Skip to main content

Columbine survivor: No child should worry about gunmen

By Katie Lyles, Special to CNN
updated 10:12 AM EDT, Fri April 19, 2013
Children, a sister and brother, walk along the Columbine Memorial at the Columbine Memorial Park in Littleton, Colorado.
Children, a sister and brother, walk along the Columbine Memorial at the Columbine Memorial Park in Littleton, Colorado.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Former Columbine student Katie Lyles bears hidden scars from the day of the massacre
  • Lyles, who is a teacher, says Columbine students lost their innocence that day
  • It was a shock when her student asked if lockdown drills were for when a gunman came
  • Lyles: Our kids deserve more mental health resources, enhanced security without guns

Editor's note: Katie Lyles, who teaches third graders in Colorado, was a student at Columbine during the massacre 14 years ago.

(CNN) -- At 16, my innocence was shattered when two gunmen murdered 13 people at my school and wounded countless others.

Columbine High School promised to be a safe and secure place of learning. And that promise was broken on April 20, 1999.

On that morning, I headed to school worried about my 10th grade math test and my upcoming track meet. Useless worries: The test was never given and we never held the meet.

Katie Lyles
Katie Lyles

Scars remain from that day that no one can see. Scars that made my worries about math tests or track performance pale in comparison to whether my science partner would live or whether my classmate's speech would be impaired by the shrapnel lodged in his skull. Today, those mental scars throb in large crowds and force me to scan the room for exits. They make my heart beat faster when I hear the blades of a helicopter overhead.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Now, as a teacher in my eighth year in the classroom, I consider every day that I go to work a privilege. I cherish my students' joy and enthusiasm, and most importantly, their innocence.

I believe that it is our job, as a society, to protect these virtues in our young people. I want them to be worried about math tests and track meets and about science fairs and student council elections -- the kind of normal school stuff that builds character. But our epidemic of gun violence is creating a culture of fear in our schools, where students are anxious about safety and intruders. These are worries no student should have.

This becomes even more apparent when we conduct our monthly emergency drill at our school. It's a way to be prepared for the worst, so we practice lockdowns, fire drills and evacuations.

The other day, I was explaining to my third graders that we were going to practice a lockdown just in case a bear happened to be on the playground -- a real scenario for our Colorado school. I have used this example my entire teaching career because it's an easy and nonthreatening reason to practice a lockdown.

One girl raised her hand and asked: "Is this what we would do if a bad guy came with a gun to hurt us?" I felt kicked in the stomach when I heard this question. A bear is no longer the worst thing for students to anticipate: They fear what is happening across our nation.

It is a shame that my students must learn these drills at such a young age -- a shame they must learn them at all. I thought to myself, "This is a result of the Columbine shootings, along with so many other acts of violence. This is my reality, and now it is theirs too."

It is a sad reality, but we are not helpless. I teach at a wonderful school, which has done everything within its resources to keep our students safe. But it is not enough. If there were a simple solution, then this epidemic of violence would have ended. The solution is complex, multifaceted -- and achievable. I believe a comprehensive approach can help ensure a safe learning environment.

• Our children deserve more mental health resources to identify, treat and follow up with people who need help.

• Our children deserve enhanced school security: This includes identifying who is in the school and sensible steps to keep the building secure -- without bringing guns into the place of learning or turning it into a fortress.

• Our children deserve common sense gun legislation: I believe this should include a ban on high-capacity magazine clips. And at the very least, it should include comprehensive and enforceable background checks to help keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. Unfortunately, our Congress refused to take this common sense step and turned this legislation down.

The shooters at my school obtained their guns illegally, through private sales and straw purchases. Today they could easily go online and buy those same weapons without a background check. What is to stop the next person who chooses from doing just that?

We can do better.

I think I can speak for all of us that the murders at Columbine High School, the Aurora movie theater, Sandy Hook Elementary, and so many others shocked us to our core and created lasting feelings of sadness. But we can't let these events create feelings of vulnerability. We have the power to work together to create a safer world for our students.

Learn from my experience -- do not wait until you experience violence first hand to realize that we need to take action. We need to take action now.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Katie Lyles.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT