For the first time since the deadly mass shooting in November, Oxford High School students will return to their classrooms for school on Monday.
High school students have been back at school for a few weeks, but not at their own school. His return to the halls where the tragedy occurred last year will undoubtedly come with many emotions, some of which many of us cannot even pretend to understand.
If anyone can sympathize with Oxford students, it’s the survivors of the 1999 Columbine shooting. And some of those survivors have gotten in touch after the November 30, 2021 shooting.
The former headmaster of Columbine High School has been offering various pieces of advice to school leaders in Oxford.
Local 4’s Nick Monacelli also visited with some Columbine survivors, who share their experiences and advice for the Oxford community as high school students return to their building for the first time this week.
Each of the Columbine survivors who share their stories has a different perspective. The principal, the students, and the parents all experienced the tragedy differently.
But, when it came to returning to their school after the massacre, they overwhelmingly agreed on one thing.
“We didn’t want tragedy to win,” Columbine survivor Mandy Cooke said.
Cooke and survivor Katie Tennessee are now teachers at the high school they attended 23 years ago.
When asked what it was like to return to Columbine High School for the first time after the mass shooting, Tennessen said there were “a lot of overwhelming feelings.”
“And no feeling is wrong,” Tennessee said. “That’s what I think (the Oxford community) needs to know is (that) you could be totally fine one day, and then a mess the next. There is no prescribed way of how this plays out.”
“I also wish they knew it’s okay to be happy and smile and laugh with your friends,” Cooke said. “I think… that first day was full of emotions. And it was like, ‘Is it okay to smile? Is it okay to be happy that we’re back?’”
All the survivors we spoke with shared the sentiment that they wanted to be proud of their school and take it back after facing such a serious tragedy.
“We feel much more of a level of excitement, of wanting to be there, wanting to get back into it and basically get the building back,” Columbine survivor Patrick Ireland said.
The survivor said it was important for the students to take back the school and “not let evil win.”
Ireland’s escape from Columbine High School during the 1999 shooting was replayed live across the country. Their parents, John and Kathy Ireland, admit they were scared when the students returned to the building, but they also said that going back was more important.
“Be proud of your school. Be proud to be a Wildcat,” said John Ireland. “Go back there with energy and vigor and start making everything the way it should be again, and do it with pride. Do it with focus.”
Plus: Interior of Oxford High School renovated before the return of students
While the survivors agree that it is important for the community to return to school, they all warn that difficult times are ahead.
“When I first walked out of my office into the hallway, I relived everything I saw that day, from the gunman pointing a gun at me, the screaming children, the alarms going off,” said former Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis. . “And I can remember walking back to my office and just crying, anxious, nauseated. And that’s when I started getting counseling early on.”
DeAngelis says he was under pressure after the shooting, with some arguing that students shouldn’t go back to high school. But he did not agree.
“If we don’t go back to that school, then the two killers have won,” DeAngelis said. “It’s almost like after 911, the terrorist wanted us to be afraid to get on a plane again.”
“We didn’t want tragedy to win,” said former student Cooke. “We loved our school and so many amazing things happened to us. And to feel like we owned it again, that it wasn’t a sad place. It was our high school and we wanted to have new memories.”
Tennessen, a survivor turned teacher, had a hopeful message for the Oxford community.
“Don’t let this define you. This is something you experienced, but it doesn’t define who you are,” Tennessee said. “It’s big and it will shape you, but it shouldn’t become all that you are, because you still have so much more ahead of you.”
The survivors, parents and students, had hours of information and advice to share with those in Michigan and beyond.
“I think a lot of the parents I talked to, after the Columbine shootings, felt like their kids were gone and they were flocking to each other…because that’s what they needed. And the parents felt a little bit abandoned and not knowing what to do,” said Kathy Ireland.
As parents and students navigate helping one another, Columbine survivors say there are times to give space and times to ask for help, and it’s important not to neglect siblings or parents.
Both Tennessee and Cooke had much to say about their experiences, having survived the Columbine shooting and now teaching at the same school, including what one of them didn’t realize until he had children of his own.
You can watch Nick’s full conversation with them in the video player below.
It has been nearly two months since the accused shooter, 15-year-old sophomore Ethan Crumbley, opened fire inside Oxford High School during school hours, injuring 11 people. The teen faces 24 felony charges as an adult and is currently awaiting trial. A not guilty plea was entered on Crumbley’s behalf on all counts.
The alleged shooter’s parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, also face four counts of involuntary manslaughter each for their alleged role in the deadly shooting.
The district’s plan was to transition back to normality as slowly as possible to help high school students, teachers and staff return to the building. The temporary memorial that was created by the Oxford community outside the high school will be removed, but authorities say there is a plan to create a permanent memorial.
Last week, Oxford Community Schools Superintendent Tim Throne issued a letter to “clarify” the incidents leading up to and following the shooting.
In the letter, Throne addressed a deer head found at the school on November 4, a bird’s head found in a jar at the school on November 11, states that live ammunition was found at the school, tips were sent to the law. police, what the district knew — or didn’t know — about the alleged shooter’s social media posts, the training he says saved lives that day inside the high school, and the police response.
Plus: Oxford schools superintendent says district was unaware of Ethan Crumbley’s social media posts
The district, along with Throne and other school administrators and staff, is currently facing a $100 million civil lawsuit filed on behalf of two students who survived the Nov. 30 shooting.
Full coverage: Oxford High School shooting
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism