LITTLETON, Co (CNN) – Just a few months ago, the word “Columbine” meant nothing to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School junior Kayla Schaefer. Today, Columbine, might as well be a synonym for “hope.”
Schaefer, 17, is one of 60 students from Parkland, Florida, who came to Colorado to cement an ill-fated connection between the two schools whose names are synonymous with tragedy.
Many of the Parkland students had never heard of the Columbine high school shooting on April 20, 1999, which left 13 people dead in Littleton, CO.
“I feel like we’re both kind of going through the same thing,” Schaefer told CNN. “They went through it a long time ago, but we’re going through it now so they understand what we are going through.”
On the eve of the 19th anniversary of the Columbine massacre, the Parkland students, along with Columbine survivors, victims’ families, current students and members of the Littleton community gathered Thursday night in a park just steps from the school.
They were there to remember those lost and to vow to make their voices heard in the midterm elections and beyond.
Organizers say at first they walked out of class on March 14, then they rallied during March for Our Lives on March 24, now they’re promising to vote — for their lives. Students from some 2,500 schools nationwide are expected to walk out on Friday. The goal is to build on the momentum they’ve already built, and push for gun reform legislation in Washington, or at the state level if Congress fails to act.
Columbine students won’t be walking out of class because classes are canceled annually on the anniversary of the shooting. Instead, students are urged to take part in community service.
Schaefer was inside her AP psych class on February 14 when bullets flew into her classroom. She hid under her teacher’s desk. One student in the classroom, Carmen Schentrup was killed, others were injured. Today she cannot forget the piercing sound of the gunshots and the eerie quiet in between. She carried a message of change to the Capitol last month, but to Colorado she brought a question for Columbine survivors: when will things get better?
That question, was answered by Paula Reed, a teacher who survived the 1999 shooting, and still teaches at Columbine. She says things will get better for the Parkland survivors — but probably not right away.
“It takes a lot of time and the phases of healing don’t always feel like healing,” she said. “It feels longer than it is but it is definitely a long process. That new normal doesn’t happen for quite a while.”
Darian Williams can relate. The 16-year-old Parkland sophomore remembers being barricaded inside a classroom — hearing the police sirens and sensing the confusion in the moments after the shooting began. He lost a friend Joaquin Oliver. It took days for the shock and the reality of what happened to set in.
“There’s times when you think you’re OK and then you start crying in class and it’s pretty bad,” he said.
There was a long list of speakers in Littleton, CO — many of them only teenagers, others victims themselves or family members of victims. Parkland student Carlos Rodriguez spoke on behalf of Parkland students.
“Two months ago, Douglas faced what Columbine faced 19 years ago. I have had two months to understand what it’s like to feel alone, what it’s like to feel despair, what it’s like to feel pain. We have been eternally scarred, and now we share a common voice,” he said. “This nation should have realized that the right to live, the right to feel safe is more important than the right to bare arms 19 years ago.”
His classmates could not agree more.
“It just shows that nothing has really changed,” Williams said.
“It’s obviously crazy that [school shootings are] still happening to this day and [Columbine] was 19 years ago. We really need some change,” Schaefer said.
The evening ended with former Columbine Principal Frank DeAngelis reading the names of the 13 people at the school in 1999. He also had a message for the students: “Go out and change the world.”