Kaylee Tyner thumbed through her freshman yearbook on the eve of the first day of her senior year at Columbine High School last August, willing a sense of nostalgia to overpower a churning anxiety.
She looked forward to soaking up her last drops of high school, yet couldn’t shake an uneasy feeling. It might have stemmed from the five advanced-placement classes she’d be taking. Or was it the nagging thought that this would be the year her school was shot up — again?
She paused on a page near the back of the book.
“There’s this section that goes over world news for the past year,” Tyner said. “On the first page of it, there’s this whole section about mass shootings and gun violence in America. I just thought it was interesting how things have changed and the conversation around it. There’s enough gun violence that it became a notable moment in my high school yearbook.”
Tyner and her classmate Rachel Hill weren’t born yet when their high school’s name became irrevocably linked to a mass shooting that reshaped their community. Instead of growing up in the tragedy’s shadow, the two Columbine seniors have marched into the light, embracing activism in hopes of ensuring the gun violence that preceded them never repeated itself — and finding the strength to keep going when, across the country, it happened again and again.
They were in sixth grade when the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults.
“That was a defining moment for me because I learned about what happened at Columbine in fourth grade, but my innocent mind thought it was something horrible that happened one time,” Tyner said. “After Sandy Hook, I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, what happened at Columbine can happen to me.’ ”
The February 2018 shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, flipped a switch in Hill, Tyner and student activists across the country, prompting widespread classroom walkouts, marches and protests in the name of stricter gun control laws.
The teens, who learned calculus and literature down the hill from a memorial honoring the 13 killed by gunfire in their school 20 years ago Saturday, started organizing as if their lives depended on it — maybe because they did, Hill and Tyner thought.
Balancing studies and activism
Tyner and Hill helped coordinate a school walkout last year to commemorate the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting. The teens, along with a group of like-minded students and advocacy organizations, carried out the March For Our Lives rally in Denver’s Civic Center Park, where tens of thousands of Coloradans protested gun violence in schools. They used their fleeting summer vacation to organize NRA protests on the steps of the state Capitol, despite social media threats that made them reconsider attending.
As senior year got underway, the teens persevered, balancing rigorous classes and academic responsibilities — like Hill’s proud role as student body vice president — with activism.
“When I first got into activism, I was doing it purely because I knew I needed to,” said Tyner, now 17, who politely paused a recent interview as she replied to text messages from local and national media.
Tyner was getting inquiries about a project she helped launch called “My Last Shot” that mimicked an organ donor sticker on someone’s driver license, but, instead, indicated that if the sticker carrier were to die by gunfire, photos of their body should be publicized.
Tyner hoped the stickers would never need to be used, but would instigate conversation about the horrors of gun violence that she said are often shielded from public view.
“I wouldn’t be able to live with myself knowing that I could be doing something I wasn’t, especially knowing the platform Columbine provides me. I hate calling it that, but that’s what it is. I never expected my life to change in the way that it has in the past year, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Home away from home
Hill also recognizes that being a Columbine student gives her a platform, but, to her, the school gives her something even better — a second home.
“I pretty much live at the school,” Hill said in September in the midst of planning the homecoming assembly and a gun-violence prevention concert with Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. “I literally have no social life anymore. I go to school, and I go to work, and I go to activism meetings.”
In the fall, Hill drove home from her job at an elementary school after-school program, lamenting the difficulties of being a teenage activist. Her powderpuff football game fell on the same day as a March For Our Lives event in Washington, D.C. –and she agonized over which to choose.
“I really want to play powderpuff,” Hill said. “It’s a fun thing that you get to do as a senior, and you only get one senior powderpuff, but we can plan more rallies. It just sucks that I have to make these decisions.”
In the end, Hill played football with her friends, but she also chose the gun violence prevention concert over a weekend she had planned to visit colleges.
“Between all of my dilemmas, I try to pick one school thing and one activist thing to balance each other out,” she said.
At the homecoming assembly in September, Columbine students flooded into the gymnasium, many outfitted in overalls and flannel shirts. The ’90s fashion staples were back in style and Spice Girls music shook the bleachers, but a loudspeaker reminder to text in votes for homecoming king and queen situated the afternoon’s events in the proper century.
