Columbine 20 Years Later – A reporter’s perspective

Published: Apr. 19, 2019 at 4:33 PM MDT
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This piece is based on a blog entry written by Don Ward. He originally wrote it 10 years ago and updated it for the 20th anniversary

There are some dates etched in our collective minds - December 7th, September 11th, and for those of us in Colorado, April 20th.

That’s the day, the terrible day, when two teenage boys walked in to their own school and shot and killed their own schoolmates. That’s the day when so much changed. There had been school shootings before, just never on that scale. There have been all too many school shootings since, and they’re handled differently now, since Columbine…because of Columbine.

On April 20th, 1999 I was working for WLWT-TV, the NBC station in Cincinnati. I was the Weekend Morning Anchor and a reporter during the week. I enjoyed my time in Cincinnati, but I used to come home to visit Colorado whenever I could. I was just wrapping up one of those visits on April 20th. In the news business you learn to always leave good contact information with the newsroom whenever you leave town. That morning I was spending some time with my young nephew and I did not have the radio or TV on. I had stopped by my mother’s house in Colorado Springs to pick up my luggage to head to the airport then back to Ohio.

The news managers at WLWT just caught me by phone at my mother’s house….this was before we all carried cell phones 24/7. They told me, “Get to Denver, there’s a school shooting!” I thought they were kidding. I turned on the TV and one of the Denver stations was just starting live, continuous coverage that would last for hours and hours.

I happened to have a couple of suits with me because I had meetings earlier in the week with some of the Denver stations. I headed toward Littleton in a borrowed car with a borrowed cell phone (my sister’s). I knew a lot of the area around the high school would be blocked off - remember, for the first several hours no one knew how many gunmen there were, what their status was and whether more might have been involved and perhaps even have left the school. I reached out a college friend who grew up in the area, and he agreed to meet me and help me find a back way in. I still ran in to police road blocks, but with my reporter’s business card from WLWT I was able to get through.

The major TV networks all have feed services for their affiliates. They can supply satellite links for reporters at big stories nationwide. NBC at the time had one of those crews based in Denver, so that network satellite truck was already at the scene and staffed with a crew. My Cincinnati managers called them, told them I was coming and told me to track down that truck.

I got to the truck. The NBC feed reporter did live reports at one minute past the top and bottom of every hour. (That allows the affiliates to run a set up piece and say hello for one minute at the beginning of the newscast before the anchors toss to a “generic” live shot, dozens of stations airing the same live reporter at the same time.) That meant the satellite path was free for me to use at about 3 minutes past each half hour. I just had to step in front of the camera when the NBC reporter was finished. My Cincinnati station wanted me to provide the Colorado perspective: what the area was like, how the people were reacting to this terrible situation. I was on the air in Cincinnati, from Columbine within about 2 hours of when the shooting started. I remember early in that series of live reports there were still a few times when kids came streaming out of the school with their hands in the air, finally safe after fearing for their very lives for hours. Who can forget those images of all those frightened high school kids, running from their own school, still not knowing if someone with a gun was still alive and shooting.

Below is a screenshot from one of my first live reports that day for WLWT News 5 in Cincinnati.

All of us in the news business hate it when anything like this happens, but if it’s going to happen we figure we might as well be there. I had a Great Uncle who wrote a travel column for the Wisconsin State Journal in the 60’s and 70’s. I remember him saying that any time he took a flight, he kind of hoped for a hijacking because if there was going to be one, he might as well be there.

I stayed in Littleton for the next three days. By day 2 the national media had arrived in force. Then Clement Perk, near the school got very crowded and I went back to Cincinnati. I was ready to leave. It was a draining experience to be there reporting for the Cincinnati morning show (4 am Colorado time) through to the late newscast (9 pm Colorado time). It was also emotionally difficult knowing that all of those families, those of 12 students and 1 teacher, had lost so much at a place that was supposed to be so safe.

Here’s another screenshot from that day.

In the weeks and months that followed I did a lot of stories heavily influenced by Columbine. Schools all came up with emergency or crisis plans in case it happened there. Police departments came up with new “Active Shooter” strategies in case it happened again. Some of them even developed new formations for SWAT teams to enter a school where a gunman is firing.

It all changed. Zero tolerance policies went into effect for any kind of threat or talk of violence at school, even things that might previously have been considered trivial. But it all had to be done because those two troubled teenagers did the unthinkable at their school in our state.

For me, Columbine was one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever covered. I’m sure it was for everyone that day. It doesn’t seem like it was 20 years ago. It’s memorable for me, and memorable isn’t always good. I’ll never forget it.

I think the same is true for everyone, because of what those two boys did that day and because of what changed after that day.

We will always remember April 20th.

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