Season 14 | Ep. 2

Mental Health in Schools

In the more than 20 years since the tragedy Sue Klebold has learned more about her son’s inner turmoil and now shares her findings with other parents.  She hopes it will lead others to dig deeper into the lives of their children.  Sue Klebold will share her memories of the tragedy at Columbine, details about her son and the signs she feels she missed.

On April 20, 1999 two teens went on a shooting spree, claiming the lives of 13 people and injuring more than 20 before taking their own lives. At the time, the massacre that occurred at columbine high school in Littleton, Colorado was the worst high school shooting in U.S. History. The tragedy prompted national conversation about school safety and mental health. So many wondered what could have motivated the gunmen. Sue Klebold, the mother of the one of the teens remembers her shock saying, “if I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

I mean, I think in every way that we knew how to be good and loving parents and teach him morality and kindness, we did. I had to reconcile that someone I thought was kind and thoughtful, could be a killer. A cold-blooded, hateful person. Could deliberately hurt people. Could use racial epithets. Could do the kinds of horrible things that they did.

Announcer: Today, healthcare is about empowering people to take control of their health. Whether creating a fitness routine, choosing the right procedures and medication, or adhering to treatment for a chronic condition. Capital BlueCross, dedicated to underwriting “Transforming Health” for the good health of the community. Capital BlueCross, live fearless. WellSpan Health, helping patients reach their health goals through a coordinated system of physicians, hospitals, and convenient healthcare services in communities across central Pennsylvania. Learn more at wellspan.org. WellSpan Health, for the journey that is life. Support also comes from viewers like you. Thank you.

Hello and welcome to “Transforming Health: mental health and schools.” I’m Keira McGuire. In a three-part series, we’re examining the history of mental illness, its effect on our children and schools, and the entrenched stigma that’s connected to mental disorders. Over the next half hour, you’ll have a look into the life of Dylan through an interview with his mother sue Klebold. She’ll share her memoires of the tragedy that occurred at columbine, but more importantly, she’ll share details about her son in an attempt to shed light on what led to the events on April 20, 1999 and what signs she feels she missed. First, here’s how the day unfolded for sue Klebold more than 20 years ago.

You know, this is always one of the hardest things for me to relive. On the morning on the shootings, it was a Tuesday morning and I got up early. It was dark and Dylan had to get up early, but I got up before he did. I usually woke him up. And while I was getting ready, the house was black. There was no sun — the sun was not up yet. I heard him thundering down the stairs and I thought what’s he doing up this early? He never gets up this early. And I remember opening up my bedroom door and peering into nothing. I could see nothing. And I heard the front door open and I — and all he said was “bye.” And then the door slammed.  I thought whoa, what is bothering him? There is something wrong. I did not think life and death. I thought maybe he’s meeting somebody for coffee, and he’s got an issue and they have to talk this through. I just thought something is bothering him. That was the only thing that registered. And I woke up my husband and I said, “did you hear Dylan say goodbye?” And he said no. And I said “well, you be here today to talk to him when he comes home from school.” He said “yes, I will.” And that was the day of the shootings. [ Helicopter hovering ] I got a call at work on my message machine at about noon. I was getting ready to go off campus for a meeting. And it was my husband’s voice. And he sounded horrible. And I could tell by the tone of his voice that something had happened to one of our children. And he was nearly hysterical and there’s a shooting at school. They think Dylan may be one of the shooters. And that began hell for years and years.

Sue Klebold receives many questions and letters from parents. One that came to her from a parent of a columbine victim asked how in the world could you not have seen that your son was that hateful and troubled? In an effort to answer questions like these for herself and others, she shares her memories of Dylan growing up and in the days before columbine.

He was a darling child. You know, thick blonde hair and blue eyes. And he was very bright, and precocious, and loving. He had a lot of concentration. He loved anything that required structure and sort of mathematical linear thinking. He was a Lego maniac. He loved Legos. His whole room was filled with Legos. We had a bunkbed, and we took the lower mattress off and put a board down so he could have this whole Lego city. A little bit — when he got a little older, he loved origami. And he could just memorize multiple folds, really complicated things, you know, with 75 folds. And he would do them once or twice and then he’d have them memorized.  We were pretty child focused parents. Every decision we made was based on what would be best for our kids. And we never really had any indication that he had any kind of problem. He never had any diagnosis. He’d never had any reports from any teachers that he had any unusual struggles as a child. So, you know, he had a pretty glorious childhood and he made me feel like a very good mom. From what I could tell, we were just about as typical a family as there could be.  When he was in sixth grade, I noticed that he was becoming very self-conscious and more shy. He became very self-conscious about being in the gifted program. He didn’t want anybody to know. He didn’t want to be different. But, from what I observed as a parent, he was not a loner. He was a shy kid. But, he always had friends. And our phone rang all the time. We had both males and females calling us. Kids came over. He spent the night at other people’s houses. He had a very active social life. I never really saw him do anything that was concerning until his junior year of high school. And he had a bad spell in his junior year. And there was several things in his behavior that changed suddenly. And one of them was he got in trouble at school for the first time in his live. And then about that time he and his friend eric stole something. And I was very concerned, but I didn’t realize then as I do now that sudden changes in behavior can be makers for something going very wrong in someone’s thinking. As I look back, that was sort of like an important marker that some things might be changing in him and in his thought process. He had a diversion councilor. He got into a diversion program after that and I asked does he need counseling, and nobody seemed to think that he did. And they had done so well in diversion, they were released early from the program which I understand is something very rare, it never happened. So, these were kind of indicators that things were okay. That he was doing not only well, but really well.  I saw no indication that Dylan was at the end of his life. That he was thinking of hurting people. All I was seeing was life is great. You know, he’s got his life on track. This is wonderful. Dylan was a graduating senior and he had been accepted at that point at four colleges including the university of his choice which was the university of Arizona. And a few weeks before that date, we had gotten — we had gone to a teacher conference and the teacher had mentioned to us that Dylan had written a paper that was dark and disturbing. Now, we did not see the paper. She didn’t have it with her when she mentioned it. And I remember my husband asking her if this was something that we should be concerned about and she said “I don’t know. I’ll ask the school psychologist.” And she did. And I said and you’ll contact us if you think there’s something we need to do or be — and she said, “yes I will.” I never heard anything. Years later, I did talk to the psychologist and he said columbine had never happened. We had no idea that a paper like this might have been indicative of some kind of really severe state of mind. The weekend before the shootings, Dylan went to a prom with a date and with his friends. So, that weekend he was running around, getting a tax, and getting a corsage. They went in a limo. There were six couples. They went out for dinner. And I talked to him when he came home that night and he said he had a great time. He had the best time of his life. And it just seemed that — he seemed happy. Everything seemed okay to me. And then that weekend he picked out of a dorm room for college. He measured the square footage to get the biggest room. I remember we wrote a check and we mailed it in on that weekend. And on that weekend my husband said “Dylan’s voice seems a little higher than usual. The pitch of it is higher.” He said he does that when she’s stressed. He said do you think something’s bothering him and I said I don’t know. I said he’s graduating, he’s going to college, he’s going to prom. Probably there are things that are stressing him out.  [ Crowd noise ]

They’re going in. They’re going in.

In the beginning, there was just this terrible shock. And during that time, as I was in denial about this, I couldn’t understand how Dylan could have done this, the things that people were saying he had done. I just didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe that he could have done it. Going to the sheriff’s department and actually seeing what had happened. I had in my mind that something had gone wrong. That it was some kind of prank perhaps. Or maybe Dylan had been there and there had been some live ammunition and he wasn’t expecting that. Or perhaps it was an impulse. These were the kind of things I was using to explain it to myself. What I learned that day that they had been planning this for a long period of time. That they had actually built explosives. They explained how he had purchased firearms. We did not know that he had been able to purchase two guns even though he was only 17 years old, and we had never had guns in our house. We’d learned that it was very deliberate and planned. We got to see tapes of him talking about doing this kind of thing. We saw a tape of him even saying goodbye to us. So, we knew then for sure that he had gone in there with the intent to die. That he was expecting to die that day.  So, it was I don’t know how many months after his death where I saw for the first time that he had written about his feelings on pieces of paper. And one of the pages he had written at the age of 15. And he had written “I am in agony. I want to die. You know, I want to get a gun so that I can kill himself.” And he refers to cutting himself in this particular journal entry. So, that’s when I learned for the first time that he was really struggling with his own inner turmoil and his own pain.  The experts who have reviewed the writings that he left behind have said that is likely that he was experiencing depression. Bullying is a factor and was a factor in Dylan’s life. But we have to be very careful when we talk about simple explanations for complex things. Things such as suicide and murder-suicide do not have easy answers. So, if we say something like bullying causes suicide. Or breaking up with your girlfriend causes suicide, that’s a misunderstanding. Those things can be triggering factors. They are interacting with all the other factors that are already there. And yes, I believe bullying was the thing that drove Dylan and eric to this tight rage-filled association. They had experienced incidents at school. And those kinds of incidents are common in many schools and it’s not that columbine was so different from other schools. But there were certainly documented stories where they were, you know, shoved around, ketchup squirted on them, knocked down in the hallways, had garbage thrown on them in front of the school. I knew that at times Dylan might have conflict with somebody and he would talk about that. But the extent to which he felt degraded and debased at the school and the extent to which those activities were daily and ongoing, I had no idea. I had a lot of trouble accepting that Dylan was capable of doing what he did. And I also had a lot of trouble accepting not only that he could kill others, but that he was experiencing suicidal thoughts. My assumptions about myself as a parent were destroyed in that moment because I had believed that I was a good parent. I had believed that love, you know, concurs all. That if you love someone enough, they would never want to die. They would never think of killing themselves or hurting anybody. So, all of those assumptions just flew out the window.

