construct elaborate conspiracy theories than enact change. What has to be going through your head to pretend mass murders of children don’t happen, instead of acknowledging and comprehending what it means to live in a country that allows children to die at school?

We have ignored this problem for so long that firearms are now the number one cause of death for children. Today, children are routinely trained to do what we did — get down, get quiet, stay out of sight — like learning how to tie their shoes or do long division. We are teaching the next generations that mass shootings are a normal part of life. This is horrifying.

A month after the Columbine shooting, President Bill Clinton and then-first lady Hillary Clinton came to speak to our school. I remember how both of them talked about making sure this wouldn’t happen again, so no more children would go through what we just had just gone through.

When a door plug falls off a plane, we ground hundreds of planes and investigate. When it’s believed a car battery might cause a fire, millions of vehicles are recalled. When a batch of lettuce isn’t processed properly, we remove it from the shelves and the FDA posts a warning. We regulate, investigate and set up systems and protocols for safety in this country for nearly everything — except guns. We’ve set up a national hotline for suicide prevention, but nothing exists to report suspected would-be mass murderers. Why? Why do we refuse to do better?

The author in 2024
The author in 2024 Photo by Guarina Paloma Lopez

If we’d taken mass shootings seriously 25 years ago, how many children would be alive today? How many families’ loved ones? How much blood has to be spilled before it’s enough? Will our collective empathy ever kick in?

I am doubtful. Instead, I am doing what I can to help people be safer and more empowered in a country that has normalized these shootings. I have found my voice. Speaking to people about what I went through and teaching people safety skills has turned me into an advocate for trauma survivors. I’ve learned that my story is the way to reach other people who have been through tragedy and grief.

Every time I share my experience, I struggle with telling the end of my story. I know that people want to hear that people can get over, get through, get on despite — or, worse, because of — their trauma. But if you believe that, then it’s easy to do nothing. It’s time we recognize there is no easy happy ending for people like me and the untold others who have been touched by gun violence. Still, despite how committed I am to telling my story and how hopeful I am that it can inspire change, I worry that it’s not enough. I am afraid that until you are stopped in your tracks by the overwhelming and visceral grief that erupts when there is a mass shooting in your vicinity, you won’t care.

Why do I believe this? Because it’s been 25 years since that day I was kneeling on the cafeteria floor, and we haven’t cared enough to make a change. 

Columbine should have been the last mass shooting in America. 

Krista Hanley is a public speaker, writer, andviolence prevention educator who lives in Denver, Colorado. She recently completed her memoir, “How to Survive a Mass Shooting”, which tells her story of surviving the Columbine High School shooting. Her website iskristahanley.com.

If you or someone you know needs help, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org for mental health support. Additionally, you can find local mental health and crisis resources at dontcallthepolice.com. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention.