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November 15, 2019

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What we have learned, 20 years after Columbine

How are those closest to the Columbine school shooting observing its 20th anniversary? Coni Sanders’ father, David, was a teacher and coach at Columbine and the only adult killed -- but not before he warned hundreds of students to safety. David Cullen is a journalist who was at the scene. Lisa Desjardins talks to both of them about their memories of horror and how life has moved forward since.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Joining me now to talk about the lasting impact of that horrific day are Coni Sanders. Her father, David Sanders, died in the shooting. He was a business teacher and coach of two sports at the school. He was the only adult killed, as he ran through the school warning students to flee.

    And David Cullen, he covered the shooting as a reporter and spent 10 years writing a book about it entitled "Columbine."

    Thank you to you both for joining us.

    Coni, I want to start with you.

    It's been 20 years since the shooting. And, today, you were under police protection because of a threat from a potential shooter. I want to know, what are your thoughts this week about the shooting?

  • Coni Sanders:

    We fully expected that there would be some threats. This is the sad price that we have paid over the last 20 years.

    The fascination with Columbine has led us to a sad reality that this type of thing is going to happen. And I was grateful for law enforcement's willingness to help me feel a little bit more safe until the resolution of that event.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    How is the community handling this anniversary, Coni?

  • Coni Sanders:

    I think that the community is hopeful that we are headed to something different, that, after 20 years of talking about that day, we're really looking forward to our ceremony on Saturday that we're calling a recommitment and trying to turn April 20 into a day where the community does acts of service, and really looks forward to how we can kind of take back Columbine from being a tragedy to being something that everybody can learn from.

    But, you know, at the end, it's still a very, very difficult time for a lot of us.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    David, you were there. What are your memories of that day, especially through the lens of 20 years later?

  • David Cullen:

    There were only reports of injuries.

    And I sort of apologetically called an editor I worked with and said, it's probably nothing, but I'm going out there, and I didn't know where it was. I knew the general direction and drove in that direction.

    And then, when I saw the helicopters circling to the south, that's when I — first my stomach clenched. I'm like, wow, this is horrible. And then I just drove toward those helicopters.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And it was different at that time, right? Because no one expected students to have died, right? And police were waiting for someone to turn themselves in.

  • David Cullen:

    Right, completely. Yes, they surrounded the building.

    There was an interesting phenomenon. So, I got there within the first hour. And I was at a place called the Columbine Library, where most of the — the parents had been told to go to rendezvous. And then the kids were mostly there.

    And everybody was talking about what might happen. And they kept stopping their sentences. And I realized very quickly there was kind of a weird moratorium, an unspoken understanding, no one was going to say the word death or allude to the fact that somebody might have died.

    And it became very obvious when one mom started a sentence of like, if those kids find them, meaning the killers, you know, find them, and then she stopped in mid-sentence. And there were dirty looks all around. Like, don't you dare say that out loud.

    I was like, wow. So no one wanted to accept the idea that this might actually be murder. And I wouldn't go there myself in my head. I was sure it wasn't going to be murder, until, at 4:00, when the sheriff announced them. And the world kind of changed.

    And that's when the world did change, because we weren't ready to accept anything this horrific, even the people there. And I don't know about, Coni, at your house, but at the library — I'm sort of curious — I know you all gathered with your mom. But no one was just going to that place.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Coni, yes, what was going on at your house?

  • Coni Sanders:

    So, I remember my employer, somebody I was working with, drove me home. And I couldn't figure out why they would need to drive me home. And it was like everybody knew that this was significant but me, that immediate denial.

    And when I got to my mother's house, I walked in, and everybody was on their knees in front of the TV, because the helicopters, the media, they were zooming in on the school. And we saw people running out without their shirts on. It wasn't until later that we found out those were the students that were using their clothing to try to stop dad's bleeding.

    And then they zoomed in on a sign that was in the window that said, "1 bleeding to death." And I just remember my mom being so upset and saying, "I can't believe — I mean, that poor student."

    And it wasn't until later that we found out that sign was written for dad.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Coni…

  • Coni Sanders:

    And, even at our house, nobody would acknowledge that maybe he was dead. My mom kept saying he was hiding somewhere in the school.

    And although we suspected that he would not be hiding anywhere in the school, because that was not part of his character, we had heard that he was shot in the foot, and we heard that he was transported to a hospital. We went to those hospitals. It wasn't until the next day that he was confirmed to be dead.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Coni, I'm so sorry for you and your family that you went through this.

    And I also — I find it remarkable what you have done with your life. You are a therapist who works with those who may have violent tendencies, trying to divert them from violence.

    I'm wondering what your thoughts are from both sides of this problem. What do you think it is that triggers this kind of violence? And what can prevent it?

  • Coni Sanders:

    I think a sense of hopelessness is one of the key factors in people becoming violent, whether it be violence towards themselves or violence towards others.

    One of the things that we have learned is that support is so important in any person's life, because, if they have a support system, there's somebody to notice that they just hopped on a plane from Florida. There's somebody to notice that this person is shopping for a gun.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Dave, you know, some people also talk about the amount of shootings that have happened since Columbine. The Washington Post found that — amazing to me — nearly 200,000 American students have experienced a school shooting since Columbine.

    You have kept in touch with Columbine survivors and families like Coni. I'm wondering what you have learned about the way this trauma lives 20 years later. What does it look like?

  • David Cullen:

    Last April, I was staying with one — while I was chasing the Parkland kids around, I went to Columbine a couple times and stayed with Kiki Leyba, one of the English teachers. I hope it's OK with me saying this. Well, I already put it in the book.

    I was staying at this house. And when I landed just before the anniversary, I landed to a text saying: "I'm going to be a little late. I was in a car accident. And I'm OK."

    It was like, oh, my God. You know, and then I talked to his wife, who I know well now too, the next morning. She said, you know, he's in an April fog. His car sat there for about three days. And it crumbled in his driveway because he didn't want to deal with it.

    So it lingers and manifests in weird ways that you wouldn't expect.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Coni, I want to finish this interview talking about your dad.

    He is someone — he ran into the cafeteria. He didn't flee the scene. He ran into the cafeteria and warned hundreds of students who were in the path of the gunmen, saved those lives. He didn't leave with them. Instead, he went further into the school to warn more students. And that's when he was killed.

    What do you want people to know about your dad?

  • Coni Sanders:

    I want people to know that he was an ordinary, yet extraordinary person all at the same time.

    And it amazes me how many people I run into that were inspired by him while he was alive, that, although he saved hundreds of kids from that cafeteria that day, and we only have 12 students' names to read because of him, he was a wonderful dad to myself and my sisters. He was an incredible grandpa. He was a great husband.

    He's just — he was just a good person. He loved to influence students and young athletes and get people to help turn their — their lives around if they were struggling. And I try to carry on that legacy by helping people who are struggling in their own lives that need support.

    And they kind of need a coach that says, hey, I understand that life is hard. What do you need right now? Do you need a hug? Do you need somebody to talk to? And over and over again, I hear from people that were students of his for 24 years.

    He was a teacher, and so many of them have talked about how he influenced them and he encouraged them. And I just want everybody to take a part of Dave Sanders with them, and just, you know, move forward with kindness.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I feel certain our viewers will take that piece of your dad with them.

  • Coni Sanders:

    Thank you.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Coni Sanders and David Cullen, thank you both.

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