by Dr. Dave Keller, Character.org
Today marks the 16th anniversary of the horrific Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado. On April 20, 1999, the world watched in unspeakable horror as Columbine students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered twelve fellow students and a teacher — and wounded 23 others — before both committing suicide.
In many ways, it is hard to fathom that it has been 16 years since that awful day. It still seems far too fresh and all-too-sadly relevant.
In the years since then, there have been several other ghastly incidents of school violence and tragedy across America and the world. Each of these heinous events impacted local communities and national consciences. The collective pain of these events impacts each of us in real and tangible ways, often on a daily basis.
But even today, 16 years later, there is something uniquely haunting about the Columbine killings. The events of that day seemed to shatter the innocence of the nation and world. Around-the-clock news cycles brought the tragedy into each home in a way that had rarely been seen before. Parents, educators, and students everywhere were confronted with frightening questions about how, why, and whether schools in their communities were vulnerable.
I live in Colorado. For those of us in the Colorado education community, each year April 20th nicks the scab off of a set of wounds that never really heal. Many schools across the state are closed in memorial. Students that weren’t even alive in 1999 are acutely aware of what happened that day.
I was at a concert about 50 miles south of Littleton last Friday night. In the middle of an otherwise rowdy and celebratory event, the artist stopped and held an impromptu reflection and memorial service for the victims of Columbine. Tears flowed. 16 years later, the pain remains so very close.
I remember driving past Columbine High School several years ago, only a few years after the tragedy. To me, the most remarkable thing that stood out was there is nothing remarkable about it. It looks like just about any other high school campus anywhere in America.
Maybe that’s one reason why Columbine pierced our collective hearts 16 years ago. Instinctively, we all realized that could have been our neighborhood. Our school. Our kids.
One of the many reasons I value working at Character.org is because our organization is dedicated to helping build caring school communities. Along with our amazing network of likeminded partner organizations across the globe, we collectively strive to make a difference. We work hard to celebrate and inspire teachers who are making an impact in the ethical development of students. We provide resources and salient examples for educators who want to learn more.
I’m not naïve — I know the challenge is great. I know the issue of school violence is multifaceted and complex. But I also believe deep in my core that one of the most important and practical ways to minimize vulnerability is to build caring school communities where students and staff are connected through authentic, caring relationships.
There is an old saying that says it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness. For some reason, that quote seems more meaningful today. I’m proud to work with so many dedicated and passionate educators who seek to light many candles each year through their work teaching character in the classroom.
For some reason, as I reflect on what happened 16 years ago today, that work has much more meaning, purpose, and urgency than ever before. I believe our work is not in vain. I believe we are making a difference.
Interested in learning more about the connection between school safety and character education? Watch Michele Borba’s talk, “Crucial Steps to Improve School Safety,”on our website.