Columbine survivor turned educator pushes for common-sense school safety reforms


by Brian Washington

Colorado art teacher Katie Lyles hoped her students would be spared from the sort of dark specters that haunt her memories of high school.

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But during an emergency “lock down” drill at her elementary school, while crammed into a storage room with about 24 second graders, one student, a 7-year-old named Anthony, reached for her hand in fear. At that moment, her hopes began to fade.

“My heart broke for Anthony and his classmates—that they have to learn these types of drills at such a young age, if at all,” Lyles recently admitted during a public hearing in Denver on curbing gun violence. “I thought to myself: ‘This is a result of the Columbine shootings. This is my reality, and now it is theirs too.’ ”

CO teacher and Columbine survivor Katie Lyles visits memorial to slain Columbine victims
CO teacher and Columbine survivor Katie Lyles visits memorial to slain Columbine victims

When it comes to gun violence, Lyles has a unique, though unenviable, perspective. She’s witnessed its impact as an educator and up close as a student. Lyles, who’s been teaching for less than a decade, is a survivor of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, where 12 students and one educator died after being brutally gunned down.

“My story about Columbine is that I ran out of the school after the shooting started. We had to scatter into the neighborhood,” said Lyles, who also told Education Votes she sometimes experiences “survivor’s guilt” and a range of other emotions around April 20th, the anniversary of the shooting. “Sometimes, I am like, ‘Oh, I am fine.’ And then that day will hit you like a ton of bricks.”

But this year may be different. For the first time in about 14 years, Lyles is speaking publicly about the day that changed her life and this nation forever.


Spurred by the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, where a gunman killed 20 young children and six educators in December, Lyles is talking to local and national media and meeting on Capitol Hill with U.S. Senators, who have begun debating a package of gun safety measures, including comprehensive and enforceable background checks and effective approaches to securing schools and keeping students safe.

My ultimate goal is that I want change to happen, and if I can be a vehicle for that change, I am ready to be a resource.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate failed to pass background checks for gun purchases.  The vote was 54-46, but the measure failed to get the 60 votes needed to pass–despite an intense lobbying effort by the families of the 20 children and 6 educators killed in December at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

In a statement reacting to the vote, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said the U.S. Senate “caved to special gun lobby interests, ignored the cries for help from Sandy Hook families and other victims of violence, and failed to protect children from gun violence.”

“Educators like Katie Lyles will not be deterred by today’s outcome,” Van Roekel added. “Educators will keep fighting for simple, common sense steps to help prevent future tragedies.”

“I am passionate about this. I see our kids come into our school and they expect this to be a safe place of learning,” said Lyles, who says she doesn’t know if she would be this outspoken if she weren’t an educator. “We need to fulfill this promise to our students. I definitely gather strength from my students.  They need this.”

Your voice matters! Click here to find out if your Senators voted the right way and call 1-866-331-SAFE (7233) or email them to say thank you or, if they voted incorrectly, let them know they got it wrong.


Reader Comments

  1. I do not understand why this is presented by so many as an either/or solution. Commenters who propose that we need to do a better job of caring for the mentally ill are, of course, correct. However, that does not preclude ALSO regulating the sale of guns at gun shows, etc. so that it will be just a bit harder for the criminals who want guns to get them. I am so tired of the “criminals will get them anyway” argument. That is like saying “we don’t need laws against drinking and driving, because criminals are going to break them anyway.” Let’s stop limiting the sale of cigarettes to minors while we are at it, since we know that kids will find a way to get them anyway.
    Complex problems require multi-faceted and complex solutions, not simplistic one step fixes.

    1. Yes, Sue, multi-faceted and complex is the answer.
      Here’s a multi-faceted solution: Utilize our driver’s licenses/State ID’s to place an endorsement on everyone’s license if they can (P) purchase a firearm and/or (C) carry a firearm. Use the same background checks and fingerprints and photos and training and testing that we currently use. Then, when those who buy or carry firearms have endorsements on their licenses, then FFL dealers and private individuals can know that the person they’re selling to is eligible to purchase, and law enforcement can know if a person is eligible to carry, just as we do now, but with a myriad of cards and permits. Then, when only the good guys have the firearms, let them carry them any place they want to, any time they want to, as many as they want to. Get rid of “Gun Free Zones” that are FAKE “Gun Free Zones” – the only legitimate “Gun Free Zone” is one in which law enforcement controls all entrances and exits and uses metal detectors and technology to ensure that nobody enters with firearms, explosives, etc. I don’t know that we want or need that for most of our suburban schools. An adequate deterrent to keep most kids from bringing a gun to school is the knowledge that there is a known or unknown someone in the school that also has a gun. And in the event that the kid does bring a gun to school, those who have trained for such an event to protect themselves and those for whom they’re responsible will intervene to save some lives, theirs as well as students. The Newtown adults were not properly equipped, God bless them. That kind of tragedy doesn’t need to happen, if you have volunteers willing to be trained and carry. And if you don’t have teachers comfortable with CCW, then I don’t believe you have any option than to pay for armed security, because if your head and your heart doesn’t allow you to carry, you will not be effective when the incident happens. In schools, colleges, malls, churches – allowing concealed carry will deter and prevent death. In theaters at night in the dark – not so much. There is nothing a CCW could have done effectively in the dark and smoke to effectively help that situation. “REAL Gun Free Zone” is the only answer for that. That’s a costly option and it’s indeed sad that we need to go there. Unless we can keep that perp from getting a gun in the first place. Okay, we’ve gone full circle. Let’s solve this problem comprehensively, not just juxtapose the extremes.

  2. As an educator of 40 years (in AP American History and government) it appalls me when I see such an issue of gun control twisted around a variety of “knee-jerk” responses and misinformation. As pointed out by an earlier respondent, when people (and particularly educators) attack an issue without full and complete knowledge of what they are referring to it not only destroys their argument but also damages any common-sense attempts to address the issue. One of my best friends was a vocational educator at Columbine and I fully understand, in talking to him, what he went through but here is the problem which is not addressed by gun-control lobbyists: stronger and more effective responses to the mentally ill AND: ENFORCEMENT and CONVICTION of felons for breaking current laws already in place! Magazine size is a silly argument (anyone who has ever shot a weapon with any kind of regularity can change a magazine-large of small, in a fraction of a second). THAT solution is intended to quiet those who know nothing about guns and will change nothing. Regarding background checks-they already exist (try buying a LEGAL gun without one)! Criminals don’t have a check and won’t so, who ends up with the guns that cause the problems-not the law-abiding and not the mentally ill or socially unstable.

  3. Jill…

    U.S citizens can’t use “automatic” weapons, they are illegal… you can’t even buy them, and “I” don’t know of any that have been used in mass shootings since the 1930’s. Also, I do not believe that my government is evil, and in my opinion, it’s the best democracy in the world. I don’t have a bunker w/ a stock pile of rations, and I don’t conceal and carry, even though I have a permit to do so.

    I respect your opinions, and will not make personal judgements about you… and I truly believe, that whatever I say, will not change your outlook on this issue. But do some research, some reading, and talk to “experts” not politicians about guns… that’s what might change your point of view. I did that many years ago, when I considered myself neither pro, or con gun. Many people, maybe you, vote for our leaders without knowing anything about them… and many people, who are against gun use, know nothing about them.

    You mentioned winning and loosing. To me, it’s not about winning or loosing… it’s about doing the right things for the right reasons. Passing “feel good” laws… trying to band- aid a bleeding gash, isn’t going to do much. In fact, it might do nothing, and possibly make things more difficult for law abiding citizens.

    I have a 10 year son. He knows how to shoot guns, carry guns, transport guns, and take care of guns in a safe manner. He is not allowed to use “fake” guns: squirt guns, toy guns, and etc. He knows that guns are not toys… not even a so called play gun.

