Education, safety inexorably tied 20 years after Columbine shooting

    Twenty years ago, fire and tornado drills were the norm at schools, not just in Holyoke but across the nation. It’s hard to even imagine, however, what the response would have been if administration suggested lockdowns and lockouts as well. Today, the fact that such drills are a part of the school experience is the only reality students know. Even among teachers, more and more have never worked in a school setting that doesn’t have the rigorous safety precautions that are now expected.
    In Holyoke School District, just a few teachers that were working during the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 remain employed there today. They offer a truly unique perspective of the changes that have taken place in the last two decades.
    Speaking with Rhonda Mehring-Smith and John Baumgartner, it’s clear that the memories of the April 20, 1999, Columbine shooting are still vivid. Both were teaching at the elementary school at the time, Mehring-Smith in art and Baumgartner in third grade.
    Looking back, both compared the tragedy to the 9/11 attacks. In the case of Columbine, the shooters didn’t enter their school until 11:19 a.m. Class in Holyoke, of course, was already in session. Unlike 9/11, which was unfolding before they went to work, Columbine happened while they were in class.
    The way Mehring-Smith described it, news of the shooting trickled in at the elementary school, and because nothing like it had ever happened before, it was “just unfathomable.” Baumgartner was told about the shooting when he happened to be in the hallway outside his classroom, but it wasn’t until he went home after school that he was able to really take in the news for himself.
    He remembers, as many certainly do, watching Patrick Ireland climb out a window, bleeding. “I can still picture those people walking out single file,” he added. The images, the names and the stories of the people directly involved are not something that will ever be forgotten.
    Memories from the days and weeks after the tragedy are striking as well. Tears still spring to Mehring-Smith’s eyes as she recounts the impact it had on her own children.
    Hearing that Dave Sanders, a teacher and coach at Columbine, was killed helping students get to safety, prompted questions of what would happen to their own family if a shooting were to happen in Holyoke. Her children knew that she would put the safety of her students before her own if it ever came to that.
    “I still would,” she said.
Times have changed
    Today, drills of all types are regularly completed at Holyoke schools, and they’re simply part of the routine. Back in the early 2000s, however, the lockdown and lockout drills were new. They didn’t feel the same as the fire and tornado drills.
    The emotions associated with the Columbine shooting were still personal and raw, for students and teachers alike. Even knowing it was just practice, the drills felt real.
    Much has changed since then, not just in school policies but also in student attitudes. Though students today go through drills with the comfort afforded by the passage of time, Mehring-Smith sees an understanding in them. They know the history and the reason behind those drills.
    Practicing lockouts and lockdowns is just one of the changes made since 1999. “What happened in Colorado changed schools across the nation,” Mehring-Smith said. The shooting itself was over in less than an hour, but it’s been shaping policies continually since then.
    Baumgartner said that discussion in Holyoke schools began immediately. It was all centered on the question of what can be done to make things safer for the kids. Some changes were quick and relatively easy to implement. “Up to that point, there wasn’t a locked door in the building,” Mehring-Smith said. Now all the doors are locked, and visitors must be buzzed in.
    The layouts of the front offices were changed to give staff a better view of who is coming to the door. Guests and students sign in and out, and teachers wear identification. “Zero tolerance” policies were adopted, and teachers were taught to look for warning signs — in behavior or writing or even art — that may indicate something.
    In general, Baumgartner said, employees are more cautious now. “We keep our eyes and ears open.”
    Parents and community members are also more aware of the safety expectations. Though change can be hard, Baumgartner said that the school received little backlash as new safety policies were implemented. It’s clear to him that schools and kids are important to the community.
    Despite the obvious tragedy of Columbine, he also pointed out several things that have changed for the better as a result. Twenty years later, schools take teasing and bullying much more seriously, and more attention is being paid to mental health.
    “You just thank your lucky stars it hasn’t happened here,” Baumgartner said, but nevertheless, being prepared for what could happen remains a priority.
    Sometimes Mehring-Smith feels that students almost expect an attack to happen eventually simply because they’re so aware of all that’s happening in the world. She’s quick to point out, however, that they’re not living in fear.
    Immediately after Columbine, Mehring-Smith said, she felt “violated.” Before then, schools were seen as safe, trusting places. The shooting made people realize that they might not be as safe and protected as they’d thought.
    While taking so many precautions might make schools feel more like a fortress than they did before, Mehring-Smith believes that preparing students helps them feel safe, even as new tragedies are reported with growing frequency.

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