SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
Dan Riecks was eating lunch in the cafeteria at Columbine High School when he looked out the window and saw a boy lying on the ground.
He assumed the kid injured himself while skateboarding. Teacher Dave Sanders went outside to investigate. He came running back inside to warn students that someone had a gun.
Riecks, now 30, said living through the Columbine massacre was a life-changing event. It motivated him to become a teacher and work with at-risk children.
Riecks since has earned a teaching degree from Fort Lewis College and works as a truancy clerk at Durango High School. He deals with students who are late or absent from school.
“I’m basically a glorified security guard at the high school,” he said. “I’m that guy with the walkie-talkie, where if something were to happen, I would be in the loop.”
Columbine teacher Sanders pulled the fire alarm and ran into the hall to warn other students. He was the only teacher to be shot and killed April, 20, 1999.
Riecks ran out of the cafeteria and into an elevator. He rode up to the second floor, the doors opened and he saw smoke – possibly from gunfire or homemade bombs. He ushered students back into the elevator and rode it down to the first floor, where a janitor directed them into an auditorium.
About 50 students waited in the auditorium. If the gunmen came through one door, the janitor said everyone would leave through another, and vice versa.
The janitor, who had a walkie-talkie, gave the “all clear” after about 15 minutes and directed students out one of the doors that lead outside.
Riecks went to a friend’s house to watch the drama unfold on television.
“It’s still vivid,” he said. “The adrenaline and the moment – it makes it like slow motion. I can still see everything. It’s not clear how much time was actually going by, but I pretty much remember every detail from that whole day, and I especially remember the emotion of it.”
The shooters killed 12 students, one teacher and injured 21 other students.
The shooters – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold – committed suicide.
Riecks didn’t know them personally, but he was aware of them and their social clique – “The Trenchcoat Mafia,” which they may or may not have belonged to.
“They were infamous for wearing those black trench coats,” he said. “For the most part, none of them were violent people, whatsoever. But Dylan and Eric stood out.”
Like other school shooters, Harris and Klebold were bullied, Riecks said.
“Cliques were still a thing at Columbine,” he said. “That’s one of those things that I’ve come to grips with over time. There was bullying. It was part of the reason.”
Riecks said he thinks about the shooting nearly every day. The memory can be triggered by a lyric in a song, a passage in a book or simply looking out the window.
Before the shooting, Columbine was a “very average place,” he said. Afterward, there was a cultural shift that often follows tragic events.
“People went out of their ways to be nice to each other,” Riecks said. “Teachers roamed the hallways during passing hours and tried to be friends with everybody.”
There were hugs, high-fives, pats on the back and more one-on-one conversations, he said.
That culture persists today in schools across the nation, he said, but it is important to keep it up, talk to students and give them an outlet to express concerns.
“They need to have that place where they can vent,” Riecks said. “They need to have that friend they can talk to, that teacher who can connect with them and give them something that they’re not getting at home or work or outside school.”
DHS and Columbine are similar in size and feel, he said.
“If the colors were different, it would feel kind of like walking into Columbine,” Riecks said.
Students need to be aware of their own safety, he said.
Guns were an aberration at suburban Columbine – “Where did these kids get guns?” Riecks said. But in Southwest Colorado, where hunting is a sport, kids have far greater access to guns, he said.
He knows of few, if any, teachers who want to carry concealed weapons at school.
“When I hear arguments like arming teachers, I can only laugh so much as it will make me cry because it is so absurd that people who aim to nurture would be asked to kill,” he said. “You ask any teacher, ‘Would you rather be a shield than a sword?’, and they’ll all say ‘shield.’”
Columbine had a school resource officer. He exchanged gunfire with the shooters, but it didn’t stop them.
“One man was not enough against two heavily armed teenagers,” Riecks said.
Riecks wonders if the nation is asking the right questions. He wonders if the debate should be focused more on mental health than gun control.
“School safety begins and ends with the kids,” he said. “You can tell something is wrong, and the hardest part is knowing what to do with that.”