Student protests resonate with Columbine shooting survivors

  • In this Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, photograph, Colorado House Rep. Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, goes to shake hands after a hearing about three gun bills, all of which were turned down by the House State Veterans Committee, at the State Capitol in Denver. Neville was a student at Columbine High School when the massacre took place there in 1999. (AP Photo/P. Solomon Banda) P. Solomon Banda

  • In this Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, photograph taken in Denver, Samantha Haviland, who survived the mass shooting in Columbine High School nearly 20 years ago in Littleton, Colo., talks about the political actions by students in the wake of the massacre at a Parkland, Fla., high school earlier in February. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) David Zalubowski

Associated Press
Tuesday, February 27, 2018

DENVER — Patrick Neville was outside, sneaking off to smoke with friends, and avoided the outburst of gunfire at Columbine High School nearly two decades ago, but he did not dodge the heartbreak. A close friend died, and the anguish in his father’s eyes is seared in Neville’s memory.

Samantha Haviland was fundraising in the cafeteria and froze, uncomprehending, at the sound of screams just outside the window. Trance-like, she and others fled the room, then pressed against a wall of lockers, windows shot out down the hall. She, too, lost a close friend.

The horror of April 20, 1999 — 13 died when two student gunmen attacked the suburban Denver school — changed Neville and Haviland’s lives in different ways but inspired both to take action and serve others. It’s a calling they sadly share with survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who are demanding the nation take action on school violence.

“Nineteen years ago when Columbine happened, we didn’t understand it. We were shocked by it. We didn’t think this was a thing. We thought we were outliers,” Haviland said. “We adults, myself and my generation, have failed these students where we have learned this is a thing and we still haven’t done anything.”

Haviland, now director of counseling for Denver Public Schools, disagrees with the notion that guns in teachers’ hands would deter mass shootings she fears have become all too common. Neville became a Republican state legislator whose repeated attempts to arm teachers and school employees have been rejected by Democrats.

Both insist they’ll keep fighting. And both concede a solution is far from reach.

“The vitriol behind this debate is pretty kind of nasty,” said Neville, whose answering machine in his Capitol office was full of angry messages, some threatening, over his failed legislation, which he plans to introduce again next year. “That’s how they operate, these nasty bullying tactics.”

“Theaters. Shopping malls. Concerts. Churches. All of these places that we go to, and we feel safe, and we should feel safe, and we have made them unsafe,” Haviland said. “We have failed to make decisions to make those places safe.”

Neville was a 15-year-old sophomore when the gunfire began. He fled the school grounds and gathered with others at a nearby elementary school as the ordeal played out on TV.

His close friend — Neville won’t use his name publicly as a gesture of respect amid the “hyper-political” school shootings debate — was killed.

“I was probably not making good life choices at that time,” Neville said. “The friend who passed was doing everything right. Straight As. For me, it was a wakeup call that I needed to get my act together and that life is precious.”

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