In the months following columbine, sue Klebold says she discovered her son experienced suicidal thoughts a full two years before the tragedy. So, how can we be sure we know how our children are doing? Many schools are working to open up the lines of communication about mental health.

This is one of things I want to share with parents today and that is what you see may not be the reality. Those we love work awfully hard to hide from us when they are falling apart. They are afraid we’re gonna make it worse, we’re gonna get involved with the school, we’re gonna do something to make their lives more difficult. It also has to do with shame and stigma because we in society tend to think of mental health issues as something we should have control over and that when we can’t control these things, we are somehow a lesser human being. That it is a character flaw not to be able to think your way to feeling happy. My belief was that I was a good mom and that my kids could talk to me about anything. And I believed I was a good listener. I have since refrained that belief and realized that what I thought was good listening probably was not good listening at all. It’s very hard to get information out of a 17-year-old boy. Oh, when you begin a conversation with how was your day, you know, you seem so tired. What’s going on? You don’t get a lot of explanation. And I was not aware at that time how critical that kind of exchange would have been, and it might have even been lifesaving if I had better skills of knowing how to ask questions and knowing how to listen without — in a parental way, trying to help, to fix things, trying to make them feel better. In today’s world, children very often are struggling with intense feeling of anything — self-loathing, isolation, even suicidal thoughts and feelings. A much greater percentage than we have any idea are struggling with those. And they’re trying very hard to put on a mask, and a bright face, and be what we expect them to be.

It is possible to be unaware that your child has been struggling with a mental health issue. And in all honesty, we expect most parents to not be able to pick this up right away. It’s the nature of adolescence. And these things are gradual. It’s not like all of a sudden there’s a dramatic shift one day that’s going to stand out. The best predictors, the things that are probably the easiest to see is kids withdrawing from the social activities that they like and kids withdrawing from the people that they like to be around. Are they consistently more irritable? Are they consistently sleeping less? Are they consistently seem to be napping during the day? Are they consistently putting less effort into their grades? And we get two or three of things occurring together, then we should pay attention, we should try to talk to them. If we feel like we’re not getting anywhere, then we might want to reach out to a school professional, a medical doctor, or if you have access to a mental health professional. And this is tough because we all just — even I want to do it with my kid. You want to jump in and say tell me what’s wrong, or why aren’t you doing this, or tell me why-what the answer is here. And the second you do that you kind of channel them into a path and they’re likely to — they may not have that answer and they’re likely just to resist because they’re feeling pushed. So, we try to be open-ended. How are you doing? It’s always easier to lead with a positive. Tell me what’s going well and then you can kind of gradually shift into hey, I’ve noticed this. What do you think about that? At the end of the day, you can never go wrong by trying to talk to your child no matter how old they are. Say, hey I’ve noticed something. I care about you. You may get told no, you may not get much. But you know what? That always show that you care. You can never go wrong with that.

In the past two or three years I would say that there have been, I would say an increase in what I’ve noticed of students having difficulties dealing with mental healthy type issues. Whether that’s depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies. Just things that unfortunately at their age they are now experiencing. I hate to point my fingers at social media, but the students are inundated with things and unfortunately, they can’t get out of it. Meaning it’s always there. They can’t just have a conversation at school and leave it there. It follows them home in their social media. So, I think that’s one of the major things that impacts their mental wellbeing.

