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April 18, 2014
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Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. Passion for the Job
with Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

Surviving Columbine but still struggling with the darkness

It is not his proximity to death that day that occupied Keith’s thoughts during the ensuing months and years, nor even the question of why he lived and others didn’t

Normal stopped for Keith at 1119 hours on the morning of April 20th, 1999. 

Memories of Columbine visit him still, like “an old, unwanted friend.”

It was lunchtime and the scene could not have been more typically American for a 15-year-old boy in a suburban school on the infamous day known as the Columbine Massacre. 

The Duffle Bag and the Backpack
The modern cafeteria was bustling with nearly 500 students — there was view of the parking lot and the Rocky Mountains on the horizon. The library one floor above shared the expansive glass windows. Taking a seat at a table near the stairs, Keith took no notice of the duffle bag set against the pillar as he dropped his own backpack nearby.

“I remember a janitor and Mr. Sanders running through the cafeteria. People were getting on the ground and under the tables. There was no room under the table for me, but the boy under the table was asking what I could see.” 

What Keith saw was the unexplained look of distress on the faces of students in the parking lot outside. Heavy smoke drifted. 

An unprecedented attack had commenced, planned and carried out with calculated ruthlessness by two young men who we have called monsters and psychopaths. 

Keith knew them as Eric and Dylan. Dylan had played roller hockey in neighborhood games with Keith and other friends.

Less than ten minutes before, the killers had planted bombs in the cafeteria that should have blown at any second, but failed. 

Eric and Dylan waited for the fleeing students who had not been killed by the blast to become moving targets or to be killed by other bombs planted along the hallway. 

Too impatient after the failure of the explosion to kill and maim the people in the cafeteria, the two self-appointed commandos murdered Rachel Scott and wounded nine other teenagers outside then, loaded with weaponry, they entered the school. 

The students nearest the cafeteria windows seemed to become aware of the threat at the same instant. “I’ll never forget the wall of people moving toward me. Like a flock of birds rising on cue” Keith said.

It was 1124 hours. 

The Attackers Were Near
“I wasn’t sure what I was running from. For some reason when I heard the pop-pop-pop-pop-pop, I wasn’t really in fight-or-flight mode. It wasn’t until I heard the shotgun shots that I got up and ran to the stairwell. A cacophony of people shrieking and slamming into chairs and tables,” Keith said. 

“I still didn’t know what was going on. I waited for my friend, found him, and half way up the stairs I heard gunshots inside the building. A person fell on my legs, I fell on another. I tried to stand up and persons behind me were pushing against my back, trying to get over me. I wrapped my arm against the banister and braced my other arm to the floor and let the people go ahead of me. As I moved I heard another burst of gunfire — short bursts.” 

The attackers were near.

Keith and his friend — along with others — were running fast. He saw buddies running down hallways with no exits and tried to call to them to move out to the exits that Coach Sanders had urged them toward. 

Keith eventually got outside to a grassy area, looking for friends, relieved to be outside, and talking about what happened. Quickly came a grim realization that not everyone had escaped. 

“There were still people inside,” Keith said. “The whole field got quiet and we heard shotgun shots and every so often heard a loud boom.”

Shots shattered the doors and the field cleared as students ran into the neighborhoods nearby. Only later did Keith realize those were bombs going off. And only later could he associate the gunfire with the deaths of Coach Sanders and the other victims from the library and hallways. 

The killers’ bullets were shooting up the hallway, now firing at arriving deputies through broken glass, shooting up the display case, randomly shooting toward fleeing students, shooting Coach Sanders who would die despite the efforts of students to stop the bleeding.

The two continued to kill, shoot, toss explosives, and attempt to detonate their cafeteria bombs until 1208 hours, when their last trigger pull was for themselves. 

The Proximity to Death
The intensity of the event for survivors, the wounded, and emergency responders would last many more hours. For some, it would last forever.

Much later, Keith would get his backpack returned to him. It was charred from the attackers’ attempts to ignite the bomb they had planted where Keith had rested for lunch. 

Yet, it is not his proximity to death that day that occupied Keith’s thoughts during the ensuing months and years, nor even the question of why he lived and others didn’t. It’s the darkness of it all.

“I still can’t grasp the darkness. I’m glad I can’t comprehend it, but it’s frustrating. It’s like staring at an alien artifact. While we were playing roller hockey he was planning to blow me up. The deeper you get, it’s just more dark. The void seems to get bigger and bigger.”


About the author

Joel Shults operates Shults Consulting LLC, featuring the Street Smart Force training curriculum. He is retired as Chief of Police for Adams State University in Colorado. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults





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