My name is Coni Sanders and my dad was the teacher killed at Columbine.
On April 20, 1999 I was at work when I overhead a coworker saying something about stupid kids at Columbine. And I joked with them and said, ‘Don’t joke like that, my dad is a teacher there,’ and I watched everybody turn white. And it was at that moment that my life changed forever.
This woman at my office drove me to my mom’s which was right by Columbine High School and it was almost like a post-apocalyptic thing, like there were cars parked right in the middle of the street with people standing in the media, and helicopters, and people walking across Wadsworth. It was very very strange. So she dropped me off, and I’ll never forget. Dad had bought this new big screen TV to watch the Rockies games on. And everybody was on their knees in front of this big screen TV watching the news footage of people running out of the school. And yelling like ‘Oh was that him, was that him, was that him?’ And seeing the kids running out of the school with their shirts off, we couldn’t figure it out, we found out later they had taken their shirts off to try to stop his bleeding.
And then there was a scene of a helicopter, from the helicopter zooming in on a sign that said ‘One bleeding to death.’ And my mother just started sobbing and she said ‘oh my god they gotta get to that student.’ It was my dad. That sign was because of him. He was right there, right above the exit, in a room bleeding to death with 40 students.
My dad saved hundreds of kids. He was outside, and he saw what was happening and ran into the cafeteria and jumped up on the tables and told everybody to get down and move out and then he ran up the stairs towards the library, I’m guessing to try to tell more kids to run and hide, and he was shot right outside of the library.
We were normal. And within a millisecond we were on the front page of the paper in Japan. And we couldn’t get out of our house because there were so many cameras in front of the door. And our family photos were stolen off the walls. People would come in to do interviews and take the pictures with them. And we couldn’t go anywhere without people knowing who we were. We used different names, we shopped at different stores. Because we didn’t want to have to relive that very moment at any given time. And throughout the years, people come up and they say ‘Oh my gosh, I remember where I was that day. And I was here, and this was happening, and I know somebody else, and what they don’t realize I, they’re asking us to relive the worst day of our life as well.
‘Healing is so strange’
What I know now is healing is so strange. Like there can be a moment where you’re standing in line at the grocery store, and you feel totally okay, and then you look over and Time magazine has a picture of the boys that murdered your family member.
It wasn’t until seven years after that I needed therapy. I didn’t think I need it because I didn’t feel anything. That was the problem. When we experience a significant trauma it breaks us and suddenly, we don’t really feel anything.
I was driving on the highway and all of a sudden I just felt this - I can't even describe it like this intense sadness anger it was like this explosion and I still don't know what happened, if it was a song on the radio or what. And I pulled over on the side of [Colorado State Highway] C-470 and got out of my car and sat in the ditch. And I laid down and I was just looking at the sky. I don’t know what happened. I felt.. I broke. And I don’t even think that I knew if it was about Columbine. And then it was like something snapped and I was like ‘You’re in a ditch on the side of the highway, get back in your car! How are you going to explain this to people?’ I got back into my car and I drove home and I just sat in the driveway.
It was like I felt everything over 7 years in one moment.
It felt unfair, it was angry, it was sad, it was disgusted at our entire world, and at that point I had to go to therapy. And I felt stupid because it felt good, and why did I wait so long? And I was really angry with myself. Because I really thought that I didn’t need it. Because in our society, everybody says is be strong! No, be weak, go get help.
Impact on her daughters
I to this day feel really bad for my kids because I was so focused on my own grieving, I was so focused on my own journey, that I feel like I left theirs out. One of my daughters was nine months old when it happened. And she gets sad because she doesn’t remember grandpa and she hears all of these amazing stories about how great he was and she didn’t get that. And people don’t give her the passage of grief that everybody else gets because she was just a baby.
My other daughter really struggled. She loved grandpa. At one point she was really struggling herself and in her closet we found a shrine to grandpa. She had been struggling for years and didn’t say anything, and I realized it was because she was trying to be strong. Doesn’t bother mom, why should it bother me? She didn’t know that I was in therapy, she didn’t know how my heart was broken, because I was trying to be strong for my kids.
And I can tell you the one thing that parents can do: be weak. Be weak in front of your kids let them know that it's OK to break that it's OK to be in therapy that it's OK to be sad and it's OK to seek support, because if you don’t, they don’t.
I felt disconnected from the girls for a good portion of their childhood because I was so distracted by this horrific thing that happened to our family at Columbine. And now I just, I look back and I realize there weren’t a lot of times that I thought about their experience, that even until this filming, I never thought to ask what it was like for them.
Choosing a career after Columbine
My dad always wanted me to go to college right after high school and I didn’t do that because I thought I knew everything. So after he died I thought ok, I’m gonna do it. So I started taking college classes and I was going to be a business major until I took an abnormal psychology class. In that class I started thinking about the two boys that murdered dad and I thought I wonder what happened to them how did they get to that point?
I found out the two boys were on diversion in Jefferson County for breaking into a van and they actually had to receive treatment. And I'm now that treatment provider that provides treatment for that diversion program. I am co-owner of a private practice, a mental health practice, and we work we are forensic therapists working with people involved in the criminal justice system and trying to reintegrate back into society.
I could not believe how many people have committed violent acts that want to be reformed, they want to do differently, they’re not career criminals. A lot of them are no different than you and I. Different socioeconomic status, racial.. I mean there is no one type of person that commits violent acts. And it has been so encouraging and so amazing.
I had no idea that I would end up where I am now, and I have a hard time explaining to people why I do this. A lot of people don’t understand how I can have compassion and empathy for someone who has maybe killed somebody, harmed somebody. Because I’ve been on both sides of that. But I think that’s almost what makes it more powerful. To be able to tell somebody it’s gonna be okay and they have an opportunity to reemerge in society. And that’s really hard for people to understand.
I think that’s a really important thing for people to know is that they can use their experience in whatever way they find healing. Whether that be to become politically active, to start a foundation, we’ve seen many people that have done really great things with their trauma and their tragedy. But also that it’s okay to just be silent. To you know heal from the inside, that’s okay too. It took me five years to start speaking out about things because I didn’t know what to do with the trauma.
For me I really had to focus on, ‘How do I stop this? And I was like, it’s gotta be the parents, it’s got to be the guns, it’s got to be video games. It’s gotta be something.’ And it turns out it’s not something, it’s everything. We have to focus on everything. We have to put energy towards parenting, we have to put energy towards guns, we have to put energy towards mental health, we have to put energy towards changing our culture about how we treat people and how we love people and how we support people
Meeting the mother of one of her father’s killers
Because the boys committed suicide, we had nobody to focus that anger on. So we focused the anger on the people that bought the gun, we focused the anger on the parents of the boys. And it was, we had to have something to focus on because otherwise that grief and the anger felt out of control.
And then my own children became teenagers, and I’m a good mom, and I tried really hard. They weren’t doing anything threatening or violent but I was struggling with them… and I thought well, maybe it isn’t the parenting, maybe you can do everything to the best of your ability and your child could still struggle. And my heart just ached because I thought my goodness. It was at that moment when I thought that if one of my girls had gone and done something like that, I don’t think I could survive that.
And when I started looking into what Sue Klebold had been doing with her time since Columbine, she had dedicated her time to suicide prevention, and I thought ‘we’ve been doing the same thing in the same world for the same reason. We both wanted to prevent our loved one from dying. And so it was almost as if we both on these opposite planes had been working so hard, desperately, to save people from going down the path that we went on. And then we got to meet.
I had placed myself mentally in what it was like to be the parent of a child that murdered people and it was almost as if my heart was aching for her. So I got to meet with her and it was the most powerful experience I think I’ve ever had because she is such a kind, generous, soothing person. And at the end of it she said ‘I don’t know how to say this or if it’s even right but I really care about you,” and I felt the same way. So we’ve been meeting once a month since then, just spending time talking about the community, and she works a lot with suicide prevention and I work a lot with violence prevention in general. And we have a mission but we don’t know what that mission is yet.
20 years since Columbine
20 years. He missed everything. He wasn’t here for weddings, births of babies, Christmases, the Rockies, the Broncos. He loved sports. And every time there’s an event we think I wonder what he would’ve thought.
And 20 years later it’s so hard to believe that it’s been almost 20 years but time is gonna go by no matter what. And you can decide what to do with it.
And for people who are new to this journey, I want them to know, you can survive. Like, we, have made it through and it’s been ugly at times, but I think the number one thing people need to know is you’ll get through.
We don’t know what that looks like and it’s a really really scary journey. But sadly they’re not alone. This club that nobody wants to join. The only ticket you have to get in is a dead family member. Nobody wants to be in this club. But once you’re in it, you’re not alone.
Coni Sanders’ father, Dave Sanders, was a coach and teacher at Columbine High School. He helped many kids escape to safety before he was shot to death inside the school. Coni now works as a mental health treatment provider.