    I tried to buy my son a shot gun for Christmas, but each time I tried (6 times) I was denied (not sure why) I have no arrests, warrants, or protection orders against me. The same week that I was denied, a boy was shot in a neighborhood not far from mine. The killer, a juvenile, got his gun in an illegal manner. The law that was “supposed” to pass a few days ago wouldn’t have changed this situation, or many others like it, BUT some true common sense tactics and current laws “if” enforced would.

    i encourage you and others, to look at some comparisons between big cities like Chicago, New York, L.A., and Detroit. These cities are very similar in many ways. Then look at their crime rates, and gun violence numbers (deaths, etc). When you do, you’ll see some big differences. Then look at the approach that each of the cities take to curb these numbers in positive ways. What the successful cities have been doing, that’s the direction this country should go.

    I’ve lived in other countries with strict gun laws. Believe it or not, they have the same issues we do. You might be led to believe otherwise, but it’s not what I’ve seen.

    Many people who blame guns for violence have never been around, or used them. I suggest you take a conceal and carry class, or a similar type of class to experience guns in a different a light, a different way.

    My hope is that people educate themselves…. Too many uneducated people say what they “feel” is right and true, but have no clue what reality is. For example, you think automatic weapons are legal, and all of your judgements about me (bunker living, gun carrying, government hating…) were incorrect.


  4. If either side of this debate lets their emotions rule, then we get, on one extreme “I don’t want guns near kids and I don’t like scary black guns and nobody should have a gun except a policeman etc”; and on the other extreme “If they record my name today then tomorrow they’ll prevent me from buying more guns and then the next day they’ll confiscate the guns I already own etc.”
    If we really do what’s right in this debate, then of course we’ll do background checks to prevent bad people from getting their hands on guns, and then we’ll let the good people have guns and let them carry then any place, any time, as many as they like.
    That will actually deter criminals, stop crime, and defend us and our loved ones and those we’re responsible for.
    Until we do that, more people will die at the hands of criminals in “gun free zones.”

  5. I’m very disappointed that my Union (NEA) takes a stance on this issue.

    Much ignorance is being shown in many responses that mention the Constitution. I encourage many of you to relearn the purpose of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights…(protects people from the government) Our founding fathers would be horrified to see what our government now controls. Thank God for the Second Amendment and all of the others too!!!

    Knives, guns, bombs, sticks, and rocks can’t think for themselves. These objects are neither bad, or good. People kill.

    I see that someone mentioned a study / research about gun violence. To the untrained eye, many studies for and against gun control can be deceiving. A lot of variables aren’t accounted for most studies…

    By the way, current laws prevent citizens from owning nuclear warheads, fighter jets, and etc.

    1. Richard, you are right. I must educate myself more to the purpose of the constitution. However, there seems to be lots of children’s blood shed to protect the freedom of a few. I disagree that weapons don’t kill. Modern weapons are not sticks and rocks or knives. The assualt style weapons that unthinking men get their hands on are called automatic for a reason. I am terrorized each and every day in my own country and own classroom so u can feel safe from our so-called evil government. I’ve had enough. We nonviolent resisters will win in the end. The tide will change. Enjoy life in your bunker. I will continue to help shape the lagging prefrontal cortexes of young men while u arm yourself. Thanks for your help with the children dead and alive.

    2. I feel I need to make something clear here because I see this misconception is thrown around a lot. “Automatic” weapons are illegal for civilians to purchase and have been since the 1920’s. The term automatic means one can simply hold down the trigger and bullets will continue to be fired until the ammunition runs out. The process in place to purchase an automatic weapon makes it nearly impossible to own one. The “assault weapons” people are talking about are SEMI-automatic (I put “assault weapons in quotations because I still haven’t heard a definition of what this means). Semi-automatic firearms only fire one bullet with every pull of the trigger. Over 90% of the firearms on the market are considered semi-automatic. Just wanted to make that clear 🙂

  6. I thank those actually courageous enough to do something about our children at risk from gun violence. As a teacher myself, I agonize over the “what ifs” in my own classroom and the what ifs with my own children in their classrooms. I’ve had it with people saying more of this or that won’t work. I am sickened, saddened and disappointed in the misinterpretation of the right to bear arms. As a farm raised kid, I learned to hunt and grew up with guns. Our nations fetish with bigger and bigger weapons, has gone far off the rails however. I find it ironic that Americans believe they have the right to be armed at assault levels but believe the inferior citizens of the world do not. Taking their logic to its conclusion would mean that we have the right to individual nuclear weapons. Where do you draw the line in this twisted logic. Fact, my children are in danger daily because of selfish, fear-based, illogical ignorance. The musket shooting writer’s of the constitution would be ashamed. Let the people vote.

  7. I am for the protection of our children and leaving them unprotected has not proved to be a good action, look at the facts, where there is more gun regulations, there is also more crime, why because people can not defend themselves and others, and the criminals know that. Just reserch the facts and you will find that gun control is the wrong answer to less crime. Do your own research and get involved.

    1. Treed, there is a difference between crime and fatalities. Michael said that states with the strictest gun laws have more violent crime. This is absolutely true. The link you posted about the rate of gun deaths being slightly lower in these states has little to do with his assertion that violent CRIME is much higher. It is statistical fact that violent crime goes up with stricter gun laws. Instead of focusing on lowering gun violence, wouldn’t it be more affective to focus on methods of lowering ALL violence in our society?

  8. This is a sad issue that reflects the changing society we live in. As an educator in a public school, I have experienced poison put in my coffeecup and being assaulted in school by a student. It is to the point that I am buying a bullet-proof vest to wear to school in anticipation of what might happen. I agree, without addressing the mentally ill, any legislation is ignoring the true problem in our society. The answer is not to enact gun laws but to help our mentally ill population. I think arming staff is a strong deterrent and an easy way to protect our students.

    1. Tough issue, especially if a responsible and trained teacher wants a gun while in school.
      I truely believe we have a culture crisis, often manifested through political organizations. But the culture of teaching math and science to our future leaders will fall short if the learning environment includes the bias attached to fear and defense within the school. I say that the best of free and capital thought through math and science is only possible in a learning environment devoid of compounded frictions arising from integrating a culture of guns first, and last into the schools.

  9. Why should anyone object to checking the background of everyone purchasing a gun? It’s part of being responsible for your actions. Something we work to teach children evryday.

    Assault weapons should be available to those who are professionals-the military and law enforcement. We practice safety in our school, but realistically if a person comes in with the sort of weapon that was available in Ct. that person can shot the door down. As a professional community we need to stand up act resonsibly to protect the lives of our staff and students. No one needs to act assault weapons or huge clips that they can shot over and over again.

    Certainly-expand help for those suffering from mental illness. Bottom line is that if that young man in Ct. had not had access to a weapon that could repeatedly shot and kill- maybe some of those kids and their staff could have survived. If he had to stop to reload maybe someone could have stopped him.

    Why do we have to keep having this conversation? As technology changes what are are we going to do- say that the 2nd amendment guarantees everyone a surface to air missile?

    1. You are right, technology has changed in 200 years. Our freedom of speech has had to adopt to encompass the internet as a result. To not apply this to the second amendment would be hypocritical. This is the result of having a constitution that can evolve, something our founding fathers intended.

  10. I reluctantly decided to leave the Republican party many years ago because of their policies regarding public education. If Republicans are truly interested in reestablishing their party as a dominant force in American politics, they will have to be far more responsive to the clear-cut wishes of the American public.

    I just sent Senator Pat Toomey an e-mail thanking him for his courageous co-sponsorship of the background check legislation. I also e-mailed Senator Marco Rubio lamenting his lack of support for this common sense legislation.

  11. You ever notice that nearly all shootings happen in places that have no guns.

    Here’s some common sense: If it were common practice to have at least one staff or faculty member at a school packing heat, and the public was aware of this fact, I believe we wouldn’t hear about school shootings.

  12. We don’t need tough GUN LAWS! We need tougher laws to keep MENTALLY ILL PEOPLE from GETTING GUNS! Why should you or I be punished when only a few crazies are the ones committing these crimes! NO GUN CONTROL LEGISLATION!! MOLON LABE!

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