One thing I noticed, like the past month is during cafeteria, during lunchtime, all the people are on their phones and they’re barely talking to their friends at the table. And all you see is just a whole bunch of kids sitting at the table with their phones. Cyber-bullying is a huge deal today.

Because there’s so much negativity around. Because if you don’t dress the way other people dress, you can get bullied for it. If your hair doesn’t look the way other people’s hair looks, you get bullied. It’s hard.

My first year working in schools was when columbine happened. And I feel like schools were less tuned in and way less aware of students’ feelings. It was, you know, you’re there to educate them. But now we have so many different types of programs that try to educate the whole child in the way of their emotional intelligence, and their emotional being, and their emotional welfare.

We have to be very careful in adolescence about anything being presented as being inflicted on them. The second an adolescent feels inflicted on, they’re going to push back because this isn’t my issue. I want to be in control. I’m still figuring out who I am. I don’t need you telling me who I am. So, the more that it’s grassroots and student led, I think it’s more naturally accepted.

Is anybody else really worried about finals?

No.

You’re not worried?

I have four finals. I’m so nervous! I-I always do bad.

Avida means I’ve got your back.

It means to be there for each other, it means to help each other, and it means to support each other.

And it just has really kind of spread. And just getting out there and showing people that you don’t have to be alone.

I know we were talking about some of those like stress management kind of things. Like when we did that 60 seconds of silence.

Yeah, okay I liked that.

Did you like that?

Yeah, I was really frustrated that day. Like, I was — yeah.

We should start every day with that.

Yeah.

That’s great.

We should.

Schools are essentials. You have a family, you have a medical provider, and you have a school. You see your school as he/she sees their family during the school year. And you see both of them a whole lot more than you see a medical provider. Millennials and younger adolescents seem much more willing and open to take ownership of their mental health and engage about it.

As a citizen, just a person, I think every individual needs to know more about what mental health really is.

I’ve definitely like heard more people like talk about at least and know what it is.

Mental illness is — to me, I define it more as something you can’t help.

Just like struggling or feeling down all the time. And probably, just like not wanting to be the usual you.

There’s stuff that’s going on in your head that you can’t really talk about, so like you stay it to yourself.

They can look fine, but you really don’t know.

The interest in these things, the connection to these things tells us just how many disenfranchised people there are out there. I have received letters from all over the world, from people, both kids and adults, who are recalling experiences in their own growing up years. Experiences where they were bullied, or mistreated, or misunderstood. They identify with the alienation. They identify with feeling that life is not worth living. That it’s hopeless. And far too many people are feeling that way whether or not they actually take part in any kind of a violent act towards themselves or someone else. They’re a lot of people who need help. Every step along the way, I was learning that my story might be helpful to someone else. Someone might parent differently because of the way — because of what happened to Dylan. I would get feedback from people that because of my story, they looked a little deeper in their kid’s life. I cannot get away from this one wish that I have. And that is if I would ever see Dylan again, my strongest impulse is to ask him to forgive me because for some reason I wasn’t the person that he felt he could talk to and trust. And I would ask his forgiveness for that. And I would also want to tell him that for 20 years since his death that I’ve been trying to make that up to him by doing the work that I do.

I’d like to thank all of guests for being so open with their experiences. And you, for joining us for this important conversation. If you or someone you know is in need of help, contact the national suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Please join us next time as we continue to share stories and transform health. I’m Keira McGuire. Thanks for watching.

Announcer: Today, healthcare is about empowering people to take control of their health. Whether creating a fitness routine, choosing the right procedures and medication, or adhering to treatment for a chronic condition. Capital BlueCross, dedicated to underwriting “Transforming Health” for the good health of the community. Capital BlueCross, live fearless. WellSpan Health, helping patients reach their health goals through a coordinated system of physicians, hospitals, and convenient healthcare services in communities across central Pennsylvania. Learn more at wellspan.org. WellSpan Health, for the journey that is life. Support also comes from viewers like you. Thank you.

Watch more Transforming Health Episodes


Keira McGuire
Keira McGuire/WITF

Keira McGuire is a health reporter and multimedia producer for WITF. She hosts and produces Transforming Health television programs as well as other shows and documentaries for WITF’s Original Productions. McGuire produced the Emmy Award winning series HealthSmart for the last ten years. Keira previously worked at WBFF in Baltimore and WMDT in Salisbury as a reporter and anchor. She’s a graduate of Towson University.

Read more by Keira McGuire