LITTLETON, Colo. – The nightmares come each spring. In the dark of his bedroom just a few miles from where it all began, Sean Graves relives the feeling of bullets slamming through his stomach, the odd sensation of something somehow sliding through him.
He always worries about shootings, that his wife and daughter will be trapped or threatened by gunmen, that they won't be able to find a way to escape. But as every April approaches, his mind returns to a very specific day, a specific memory, when two classmates with trench coats and duffel bags opened fire.
He is back at Columbine.
Back to being a 15-year-old freshman who loves comic books and MacGyver.
Back to lying on the cold concrete and shattered glass.
Back to the fire alarm ringing and shots being fired and his blood soaking his thin black jacket.
"I'm in the history books," Graves says sadly on a recent afternoon as he watches his 3-year-old-daughter, Olivia, play nearby. "I didn't choose the cards we were dealt. We just have to play them."
Twenty years ago, Graves was shot six times by his two classmates, fellow teenagers who fatally shot 12 students and a coach before killing themselves.
Olivia doesn't yet understand the trauma her father struggles with daily, his nagging injuries from the shooting and the 49 surgeries he has had to help reverse his partial paralysis. She also doesn't yet understand why he asks her to identify exits anytime they go somewhere new, why he worries about who might present a threat, and why he's obsessed with listening to police radio traffic.
The details of Columbine remain seared into the nation's consciousness, in part because of weeks of continuous news coverage at the time. The shooting forced a national conversation about school safety, SWAT tactics, mental health and gun control, and it forever reshaped the simple act of going to school in the USA. For many Americans, it was the first time a school was an unsafe place. Television stations replayed scenes of terrified children racing for safety, and then, as details emerged, photos of the killers. The nation struggled to dissect what had happened and who had missed what warning signs.
While Columbine was one of the first school shootings to reach our television screens, it wasn't the last. And each subsequent shooting, from Sandy Hook, Connecticut, to Parkland, Florida, to Santa Fe, Texas, has left behind a similar legacy of pain and loss for its survivors, the students and teachers and parents who woke up the next day trying to put their lives back together.
Graves, now 35, has tried to help police, school administrators and legislators grapple with changes that could help protect students. He has tried to set aside the dreams he had of becoming a police officer or a soldier and to be a good husband to his wife and protect his daughter.
He also has watched as shootings have continued, each one instantly hauling him back to that fateful day 20 years ago. And he’s watching his daughter grow up in that world.
A 'different' time
Until April 20, 1999, Columbine High School was like most others in the Denver metro area: Not particularly rich, not particularly poor, not particularly big or particularly small. Athletics were important, but so were academics at the school of about 2,000 students. Then, as now, many parents commuted to Denver for work, returning to curvilinear neighborhoods like Dutch Creek and Kipling Hills.
Frank DeAngelis became principal in 1996, having worked his way up from teaching and coaching closer to his home in downtown Denver. He had seen only two classes graduate when the first shots rang out at 11:19 a.m. on what had been a beautiful spring morning. Two students armed with a rifle, handgun, shotguns, knives and bombs began firing at their classmates and teachers.
Like many school administrators that day, DeAnglis ran toward the gunfire, not entirely understanding what was happening. Today, school administrators and teachers lead and participate in regular "active shooter" training, which students also learn. But 1999 was a different world.
Back then, SWAT tactics generally called for officers to surround the school, form a team and enter. The theory was that rushing a shooter might cause the gunman to kill hostages. Today, in large part because of lessons learned at Columbine, officers are trained to rush toward a shooter, confronting the attacker as quickly as possible.
At Columbine, students, faculty and staff remained on their own for 47 minutes after the first shots were fired.
"Today, that strategy of waiting seems nuts," DeAngelis said. "The whole protocol is different now.”
DeAngelis chose to remain at the school until every student enrolled that day graduated. He has watched "his" kids grow up to have children of their own, helped them feel safe about going to Columbine or any other classroom. He became a widely respected consultant who helps manage the fallout of other school shootings.
