“Community will save us.
Those are the words I wrote on Facebook, a day after the unprecedented ‘gun day’ that cancelled school for 500,000 Colorado schoolkids.
From 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday when the first lockouts were called, until 10:30 am on Wednesday when the FBI announced the threat was over, our communities prayed for the best and braced for the worst.
It was around 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday when the hairs on my neck stood up for the first time. After picking my daughter up from school, I got a text message from my husband, a principal. ‘We’re in lockout,’ it said. He tells me all schools in the region are, as well.
It was unprecedented – all schools in a major metropolitan area AND the suburbs all went into lockout at the same time, following the recommendation of the FBI. Suddenly, it felt serious.
I look down at my phone and see the picture of a young female, wanted by the FBI. The text and email alerts and automated voicemails start pouring in.
Woman at large.
Considered armed and dangerous.
Infatuated with Columbine.
Arrived in Colorado.
Lost somewhere in the foothills.
Schools on high alert.
‘Oh, my goodness.’ I say out loud.
I look down at my daughter. ‘Oh nothing,’ I say. It’s too early to tell her anything. We don’t know anything, really. The last thing I need is for my kindergartner to be afraid to go to school.
It wasn’t until 8 p.m. when my husband finally got home. He walked in the door, and had a different look on his face than anything I’d seen before in our 7 years of marriage. He was quiet. Concerned. Drained.
‘They’re doing a press conference soon. We’re wondering if the governor is going to cancel school tomorrow.’
And that’s when it really hit all of us how serious it was.
The next 14 hours were intense. The press conference mentioned she was last seen just miles from our neighborhood. Friends with PTSD from other scary incidents were panicking. Friends who are Columbine survivors were struggling. There was a phone call at 12:30 a.m. – no school across the region until the suspect was found. Except in my husband’s district: principals were still required to report.
I couldn’t sleep. The alerts and messages kept coming in the early morning hours as my husband tried to communicate with his staff. At 4, I tried to get out of bed to do some work. As I walked into the dark living room, I couldn’t bring myself to turn on the light. An armed woman was on the run, in our county. I didn’t want our house to be the first light to break the dark – I didn’t know what I’d see. It’s easy for your mind to start playing tricks on you when there are so many unknowns.
As my husband started getting ready for work, I could feel the mama-bear rage building inside of me.
I was angry. Angry that a child who was clearly mentally ill didn’t get the support she needed. Angry that she could hop a plane, buy a gun without a state ID, walk out of the store with it, and hold an entire state hostage. I was angry that my kids were missing a day of school for this. I was angry that I had figure out how to tell my 3 and 6-year-old daughters there was no school in a way that wouldn’t traumatize them. I was angry that I was afraid to take them to the mall or the library or the grocery store, and that we would have to stay in our house until we knew she was caught. I was angry that it has been 20 years since Columbine and things are worse, not better. I was angry that sending my husband to work in a school felt like sending him off to work in a war zone. I was angry that we had to stop our lives for her.
The morning hours were eerie in the neighborhood. Everyone stayed inside. There were no cars or busses on our street, no kids riding bikes. We heard sirens, then helicopters. Around 10:15, we found out she was captured, just 25 miles from our house. The threat was gone, they announced. But school wasn’t called back on until Wednesday evening. Was there more we didn’t know, I wondered? Were we truly safe?
The next day, as we went back to school, we were so relieved, but there were reminders of the bizarre and scary day before. We saw military police vehicles coming down the highway, from the foothills. Police officers monitored our schools – even daycare. We hadn’t told our kids many details, but my 3-year-old turned to me after hearing me thank an officer at her daycare and said, ‘Mommy, is he the one the chased the bad lady?’ My heart sank.
But then we arrived at my daughter’s kindergarten, and the power of community has never been more on display.
The teachers had written messages in chalk in front of every classroom door, telling the students how safe and loved they are.
The parents hugged one another and smiled through tears.
Police officers checked in on families to see how they were doing.
Our principal stood at the crosswalk greeting everyone and my daughter’s teacher hugged me through tears, reassuring us they are safe.
A mom I didn’t know walked around the school with me after the bell rang, and we read the messages together. ‘I don’t know you, but I feel like I should give you a hug,’ she said.
Another mom texted me to thank me for sharing the chalk messages on Facebook. She had been traveling for business that week and it was difficult to be so far from her children during all of this.
These chalk messages and the sense of community they sparked immediately made me cry tears of relief and gratitude for the amazing people who are educating and protecting our children every day.
When I walked back to my car, it struck me that building community is perhaps the only guaranteed solution to our problems. Getting involved in our schools, sharing the demands of parenting, supporting our teachers, breaking isolation, having respectful, positive one-on-one conversations with people who think differently than we do… all of these are key to our progress. Community is how we stay safe, protect our children, recognize those who need help, and spark productive dialogue to seek common ground.
This is why community will save us. Get to know your neighbors. And thank a teacher today.”
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