One year after the shootings at Columbine High School, the road to healing for families and the community has been slow and laden with setbacks. For many, the slayings of two Columbine sophomores on February 14 at a local Subway sandwich shop shattered an already fragile and tortured recovery process.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold massacred 13 people and wounded dozens of others on April 20, 1999, before killing themselves. Many families of those who died are slowly rebuilding their lives through ministries and activism. Darrell Scott, father of murder victim Rachel Scott, has launched a nonprofit ministry called The Columbine Redemption that coordinates his speaking ministry at youth rallies and through which he is raising funds to build a Christian memorial for the slain. Scott is the scheduled keynote speaker at two major youth events in Washington, D.C., this year: "Take a Stand" (May 19-21), which expects to draw 100,000, and "The Call" (Sept. 2), which hopes to attract 400,000.
Brad and Misty Bernall, parents of Cassie Bernall, have joined with the Christian Mission of Honduras to build the Cassie Bernall Home for Children, an orphanage in a rural part of Honduras. They recently agreed with the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention to produce a movie based on Cassie's life.
Michelle Oetter—student John Tomlin's girlfriend when he was killed—has been drawing crowds at speaking engagements about the spiritual significance of the Columbine tragedy. Valeen Schnurr, who affirmed her belief in God after being shot several times, has fit some public speaking into her study schedule at the University of Northern Colorado.
An organization called HOPE (Healing of People Everywhere) has become a rallying point for many parents of the slain. Through HOPE, families are raising funds to convert the Columbine library, where most of the massacre occurred, into an atrium and to build a new library for the school. "This gives people a way to put positive energy into this otherwise terrible situation," says Brian Rohrbough, whose son Dan died in the massacre.
But the road to healing has also been full of painful twists and turns. Many families who lost children are Christian. As they await the official report on the investigation, which at this writing has yet to be released by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, some are bewildered by the seeming unwillingness of investigators to acknowledge the significance of anti-Christian aspects of the killings.
Eric Chester, a Colorado author, speaker, and youth expert, has spoken about teen issues in over 100 schools since the Columbine tragedy. He suspects that the killers' malice was not a characteristic form of racial, religious, ethnic prejudice against certain groups. Rather, he says, "Eric and Dylan were on a death mission, and probably thought, 'Let's look for people we hate.' Their hate knew no bounds.
"But the killers felt no lack of hatred for Christianity and Christians, as evidenced in shocking and vitriolic anti-Christian ravings in portions of the videotapes made by the killers in the weeks before the rampage. Before Darrell Scott made and released audio tapes of these sentiments, the sheriff's department did not acknowledge this video evidence. In addition, journalists who viewed the tapes made little mention of the killers' hostility toward Christianity.
Scott was startled when he heard his daughter Rachel mentioned and then mocked for her Christian beliefs on one of the videotapes. Scott's sense of outrage concerning the videos was very real, because investigators had told him that significant information pertaining to his daughter's murder would be made known to him. Yet sheriff's investigators never mentioned that Rachel was named. Lead investigator Kate Battan insists that Rachel Scott is not the person discussed on the video. Battan has also stated publicly that what happened at Columbine was not "a God thing."
Scott protests: "I won't take that at face value. [Battan] told me that this was not a Christian thing, but all I heard on that tape was Christianity f—ing this and f—ing that." He adds that the Rachel named on the video was linked to a teen named Nick. "He is the young man [Rachel] went to prom with." The killers mocked Rachel for her love for Jesus and made derisive references to the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) trend. Rachel Scott wore a WWJD wristband. "All of that points to Rachel Scott."
Another point that has received little attention from the sheriff's department is a statement by Harris on the video that he wanted to shoot Christians in the head. Rachel Scott was killed by a gunshot wound to the head, as were at least two other students known for their Christian leadership. "My personal opinion from the beginning," says Scott, "has been that these kids were targeted because they were Christians."
"I'm not disagreeing with that possibility," says Kathleen M. Heide, professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, who has interviewed over 100 children convicted of murder or attempted murder. "But when you're talking about students at high school, I don't know that I would make that leap."
Heide has not been active in the Columbine investigation. But, Heide adds, if kids were killed after being asked if they believed in God, then "the connection is more clear and the point of their religion is more significant."
Relying on the Unreliable
During the past year, more details about the day of the shooting have emerged through the news media and the sheriff's department. But parents and shooting survivors say both investigators and journalists have done a disservice by not disclosing the full truth about Columbine to the public.
On September 23 the Web-based publication Salon.com posted an article by Dave Cullen challenging several "myths" attached to the Columbine shooting. The article was prompted by investigator Battan's breaking "five months of virtual silence." According to Cullen, Battan and other investigators told him "not a scrap of evidence supports [the] conclusion" that the killers targeted Christians, or any group, in their rampage.
However, the most controversial aspect of Cullen's piece was his publicizing investigators' doubts about Cassie Bernall's confession of faith in God at gunpoint. These doubts were based upon conflicting testimony from witnesses in the library, most notably that of student Emily Wyant, who was under the table with Bernall.
