Columbine survivors share experiences, messages of hope as Oxford students return to high school

Local 4′s Nick Monacelli visits with survivors of 1999 Columbine High School massacre

For the first time since the deadly mass shooting in November, Oxford High School students are returning to their classrooms for school on Monday.

For the first time since the deadly mass shooting in November, Oxford High School students are returning to their classrooms for school on Monday.

The high school students have been back in school for a few weeks, but not at their own school. Their return to the halls where the tragedy took place last year will no doubt come with a lot of emotions -- some that many of us can’t even pretend to understand.

If anyone can sympathize with the Oxford students, the survivors of the 1999 Columbine shooting can. And some of those survivors have been reaching out in the aftermath of the Nov. 30, 2021 shooting.

The former principal of Columbine High School has been offering several pieces of guidance to school leaders in Oxford.

Local 4′s Nick Monacelli also visited with some Columbine survivors, who are sharing 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 sharing their stories have a different perspective. The principal, students and parents all experienced the tragedy differently.

But, when it came to going back into their school following the massacre, they overwhelmingly agreed on one thing.

“We didn’t want tragedy to win,” said Columbine survivor Mandy Cooke.

Cooke and survivor Katie Tennessen are now both teachers at the high school that they attended 23 years ago.

When asked what it was like to walk back into 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,” Tennessen said. “That’s the thing I think (the Oxford Community) needs to know is (that) you could totally be OK one day, and then a mess the next day. There’s no prescribed way for how this plays out.”

“I also would want them to know that it’s OK to be happy, and smile and laugh with your friends,” Cooke said. “I think ... that very first day was full of emotions. And it was like, ‘Is it OK to smile? Is it OK to be happy that we’re back?’”

The survivors we spoke with all shared the feeling that they wanted to take pride in their school, and take their school back after facing such serious tragedy.

“We felt a lot more of a level of excitement, of wanting to be there, wanting to reengage and basically take back over the building,” said Columbine survivor Patrick Ireland.

The survivor said it was important to the students to take back the school and to “not let evil win.”

Ireland’s escape from Columbine High School during the 1999 shooting played out live across the country. His parents, John and Kathy Ireland, admit they were fearful when the students returned to the building, but also said that being back was more important.

“Be proud of your school. Be proud to be a Wildcat,” John Ireland said. “Go back there with vim and vigor and start making everything the way it should be again, and do it with pride. Do it with focus.”

More: Oxford High School interior renovated ahead of students’ return

While survivors agree that it’s important for the community to return to the school, they all caution that there will be tough times 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, from screaming kids, alarms going off,” said former Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis. “And I can remember walking down and going back in my office and just crying, anxious, nauseous. And that’s when I got into counseling early on.”

DeAngelis says he was under pressure after the shooting, with some arguing that the students should not return to the high school. But he disagreed.

“If we did not go back in that school, then the two killers won,” DeAngelis said. “It’s almost like after 911, the terrorist wanted us to fear ever getting on a plane again.”

“We didn’t want tragedy to win,” former student Cooke said. “We loved our school, and we had so many amazing things happen. And to feel that we had ownership of that again, that it wasn’t a sad place. It was our high school and we wanted to have new memories.”

Survivor-turned-teacher Tennessen had a hopeful message for the Oxford community.

“Don’t let this define you. This is something that you experienced, but it does not define who you are,” Tennessen said. “It’s big and it will shape you, but it shouldn’t become everything that you are, because you still have so much more ahead of you.”

The survivors, parents and students, had hours worth of information and advice to share to those in Michigan and beyond.

“I think a lot of parents that I had talked with, after the shootings at Columbine, felt that their kids had taken off, and that they were congregating with each other ... because that’s what they needed. And the parents felt kind of abandoned and at a loss (for) what to do,” Kathy Ireland said.

As parents and students navigate helping each other, Columbine survivors say there are times for giving space and times to push for help, and that it’s important not to neglect siblings or parents.

Both Tennessen and Cooke had a lot 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 they had children of their own.

You can see Nick’s full conversation with them in the video player below.

Katie Tennessen and Mandy Cooke, two survivors of the mass shooting at Columbine High School, are discussing their experiences following the shooting, and offering insight for Oxford High School students who are preparing to return to the building for the first time since the Nov. 30 shooting.

Nearly two months have passed since the accused shooter, 15-year-old sophomore student Ethan Crumbley, opened fired inside of Oxford High School during school hours, striking 11 people. The teen is facing 24 felony charges as an adult and is currently awaiting trial. A not guilty plea was entered on Crumbley’s behalf for all charges.

The suspected shooter’s parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, are also facing four involuntary manslaughter charges each for their alleged role in the deadly shooting.

The district’s plan was to transition back to normalcy as slowly as possible to help ease high school students, teachers and staff back into the building. The temporary memorial that was created by the Oxford community outside of the high school will be removed, but officials say there is a plan to create a permanent memorial.

Last week, Oxford Community Schools Superintendent Tim Throne issued a letter to “clarify” incidents leading up to and following the shooting.

In the letter, Throne addressed a deer head that was found at the school Nov. 4, the head of a bird found in a jar at the school on Nov. 11, claims that live ammunition was found at the school, tips sent to law enforcement, what the district knew -- or didn’t know -- about the suspected shooter’s social media posts, training that he said saved lives that day inside the high school, and law enforcement’s response.

More: 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, are 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

About the Authors:

Nick joined the Local 4 team in February of 2015. Prior to that he spent 6 years in Sacramento covering a long list of big stories including wildfires and earthquakes. Raised in Sterling Heights, he is no stranger to the deep history and pride Detroit has to offer.

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.