Boys who hadn’t quite filled out the shoulders of their football uniforms entered the gym to uproarious applause. A cheerleading performance elicited hurrahs. The wistfulness of a high school pep rally unfolded like a carefully orchestrated circus.
Hill was the ringmaster.
The 17-year-old could be spotted dashing along the sidelines, motioning for speakers to wrap up and ensuring the assembly was running on time.
When Hill’s name was called among a group of 24 students who scored 1400 or above on their SATs — in the top 5 percent of all who took the test that year — she beamed.
Hill exuded pride for her school every time she talked about it, and she could always talk about it — dances, charity events, the teachers she loved, the maze of hallways she walked and knew like she’d drawn the floorplan herself.
“I like being known as the girl from Columbine because Columbine is the best school,” Hill said one January afternoon.
During the assembly, Rachel’s father, Loren Hill, sat with a group of neighborhood parents who chatted about their kids’ college pursuits.
“I still look at Rachel like a little kid,” Loren Hill said, staring down at his daughter as she ran the show on the gym floor. “She’s so busy, though. She is always at school or out being an activist. She’s honestly very rarely home. We just want to make sure she’s enjoying her senior year, but, man, I’m so proud of her. I don’t know how she does it.”
The political arena
In February, Tyner and Hill sported gun violence prevention T-shirts under blazers as they strode up to the state Capitol. Hill already had arranged to make up the physics test she was missing in exchange for testifying on behalf of the since-adopted “red flag” bill — legislation that would allow a judge to order the seizure of guns from people who present a danger to others or themselves.
As the young women hit a locked door entering the building, a Capitol employee informed the teens they needed to use the visitor’s entrance.
“Hopefully not for long,” Tyner said, alluding to her aspirations of running for office.
Tyner’s testimony in front of a packed chamber focused on gun violence statistics like the high number of youth suicides in Colorado, many involving a firearm. She argued that the “red flag” bill could have prevented the Parkland shooting because citizens had notified law enforcement and the FBI about concerns of the perpetrator’s behavior prior to the incident.
Hill’s appeal started off a bit more personal.
“Every lockdown drill, every threat called into my school, every time I consciously search for an escape route no matter where I am, is a reminder of the world we live in today where no one is truly safe,” Hill testified.
In January, Hill recounted a bomb hoax at Columbine the month before that prompted an aggressive police response and put more than 20 Jefferson County schools on “lockout.”
Hill was outside of school on her off-period, but she was glued to the news while getting fearful text messages from her friends on campus. After the threat was deemed unfounded by police, Hill thought she was fine and drove to work, but she ended up bursting into tears on the way.
“I was like, ‘What is wrong with me?’ ” Hill said. “The next day, I talked to my teacher, who was actually a student during the Columbine shooting. She said that it was OK and that things like this were really tough to go through for us.”
As the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting approached — and well before this week’s unprecedented metro-wide scare — things started getting weirder, the teens said. There was increased security on campus. Media began bombarding Tyner and Hill for interviews more than usual.
Tyner said she’s trying to pull back from activism a bit and enjoy the fading days of high school.
“Columbine is a really beautiful school with a lot of amazing, wonderful people in it and extraordinary teachers,” Tyner said. “The community has risen above a lot of things. We are not just a tourist location.”
Hill, who once jumped at the chance to talk to local and national media, was growing fatigued.
“I’ve become kind of sour toward people who want to talk to me,” Hill said in February. “They ask me the same questions about what it’s like to be a student at Columbine. Like, Columbine is just a normal high school to me. I was thinking, though, that after I graduate, no one is going to care about what I have to say anymore. Why would they?
“Whether I like it or not, being a Columbine student has given me a platform to be heard. When I’m not heard the same way anymore, it’s going to feel weird.”
Tyner relishes the opportunities Columbine has given her — including traveling to Parkland to stay in the homes of shooting survivors who have become her close friends.
“I can see what their future is going to be, in a way,” Tyner said. “They’re going to heal to an extent, but they’re never going to go back to their normal. They’re going to have to find a new normal. For us, I don’t know what Columbine was like prior to the shooting. My normal is going to a school that had a shooting at it and all the things that come along with it. For the future generations that grow up in Parkland, that’s going to be their normal, as well.”