He recently wrote a book recounting his experience during and after the Columbine shooting. The book, "They Call Me Mr. De," represents the first time DeAngelis has laid out exactly what happened to him during the shooting and his efforts to heal the community in the following years. Its publication was timed for the 20th anniversary of the shooting.
"It's funny what your mind does in a crisis situation," he wrote. "I don't remember hearing the blare of the fire alarms. I guess I blocked out the sound but I remember the strobe lights flashing. I also remember exactly how those shots and the glass shattering behind me sounded."
In the days after the shooting, community members gathered first in candlelight vigils and then in funerals for the 13 victims. Classes eventually resumed at a nearby school building, and graduation took place just a few weeks later. Two of the slain had been set to graduate that day, and the wounds were still fresh.
All summer, contractors remodeled Columbine High School, changing the look and feel, blocking out the library where so many had died, and covering up bullet holes.
But there were other changes, too. Those fire alarms needed a different sound lest they trigger anew the anxiety of an already frightened student body. The cafeteria banned Chinese food, because the smell of the meal served on that fateful day also could trigger anxiety for survivors. Even camouflage clothes or the sight of police cars parked out front frightened some kids, DeAngelis said.
After the shooting, well-meaning community members built a balloon arch in school colors to welcome students back to class. “What we didn’t anticipate was balloons popping and kids diving on the ground,” DeAngelis said.
The principal has his own triggers: The sound of July Fourth fireworks that year at a Colorado Rockies game sent him diving for the ground, the tears flowing.
DeAngelis has learned to avoid driving in springtime. He has crashed his car six times since the shooting, each time around the anniversary. Now he relies on Uber and Lyft rides for a few months.
The new normal
Graves, then 15, was walking outside the school with friends when the shooting began. In addition to the 13 dead, the gunmen shot 21 others, including Graves, and three more people were hurt trying to escape.
Graves was wounded in his back, foot and stomach near the school's west staircase. He collapsed half inside a door to the school, lying there for agonizing minutes as the attack unfolded. Medics eventually reached him. He spent months recuperating from partial paralysis at the world-renowned rehabilitation center at Craig Hospital, just 8 miles away from the school.
Even today, he doesn't like to talk much about what happened. He was angry for a lot of his recovery and credits his work with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation with helping him turn that frustration into constructive assistance to other people who have suffered paralyzing injuries. Fighting his injuries, Graves walked across the stage for graduation in 2002, assisted only by a cane.
His injuries ended his dreams of becoming a police officer or soldier, but his status as a Columbine survivor has given him a platform of a different kind. Today he works with patients at Craig and speaks to law enforcement groups about the importance of school safety – not in the abstract, but in a "you need to do a good job so our kids don't get hurt like me" kind of way.
"I always wanted a badge and a gun," Graves said. "Growing up, that was the thing I wanted, to help people."
Graves and his friends, including 29 children between them all, usually go camping every April 20, all the better to avoid the reminders, which mercifully have grown softer over the years. Guns themselves never bothered Graves – he and his wife go hunting – but the threat from other people remains a concern. That's why he has been teaching Olivia to watch the exits and keep an eye out for threats.
One of his best friends, Daniel Rohrbough, died in the shooting, and the nightmares about that day have started again.
"I call it the gift that keeps on giving," Graves said of the shooting. "I forget what month we're in, and then they start and I'm like, 'Oh, what's the date? Every year, like clockwork."
For a survivor like Graves, Columbine will always be part of life. He and his wife, Kara, have collected seven bins of newspaper clippings and get-well cards after the shooting and during his recovery. They try not to let that single event shape their entire lives, but it's no easy task to put it behind them.
"You have to find that new normal," says Kara, 32. "Out of sight, out of mind doesn't work."
For 16 years she has stood with Sean as he has battled nightmares and crank calls and creepy internet conspiracy theorists. She thought long and hard about marrying him, knowing she'd be signing up for a life that would never be quite normal.
"We always knew we were never going to be like other families," Kara says. "I never thought it was going to be as hard as it was. You want to be able to console them and realize that sometimes you just can't, and that's OK."
With a sly smile, Sean Graves says he's thankful for his wife: "She mows the lawn, so that's good."
Like many trauma survivors, Graves uses humor to help ease himself and his family past difficult moments. A seemingly throwaway line about mowing the lawn, for example, hints at a delicate balance in the Graves' marriage. He's a proud man who wants to do chores, but his injuries make it hard to do yardwork, especially when the seasons change and the cold weather leaves him with constant aches. So Kara quietly gets it done.
Olivia is a new source of joy for the couple, a daughter conceived after six miscarriages and a failed adoption. As Sean chases after the rambunctious girl at a playground near their home, his limp becomes a little more obvious, the stiffness in his long legs slowing his movements a little more than you'd expect for a man who is technically still a millennial.
"I call her and Sean my miracle babies," Kara says as she watches them play on the swings.
The reality is that school shootings remain quite rare, given the number of students and schools across the country. From 1999 to 2013, homicides, bicycle accidents, firearm accidents, falls and swimming pool drownings accounted for 31,827 of the total 32,464 reported deaths, while deaths in school shootings numbered 154, or fewer than 0.5%, according to James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University in Boston.
Put another way, a young person in the United States is nearly 11 times as likely to die in a swimming pool than in a school shooting. And most students say they feel safe in school. In a 2015 survey by federal researchers, just 3% of students ages 12 to 18 said they were “afraid of attack or harm at school” during the school year.
Experts say that may be precisely why school shootings are so horrifying: We can't help but think of schools as safe places. And once that sense of safety is gone, it's almost impossible to get back.
Graves works for a commercial irrigation company these days, but he's still interested in law enforcement and spends hours listening to police radio chatter via a smartphone app.
Lying in bed late at night on Oct. 1, 2017, he got an alert from the app about a shooting in Las Vegas – a gunman had opened fire at a concert. Graves listened as police officers, in an echo of their actions at Columbine, struggled to respond.
“I was like ‘Jesus,’ listening to that chaos unfold,” he says. “But when I heard a shot ring through the police mics, you know, mic to mic, that’s when my PTSD kicked in. I knew that my PTSD was probably going to be a problem the next day, but at the time, I was like, I’m committed, I’m listening to this.”
'Trying to make sense of it'
Kara hates the police radio app. She says it’s unhealthy for her husband to listen to it. But she indulges him because she also knows why he feels compelled to listen: It gives him a sense someone is out there protecting the world, even if the stories of violence and hurt also bring him back to that day.
Instead of focusing on the past, Kara likes to keep Sean thinking about the future: camping trips, maybe a new house. Together, they try to avoid letting Columbine fill their thoughts every day. It's a powerful draw, to wallow in that space, to let it fill your thoughts constantly.
Graves says most of his classmates have managed to let it go most of the time, but some are still stuck in the past. Time, it seems, does not heal all wounds.
"They're still trying to make sense of it," he says. "That's all they can talk about. They’ve never healed and moved on."
DeAngelis said communities that have suffered trauma like Columbine need to understand that things will always be different. He said some people will want to talk about the incident obsessively, while others just want to ignore it as best as possible.
“People kept saying, 'When it is going to get back to normal?' And it’s never going to go back to that normal. You can create a new normal, but if you think it’s going to go back to the way it was, well, that’s not going to happen," DeAngelis said. "And that’s where communities get into trouble.”
Like many Columbine survivors, Graves credits the community with providing much-needed support. Chants of "We Are... Columbine" are a staple of school rallies, cheer leaders running their voices hoarse to help build that sense of togetherness. He's still close with many of his classmates and stays in regular contact with DeAngelis.
And once a year on the anniversary, he visits the spot where he was shot. He smokes a cigar in Rohrbough's honor and heads out on that camping trip to avoid the worst of the reminders. This year, however, feels different. Reporters from around the world have been reaching out, and coverage has been ramping up on local and national television.
The Graves family lives just 6 miles from Columbine High School, with its memorial to the Beloved 13 fallen and ever-present police car outside the front doors. Like many cars, the family truck's plates bear the state flower, a purple-and-white columbine with the reminder to "respect life."
It's enough to prompt the question: Have you ever thought about moving away, getting a fresh start?
"No," Graves says. "This is my home."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: For Columbine survivors, life is about finding 'that new normal' 20 years later