Twenty years after Columbine, the world is still grappling with the consequences of the mass shooting, perhaps none more so than Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the mass murderers.
Klebold was in Rochester Tuesday to give the keynote address for this year’s Power of the Purse, a community fundraiser, at the Rochester International Event Center.
It’s one thing to lose a son. But what happens when that son, Dylan Klebold, perpetuates a school mass murder along with another student, Eric Harris, that leaves 13 people dead and 24 wounded, making Columbine a byword for such crimes? And how, as a parent of such a child, do you carry on?
Klebold said the heartache never goes away. In the immediate aftermath of such a “terrible and traumatic” event, it was hard to imagine having a life again, you are so beaten down. You take it one step at a time. Eventually, over time, your sense of isolation lessens little by little.
“I learned that I wasn’t the only one that had an experience that made me feel that I was living on a different planet than the rest of the world,” Klebold told local media during an interview at AmericInn in Rochester. As she spoke, a two-person security detail stood nearby.
“When you get to that stage, then you become what I call a survivor. You change from victimhood to survivorhood, and at that point, you begin to try to help other people,” Klebold said.
20th anniversary of shooting
Klebold’s address came several days after the superintendent of Jefferson County School District proposed tearing down and rebuilding the Littleton, Colo., school to end the “morbid fascination” with the massacre.
Klebold, 70, said she didn’t want to weigh in on the controversy, but the proposal underscored the “lasting traumatic effects” such acts have on communities and the world.
She said she was unsure that tearing down the building would solve the problems that school officials are struggling with.
“It just adds to my own heartache,” Klebold said. “That even 20 years later, they’re even considering something like this. It’s a tragic thing that continues to be tragic, decade after decade.”
This April marked the 20th anniversary of the Columbine massacre, which occasioned a series of articles by the Denver Post.
Klebold said she declined to participate in any interviews, because she believed it was not a “safe or healthy thing” to commemorate mass murder, and it increased the risk of contagion.
“You know, it’s very difficult for me locally,” Klebold said. “It’s not the same as when I travel, because there are still people who hold me personally accountable for a child who did that.”
Coming to terms
Klebold says it took a long time for her to come to terms with the idea that her son — “a perfectly normal happy kid” as a child — was capable of such murderous acts.
Dylan was in a gifted program at school and was involved in Little League and Cub Scouts.
It was only after the rampage that police found writings by Dylan that revealed a side to her son that she wasn’t aware existed. Dylan began to use the word “agony” in these entries to describe his state of mind, of his desire to die, when he was 15.
“We were not aware that he had those thoughts and feelings,” said Klebold, adding that in the months leading up to the murders, Dylan had been accepted at four colleges and had attended prom. Dylan and Harris both killed themselves in the school’s library after going on the shooting spree.
Officials later determined that Harris and Klebold had planned the shooting for nearly a year and timed it to coincide with Hitler’s birthday.
After months of denial, Klebold said she began to accept her son’s role in the massacre and “understand what happened” the more she learned about her son’s suicidal desires. He had gone into the Columbine that day in April 1999 with the intention of dying. He had left behind a taped message saying good-bye.
“The more I learned about suicidality and suicide, the more it became a little more understandable of why and how one could take part in such a terrible thing,” she said.
“I am still searching,” she said.
Klebold said she has never been able to view her son as evil, as some do. She believes he was “deeply disturbed.” The problem with people and actions viewed through a prism of good and evil is that it's “not operational. It’s inactionable.”
Being in the public eye after a family member kills people is not an easy thing to do, she said. The first instinct is to hide, because you feel like a failure and a fool, humiliated and embarrassed.
”For people to come forth and talk about this kind of event, it’s a pretty rare thing,” she said. “Just because I’m doing it, I don’t think most people would want to do that or be able to do that, because it’s not an easy thing to do.”
Klebold said she and her husband were sued by 36 families in the community after Columbine. Although she gave thought to leaving the Colorado community after the shooting, she never did, because that’s where her family and friends who “protected us and kept us safe” were.
”I often thought of leaving the community, but then I thought, ‘well, if I left the community, I’d go somewhere else and just be that killer’s mother, and no one would know us,’” Klebold said.
Ten-year old Cody Ortmeier loves running, playing ball, music and animals.
“If it’s not a ball, it becomes a ball,” said Cody’s father, Nick Ortmeier.
Cody’s face lights up at his favorite school subject, P.E., and when his parents talk about the service dog the family will be getting to assist Cody.
Cody has two genetic disorders that affect his mobility and his mood and cause seizures. Cody and his family have been accepted in the 4 Paws for Ability program to receive a multi-purpose service dog.
The family is still a has a long journey ahead of them before they receive the service dog. Training a service dog can cost up to $60,000 and 4 Paws asks families to raise $17,000 to help cover those costs.
To raise funds, the Ortmeier family will be having a bake sale Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Christ Our Rock Lutheran Church, 3040 Stonehedge Drive NE, Rochester.
The event will also feature the sale of cookbooks. Nothing Bundt Cakes of Rochester and Rustic Cafe of Lake City will be selling their baked goods at the event. Local 4 Paws service dog team Elias Netzel, 12, and his dog Rambler will be there, too.
A service dog would monitor Cody for seizures and provide mobility support and companionship.
Cody often becomes upset when he is not able to do all the things his brother and sister are able to do. Cody’s parents are hopeful that the dog will help Cody when he becomes emotional and make activities he finds boring or hard be more fun.
Sarah Ortmeier, Cody’s mother, started planning ways to raise money the day after the family was accepted to the 4 Paws program, and she is determined to raise the full amount before the end of August.
4 Paws tells families that it takes about three to nine months to complete the fund raising. But the Netzel family was able to collect the funds within a month and a half, according to Sarah.
It will be at least two years before the family is able to bring their service dog home.
Once the fundraising is complete, the family is able to sign up for a 12-day training course at the 4 Paws facility in Xenia, Ohio. The courses are full for the next two years, so the earliest the family would be able to take a class currently is June, 2021.
“The dog will be a family project,” Sarah said. Cody will not be able to take care of the dog on his own, so the family is being trained as a three-person team consisting of Sarah as the handler, Cody and the service dog.
Leading up to the class, the family has been asked to video tape their life so 4 Paws will be able to find a dog suited to them. Cody won’t be placed with a dog until six months to a year out from his training date.
Even after the dog is brought home, the family will have to train with the dog for an additional five months before the dog can go out in public with Cody.
For Sarah, everything will become more real when they complete the fundraising. For now, she is just focused on the bake sale.
“I have some options in the back of my mind,” Sarah said about the other fundraisers she is planning. For now she is just waiting to see how the bake sale will go.
In addition to fundraising events, the Ortmeiers have posted a page on Mightycause (www.mightycause.com/story/Codyo), an online fundraising site. Donations are also accepted by check made payable to 4 Paws for Ability and mailed to 253 Dayton Ave., Xenia OH 45385 with Cody Ortmeier’s name in the memo line.
CHESTER — Although Minnesota air quality is overall good, health and environmental officials estimate that air quality contributed to thousands of premature deaths across the state, according to a new report.
The Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency released a study Tuesday on the role air pollution plays in public health.
State health commissioner Jan Malcolm and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner Laura Bishop joined local and county officials at Chester Woods for a public release and discussion of the report Tuesday.
Malcolm said the report expands a 2015 air quality report for the Twin Cities to a statewide scope. She said holding the event outside the metro area was fitting for the expanded report.
One of those partners, Ashok Patel, a lung doctor and specialist at Mayo Clinic, said the report shows leaders the impact environmental policies have on public health.
“When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters — try it,” Patel said.
Malcolm and Patel both noted that environmental inequalities exist in Minnesota.
“It’s conditions in our communities that either create the opportunity to be healthy or threaten our opportunity to be healthy,” Malcolm said. “To really achieve a healthy Minnesota, we need to confront squarely where health inequities exist and where they come from.”
The report is based on data from 2013. According to the report, air quality issues factored into between 5 percent and 10 percent of Minnesota deaths and about 1 percent to 5 percent of hospital and emergency room visits, Bishop said.
That means air quality played a role in up to 4,000 deaths and 800 emergency room visits, she said.
Patel noted that air quality can contribute to or worsen multiple illnesses and syndromes. Poor air quality can cause or worsen asthma and pulmonary disorders, but studies also show it can also contribute to stroke risk and other illnesses such as diabetes and certain cancers.
Malcolm noted climate change is going to make addressing air quality more urgent.
“Air quality is not going to stay static,” she said.
In an interview after the event, Malcolm noted how recent wildfires in Canada caused poor air quality alerts across the state. She said reports like this can put pressure on policy makers abroad.
“Documenting some of these effects helps, I hope,” she said. “It draws attention from national and international policy makers.”
More data on the issue will also help, Bishop said.
Dawn Beck, Olmsted County Associate Director of Public Health, agreed. She said the city’s one state-funded air quality monitoring station atop Ben Franklin Elementary School isn’t enough.
“The one we have isn’t really representative of the community,” Beck said. “Whenever we make decisions about public health, it’s a good idea to have more data.”