Wyant said the exchange between Cassie and her killer did not occur. "[K]ey investigators made it clear that an alternate scenario is far more likely," Cullen wrote. "The killers asked another girl, Valeen Schnurr, a similar question, then shot her and she lived to tell about it. Schnurr's story was then apparently misattributed to Cassie." The Denver Post followed up on September 25, reporting that investigators doubt whether the conversation with Cassie took place.
A week later on September 30, Cullen wrote in Salon.com: "As the Rocky Mountain News reported Sept. 24, Wyant and Bernall were studying alone together in the back of the library. After the gunmen rushed in, the girls crouched beneath a table together, and Cassie began praying aloud: 'Dear God. Dear God. Why is this happening? I just want to go home.' Dylan Klebold suddenly slammed his hand on the table, yelled 'Peekaboo,' and looked underneath. He shot Cassie without exchanging a word. Wyant's mother confirmed that the Rocky Mountain News correctly reported the details of her daughter's account. Salon News reported last Thursday that investigators believed the famous exchange actually took place between Klebold and Valeen Schnurr.
"But for all the doubt within the sheriff's department about what Cassie Bernall said or didn't say before her tragic death, investigators—as well as Salon.com—have neglected to disclose a central fact: the ballistic report reveals that Harris, not Klebold, killed Cassie Bernall. This essentially disqualifies Wyant as a reliable witness—a point that neither the sheriff's department nor Salon.com has yet to acknowledge publicly.
Time magazine noted this new information regarding the identity of Cassie's killer in its controversial December 20 cover story. The Bernalls were startled to read Time's details about their daughter's death. "We were told [by investigators] that circumstances surrounding Cassie's death were not going to be shared," Misty Bernall says. "We have been told nothing regarding anyone else's death and yet the sheriff's department have shared what they believe happened to Cassie.
"We thought the circumstances surrounding her death were confidential and felt that it was a matter for the families [to decide] if we wanted to share how our child died. That's the way it has been for everyone except Cassie." Time included no description of any other victims' deaths or the identity of their killers.
The Bernalls said that when Battan and another investigator first alerted them over the summer to the conflicting testimony about Cassie's confession, the investigators told the Bernalls not to stop writing their book, She Said Yes, published by Plough. "They said this was their personal opinion and it had nothing to do with the objective of the investigation," says Brad Bernall.
Before proceeding with the book, Plough and the Bernalls undertook a rigorous reinterviewing process of kids who were in the library. They felt satisfied when several independent witnesses stood by recollections of hearing the exchange between Cassie and her killer. When investigators went public with their doubts about Cassie within two weeks of the book's release in September, they also broke their word to the Bernalls. "Somehow," says Brad, "their personal opinion on this matter was relayed through the media as fact, when it wasn't.
"Steve Davis, public information officer for the sheriff's department, said that details about the victims' deaths and the identity of their killers remain confidential. He could not explain how Time was made privy to the new information regarding the identity of Cassie's killer. Davis says that Wyant is no longer considered a reliable witness in the investigation. "Whether her account changes or proves not to be accurate happens all the time," he says.
Few Satisfying Answers Emerge
Despite the painful revelations, Davis says that relations with the survivor families are good. "The victim services unit still has a liaison assigned to each family and they are in regular contact," he says.
So the healing process moves on, jagged though it may be. "We're searching for answers," says Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis. "What drives people to do what Eric and Dylan did? People have asked me that and I don't have the answers. When people ask 'Are you getting back to some normalcy?' I tell them: We'll never be normal again at Columbine High School. The scars that we've experienced will be with us for the rest of our lives.
"We start taking some steps forward and all of a sudden an event will happen and we're forced to take a giant step backward—like the shooting of the two Columbine students, high school sweethearts, at the Subway on Valentine's Day."
Matt Bruce, a junior at Columbine and friend of Rachel Scott, sometimes fears that his generation will be remembered as "the generation of the shootings." But, he says, "That isn't how our generation will be remembered. Our generation will be remembered as the generation of the faith. We will be remembered for overcoming these and for making the world an awesome place."
"In the midst of everything, I lost hope in a lot of things, but God wasn't one of them," says Sarah Arzola, a Columbine senior and a friend of Rachel Scott. "I would always think that it would be hard to stay close to God and still love God if something like this were to happen to you. At first, when we were hearing person after person that died, one thing that most of them had in common is that they were Christians. When I would hear about another Christian that died, I just thought, 'God didn't take anybody that wasn't ready to go.' That gave me some peace."
ChristianityToday.com's coverage of the Columbine shootings includes:
Videos of Hate | Columbine killers harbored anti-Christian prejudice (Jan. 26, 2000)
Retailers Marketing Martyrdom to Teens | Littleton Massacre Now Merchandise Opportunity (Nov. 12, 1999)
Cassie Said Yes, They Said No | The mainstream press unquestioningly accepted Salon.com's flimsy 'debunking' of the Columbine confession. (Nov. 1, 1999)
'Do You Believe in God?' | Columbine and the stirring of America's soul. (Oct. 4, 1999)
Tough Love Saved Cassie | How the Bernalls helped Cassie break with old friends and build a new life. (Oct. 4, 1999)
Yancey: Can Good Come Out of This Evil? (June 14, 1999)
For the latest and continuing coverage of the Columbine tragedy and other school violence, see The Denver Post, The Rocky Mountain News, Boulder's The Daily Camera, and Yahoo!'s full coverage on school violence.
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