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South Valley Journal

Healing from Tragedy: Guest Speaker Craig Scott shares life lessons from Columbine shooting

Feb 23, 2022 06:14PM ● By Dylan Wilcox

Craig Scott, Columbine Shooting survivor, speaks to an audience gathered at Riverton High School’s auditorium on Monday, Jan. 31. (Brook Bowen/Riverton City)

By Dylan Wilcox | [email protected]

Guest speaker Craig Scott addressed an auditorium filled with high school students and community members at Riverton High School on Monday, Jan. 31 as he reflected on the horrific day of the Columbine High School shooting nearly 23 years ago.

As part of Riverton City’s “Live in Real Life” program, which was launched to combat anxiety, depression and other mental, emotional, and physical health challenges among the teenage population, Scott accepted the invitation to speak on these pressing issues. He reiterated that although the shooting was tragic, he believes there were silver linings and positive messages that can be gleaned from his experience.

Most Americans remember the heartbreak that struck Littleton, Colorado on April 20, 1999. Two high school students rigged Columbine High School with pipe bombs and went on a shooting spree which left 15 individuals, one faculty member and 14 students dead, including both shooters who committed suicide. Among those killed was Scott’s sister, Rachel Joy.

“What I have done over the past 22 years is to use my story to help build up and encourage people around us, help teens with their pain, and show that purpose can come from pain,” Scott said.

Scott was 16 years old at the time of the shooting. He recalled studying in the library when he heard popping sounds. Mistaking the noise for a prank, students carried on until a teacher ran frantically into the library telling everyone to get under the tables.

“I got this feeling that it wasn’t a prank, it was serious,” Scott said. He hid under a table with Isaiah Shoels, one of the few African American students at Columbine, and Matthew Kechter, both of whom were killed by one of the shooters, sparing Scott.

“My ears were ringing so loud from the gunshots, I was feeling so much fear, I thought I was going to die. I felt like my heart was going to stop beating,” he said. Despite the surreal and dangerous situation, Scott remained calm and offered a prayer for his fear to be taken away. “I felt God speak to me, tell me to get out of there. I heard a calm, peaceful voice say, ‘Be still,’” he recalled. Once the coast was clear, Scott helped a student who sustained a gunshot wound out of the library to safety.

The library then became the backdrop of a shootout with police. After the perpetrators took their own lives and emergency personnel secured the scene, Scott felt something happened to his sister Rachel. “A friend tapped me on the shoulder and said a girl had been shot over there. I couldn’t tell [at the time but] I was looking at my sister,” Scott said. Word soon came from the police department that Rachel was among the casualties.

Having little time to process the event, Scott found himself bewildered but remembered how angry he felt. “I dealt with a lot of things, grief from losing my sister, my parents losing a daughter. But one of biggest emotions I felt afterward was anger,” Scott said.

He recalled how the media covered the shooting, portraying the shooters in a different light as two teenagers on the brink, suffering bullying and being outcast. However, Scott believed the shooters were focusing on negative thoughts which translated into hatred and eventually manifested into their carrying out the massacre.

The trauma weighed on the young Scott who experienced nightmares to sleepless nights for a year after the shooting. One night, while watching a violent movie with his younger brother, a scene triggered Scott.

“I told my brother to change the channel,” Scott said. “The movie got more violent, and I started to have more flashbacks.”

Scott remembered slamming his brother on the kitchen floor holding up a knife to his face and asked, “Do want to know what if feels like to almost lose your life?” Scott deeply regretted the encounter. “All of a sudden I realized what I was doing. I dropped the knife. I was becoming the very thing I hated.”

Sometime later, Scott went to South Africa on a humanitarian mission in Rachel’s stead. There he shared the story of a Zulu man who revealed his whole tribe was slaughtered by another tribe, 17 members of his family were killed by machete. Yet, the Zulu man was still forgiving toward his family’s killers. "Then he told me something I never forgot. He said, 'Forgiveness is like setting a prisoner free and finding out that prisoner is you,'" Scott said.

That experience proved a turning point to escape from the depressing “black cloud” he was wrestling with for so long. From that point on, he decided to share his story, focusing on forgiveness, faith, healing, positivity and release.

Five messages he relayed to attendees were letting go of the past, what one’s attention is placed on is given power, take control of thoughts, look for the good by keeping perspective, and starting a positive chain reaction. The latter message was inspired by Rachel who inspired others to be kind through the life she led. On social media, people participate in Rachel’s Challenge by performing acts of compassion towards others.

According to the nonprofit website, Rachel’sChallenge.org, “[Rachel’s] family soon realized that [her] story could help transform the way we relate to each other, and how we feel about ourselves. It provides an antidote: a path to ending school violence, bullying, self-harm and suicide. How? By creating positive connections that improve self-worth and mental health.” The challenge has reached 29 million students and educators in schools across the country.

Scott relayed that despite Rachel’s short life, she left behind a legacy of positivity through journals she kept riddled with messages which serve as an inspiration for young people struggling with mental and emotional health. One of her writings reads, “Compassion is the greatest form of love humans have to offer. I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same. People will never know how far a little kindness can go.”

Connecting Rachel’s theory, Scott cited recent events, increased isolation during the pandemic, rise in gun violence, and increased school shootings which are weighing on the country. Cutting through the heavy recollection of the shooting, Scott encouraged audience members to reach out to those around them by giving high-fives and hugs. Even dancing to music allowed a much-needed moment of levity. He urged attendees to turn the emotions of anger, fear, sadness and nervousness to determination, courage, appreciation, and excitement.

Flanked by Riverton High School students, members of the HOPE Squad, and Riverton Madrigals, Sean’s Garage Band performed The Beatles song entitled, “I get by with a little help from my friends”.

Mayor Trent Staggs introduced Scott, explaining that the city of Riverton began investing in programs and events which would encourage the discussion of suicide prevention in schools. A roundtable of educators and community members was hosted in 2018.

"From that roundtable, we heard two things: They said, 'It really would be nice if we had more school resource officers,' and, 'Is there something the city can do to help us talk about the alarming trend in anxiety and depression and just other mental health challenges?'" Staggs said. Thus the “Live in Real Life” program was created.

Among the attendees of the event were three alumnae of Columbine High School. Sarah Bush ’01, Laura Hall ’02, and Mandy Marquardson ’99 remember the day vividly. Bush was Scott’s classmate; she admires his ability to covey his message from that day.

“It was really hard to watch the footage. That part was really hard, but the message overall was amazing,” Bush said. Marquardson agrees. “He’s turned it into helping people in a positive light,” Marquardson said.

They said it took years to come to terms with the event. Although the event happened over two decades ago, coping with that day is still a struggle. Marquardson said she faced negativity from individuals when they found out she graduated from Columbine.

“It took me years to be able to say that I went to Columbine. It’s taken me years to come to grips with it,” she said.

Even replaying the footage was hard for Hall. “It’s been 22 years and I just had to leave the room,” Hall said. “I couldn’t do it. It’s different for everybody, but there is no timeline for healing.” Like Scott’s story, Bush and Hall, who are sisters, decided to share their experiences with anyone who would listen.

“Sarah and I started sharing our story in 2017 after the Parkland, Florida shooting,” Hall said.

“We’ve joined with other Columbine alumni in speaking where we could,” Bush added. “We found a lot of healing in it. It rips off the band-aid, but it’s also a double-edged sword: you get healing from it, but it’s rough to face it. It’s not something we get over; we still have nightmares. It’s just something we have to live with.”

Bush and Hall have organized programs with various schools and law enforcement agencies in Utah. They said they experienced pushback from school administrators when they offered to speak about their experiences at Columbine because administrators were afraid such conversations would inspire individuals to carryout shootings.

“[Our efforts have been in] trying to get people involved in reunification programs and promoting school safety. A lot of schools won’t let us come because they are afraid that by us sharing our experience, it might spark someone to be a copycat, which is really sad because it is a discussion meant to promote prevention,” Bush said. “It’s worth it to us to share our experience in the hope that it could prevent another Columbine.”

Marquardson added a support system is important for those who experienced similar tragic events. “I think it is also important for other people to know they have somebody else. I never knew anyone else who was in a school shooting, but there are people that others can reach out to and relate to,” Marquardson said.

All three agree there should be more discussions about preventing school shootings and enforcing stricter rules on who can get dangerous firearms. Scott’s story is an important part of that narrative. “He starts sharing his story, and that creates a personal connection to somebody who has experienced something similar, but we talk about the positive by leading a fulfilling life,” Hall said.

All three alumnae hope more schools in Utah will begin having discussions about these types of events. “Props to Riverton City for taking the initiative,” Hall said. “I just think that’s amazing.”