On April 20, 1999, the unthinkable happened. Sue Klebold —mother of one of the two gunmen responsible for the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo.— is reminded of it every waking moment of her life.
Nearly 20 years later, Klebold has found her purpose in telling her story, advocating for mental health, and spreading awareness of suicide signs and prevention. Klebold was welcomed to the South Burlington High School stage on Sept. 26, as the keynote speaker for the Howard Center’s first Community Education Series. September is Suicide Prevention Month. The Howard Center is a nonprofit with a mission to improve the lives and well-being of children, adults, families, and communities.
About Sue Klebold
After years of living in seclusion, Klebold decided that sharing her message and giving back to society far outweighed the benefits of trying to live a private life.
Over the past 15 years, she has volunteered for suicide prevention and organizations; she is a member of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Consumer-Survivor Subcommittee and member of the National Loss of Hearing Council of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Klebold co-chairs conferences at the state and national levels, advocates for mental health awareness and intervention, and participates in presentations across the country. In 2016, she published her memoir, “A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy.” All profits go toward organizations that promote mental wellness, brain research, and suicide prevention.
How Could You Not Have Known?
“I share this message because I never ever want any community to go through what ours did,” Klebold said as she addressed the packed auditorium Wednesday. “I never want any parent to go through what we did. In my heart of hearts, I wish that my son had somebody who could see the pieces, fit them together, and understand what was happening — enough to intervene and not only save his life but the lives of other people who were killed.”
Her son, 17-year-old Dylan Klebold, and Eric Harris killed 13 students, one teacher, and injured over 20 others. They then killed themselves. As the first nationally-televised school shooting, Columbine was at the forefront of everyone’s mind in the community and the nation at-large. The Klebold and Harris family, and those closely associated with Dylan and Eric, faced severe backlash. Klebold explained that “everybody was suing everyone,” from the families, the sheriff’s office, to the pharmaceutical company that administered the drug Dylan was using.
“When you’re being sued, you don’t talk. When it was very much needed for people to come together and debrief and talk about how such a horrible thing could happen, it never did, and it may never happen still.”
One of the most troubling questions Klebold had been repeatedly asked still haunts her: How could you not have known?
Klebold explained that Dylan, the youngest of her two sons, was the “golden boy” who, through his entire life, seemed “good at everything, [was] in control, and who wanted to be self-reliant.”
Before the tragedy, she had not realized how much pain her son was in and how severely he was bullied; only in the aftermath, the signs became clearer and more evidence surfaced, particularly through writing.
“My humiliation was so tremendous,” she recalled. “I was hated, and I knew it, and I sort of hated myself. How could a child that I had raised with the values that I had given him… how could he do this?
“People are very quick to blame. I would hear someone on a talk show call our family disgusting, our governor went on national television to say the shootings were the parents’ fault and that inflamed a lot of anger and hatred toward our family.”
While she herself has dealt with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, panic attacks, breast cancer, and other stresses, she pointed out others who have been deeply affected. One survivor she met suffers from painful spasms every 20 minutes due to nerve damage in her back. Several members from the community’s fire department suffered from PTSD and were prohibited from seeking outside treatment. Counseling was brought in, but not all firefighters were comfortable with the choice. Consequently, a few years later, that department lost six firefighters due to suicide.
“When you see a shooting like this, try to remember that this is a ripple effect. It shakes everything you know. It breaks your heart, and there is no easy way to get through it. You have to access everything you can to keep you in balance and to reach for light and reach for hope.”
Seventy-eight percent of school shooters are suicidal at the time of shooting, as determined by the FBI, she said.
“It is my theory that if we can help kids and help prevent suicides, then we can prevent homicides.”
Some signs of suicide include — but are not limited to — feeling like a burden to others, feeling trapped, feeling isolated, experiencing unbearable pain, increasing drug and alcohol use, acting recklessly, giving away possessions, sleeping too much or too little, and anger and aggression, which is especially prevalent in young males.
Steps Forward: How to Support Each Other
Accompanying Klebold after her presentation were panelists with expert perspective. Two were associated with the Howard Center: Kelly Deforge is a Howard Center Board Member and co-chair of Howard Center’s Family Council, and Kristie Reed is the director of Howard Center’s Baird School and INCLUSION Program in Burlington, and she is a Vermont Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Board-Certified Behavioral Analyst. South Burlington Police Chief Trevor Whipple was also present, along with Colchester School District Superintendent Amy Minor.
Several audience members approached the mic with questions about how bullying is being handled in schools and at home, anxiety among kids, warning signs, general observations, and how to approach loved ones who are struggling with mental health.
Though the topic is convoluted, one message was unanimously clear: speaking up is better than not speaking up at all. In response to a mother asking how to approach another parent who has been identified as a bully, panelists had this to say:
“If you are aware of the details of what’s been done to another child, try to talk to the parent whose child may have hurt someone and give them the details as illustratively as possible,” Reed offered.
“That’s one of the biggest challenges for school administrators,” Minor admitted. “If you see something, say something. Not just students, but families,” adding that catching the behavior in the early stages before it escalates makes a huge difference.
Concerned you know someone with a troubled mind? Ask and act.
“The bottom line is that you are the mom,” Deforge said. “You know your kid, and whether they acknowledge it, whether they are thankful for it, or have a few choice words for you, all you can do is say it, because if you say it, someone else will say it. For the one time out of 10 the parent takes it as real serious information and does something about it, it’s worth it. I’d always bring it to the other parent knowing that it won’t be easy for them to acknowledge about it and stop it, but the more it’s brought up, it will help.”
“It’s so easy now to use an electronic device because it’s complete anonymity,” Whipple added. “You don’t see the impact; you’re shielded from that. I think, as a parent, be aware of what your kids are doing, or if your child says they’re bullied, have they bullied electronically?”
Klebold highlighted that bullying is often associated as the cause of suicides. She says it is a risk factor, but it is not a cause. It’s not about having all the answers. In fact, “the most important thing we can do is listen.
“We can’t over-simplify this, but we can save people by simply asking the question,” she said, “giving them an opportunity to talk, letting them know we care, being there for them, connecting them with resources. That is something that we can do. Yes, we’re scared we might fail, but isn’t it better to try?”
SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent