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Klebold: Parents need to listen, give children space to express feelings
Sue Klebold spoke at Penn State Greater Allegheny Campus in McKeesport on Wednesday. (Richard Finch Jr. photo)
Twenty years ago, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 12 students and one teacher and wounded 21 others at Columbine High School in Colorado, before taking their own lives.
At the time — April 20, 1999 — it was the deadliest school shooting in American history.
Klebold’s mother, Sue, struggled with humiliation and devastating grief following the tragedy. She kept out of the public eye and spent years volunteering for suicide prevention organizations and talking with fellow survivors of loss.
“I never forget for a moment that my son, not only lost his life, but hurt other people,” she said.
Now, as the debate over gun violence and mental health takes center stage, Klebold is speaking out. She was in McKeesport on Wednesday to speak at the Wunderley Gymnasium at Penn State Greater Allegheny campus.
Klebold said the best advice she can give to parents of children who may be struggling with mental health issues is to “shut up and listen.”
“I don’t think, as a society, we are good listeners,” she said. “I urge all of us to listen differently to those we love. Otherwise we are effectively denying our children their feelings. We are arguing with them about how they feel.”
In the years after the event, Klebold struggled with her own depression and other mental-health problems. “Looking back after all these years, it’s almost impossible to describe the level of devastation,” she said. “I had severe panic attacks, anxiety, we had money problems because of the lawsuits. My marriage ended after 43 years.”
At the time of the shooting, Dylan Klebold was 17 and Eric Harris was 18.
One of the first things Sue Klebold remembers about the aftermath was the then-governor of Colorado going on national television and saying, “this is the fault of the shooters’ parents.”
Since then, Klebold said, many people asked her “how she could not know” that her son and his friend were planning a violent attack.
It feels like “being literally punched,” she said, “because I don’t know how I could not know. Because everything I believed taught me if I was a loving parent, I would be there for them and they would be there for me.”
Klebold said she doesn’t believe anything she or Dylan’s father did caused him to turn violent. There were no guns in the home, no violent movies or video games, she said.
“Certainly, everything I did in my life was to protect him from violence,” Klebold said.
Dylan Klebold was not diagnosed with any mental health problems before the shootings, she said.
“He was a kid in the gifted program at school, a loving, funny teenager with friends, who was never in trouble until his junior year.” Klebold said.
That’s when Dylan had what Klebold thought of as “a little spell of trouble.” The teen-ager stole equipment from a parked van, hacked a school computer system and scratched a locker, she said.
Klebold said she didn’t realize it at the time, but Dylan’s “little spell of trouble” was actually a significant change in his behavior and a sign that his mental state was deteriorating.
The different patterns went unrecognized by her and Dylan’s teachers, she said. To avoid possible jail time, Dylan was placed in a diversion program. He declined counseling and promised instead to “get his life on track,” Klebold said.
“He went to school, worked a job, hung out with friends and was the sound technician for the school play,” she said.
But her son and Eric Harris were being bullied and humiliated at school, Klebold said.
“Dylan, I believe, was experiencing depression,” she said. “His writings were very inwardly focused. Eric expressed very homicidal, ‘out-there,’ enraged feelings, so the two of them created this sort of, chemical, perfect storm.”
Yet the weekend before the shooting, Dylan, his date, and six other couples got dressed up and took a limousine to the prom.
“He came home from the prom at 4:30 in the morning and told me it was the best time of his life, he was talking about the future with his friends,” she said.
Klebold has become an advocate for mental health awareness, research and suicide prevention. She is a member of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Consumer-Survivor Subcommittee and the National Loss and Healing Council of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Through her work, Klebold has learned that people who may be considering a violent attack also may be considering suicide.
Some of the signs that someone may be suicidal include the perception of being a burden to others. Changes in behavior — like Dylan’s “little spot of trouble” can also be a sign, she said.
Those behavioral changes include giving away belongings, expressing feelings of being trapped, developing poor hygiene and using drugs and alcohol, Klebold said.
Klebold said if someone is upset and is willing to talk about any aspect of their suffering, don’t judge them or try to fix them — just ask them to tell you more.
“The important thing is not necessarily to help loved ones, and especially children, feel better — just to help them feel,” she said.
Over the years, Klebold has met many victims of the shooting. One of them suffered a spinal cord injury that has caused her to double over in pain every 20 minutes for the past 20 years.
“She has tried all kinds of medications and nothing works, so when I’m with her I have to recognize that my son caused her a lifetime of pain,” she said.
Six of the emergency personnel who responded to the incident at Columbine committed suicide in the first two years following the shooting, Klebold said. They also were victims, she said.
And Klebold met with the mother of a 9-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who was a patient in the intensive care unit of hospital that treated some of the shooting victims. The girl was moved out of the ICU into a regular room because of the influx of shooting victims and died from an infection, Klebold said.
Klebold said those who lose a loved one to suicide do not get over it. “They may learn to live, to integrate what happened, but the pain is always something, we survivors — those who are left behind — will always carry with us,” she said.
As a mother, she said, “I will never, ever stop holding myself accountable for my son’s death.”
Editor's note: If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
Richard Finch Jr. is a freelance writer who covers news from McKeesport Area School District and North Versailles Twp. for Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published October 07, 2019.