FRIDAY, FEB. 10: On April 20, 1999, two teenagers at Columbine High School, Colorado, US, went on a killing spree, shooting 12 of their fellow students dead.
The teenagers, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, also killed a teacher and injured 21 others. They then committed suicide with a single shot to the head.
The Columbine massacre is one of the most notorious in American history and has prompted much debate on gun control, violence in society and bullying.
This week one of the survivors, Nick Baumgart, visited Bermuda to speak to teenagers about bullying and how to combat it in our schools.
Mr Baumgart was not only close friends with the killers but also, first victim Rachel Joy Scott, who was shot dead as she ate her lunch.
Her father Darrell Scott became the founder of Rachel’s Challenge, a programme which aims to inspire people to start a chain reaction of kindness and compassion in schools and communities.
Chain Reaction Bermuda is part of this programme. The charity seeks to foster a safe learning environment where academics can flourish.
This week it brought Mr Baumgart to the island to speak about the importance of standing up to bullying and teasing before it is too late.
Mr Baumgart addressed assemblies at The Berkeley Institute, CedarBridge Academy, Dellwood Middle School and Whitney Institute Middle School.
He spoke about how he was best friends with both Harris and Klebold in elementary and middle school.
“I was the one who introduced them to each other in fact,” said Mr Baumgart.
“Eric was new to the school so I introduced him to my best friend Dylan and the three of us were the closest of friends throughout elementary, middle school and the start of high school.”
A few years later they embarked on the deadliest mass murder in American high school history.
Mr Baumgart attempted to explain what happened.
“It is easy to conclude that these boys had just lost their minds or they were monsters, or they were crazy, but they were not always that way. I have an inside story because I was there,” he told the students.
He also described how he was “caught in the middle” as he was close friends with Rachel. He had taken her to the school prom only three days before she was killed.
Rachel was shot in the head, chest and leg while she ate her lunch on the grass by the school’s West Entrance.
Mr Baumgart reflected on Rachel’s outgoing personality and her kindness to physically-challenged and new students at the school, and those who were being bullied.
In one of her journals she wrote: “If just one person went out of their way to show compassion and kindness it would make this world a better place.
“You never know how far a little kindness can go.”
This was just one of the messages which inspired her father to spread her kindness to others through the Rachel’s Challenge programme.
Mr Baumgart told students that teasing and bullying can only lead to conflict and violence.
“If you think sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you, then you better rethink that proverb,” he said.
“The greatest wounds we can leave in people’s hearts are the derogatory words that we say to them.
“One of the reasons for the Columbine shooting was not because these guys were just monsters, or we had lax gun laws, but because they were teased mercilessly every single day in school.
“In a matter of time they started to act different(ly), and isolated themselves more and more from everyone else, as everyone else ostracized them.
“I am not saying that they were not deceived or became insane to do such an act, but what I am saying is that they did not start out that way.
“They were normal kids, but were constantly teased by others and decided to take revenge.”
Mr Baumgart added: “You have no idea how I have often carried the burden of, what if I stood up for them when they were bullied?
“What if I reached out to them more? What if I did not join in when others were bullied?
“Could I have prevented what happened at Columbine?”
Pastor Gary Simons, who heads Chain Reaction Bermuda with Mary Samuels, challenged the students to come forward and stand next to Mr Baumgart, as a commitment to stop acts of bullying if they witnessed it and to focus on acts of kindness.
At each of the four schools hundreds of students came forward.
Pastor Simons, of the Cornerstone Bible Fellowship, said: “It is a proven fact that 100 per cent of our youth that are incarcerated in Bermuda have either dropped out of school or been suspended, hence it is imperative that we go to the schools and help to equip them on how to deal with their problems and how they treat one another.
“Youth that are successful in school are less likely to become involved in gang activity or to be incarcerated, and are more likely to further their education and become responsible citizens.
“At the same time we have to help and rescue our incarcerated youth by providing them with redirection and helping them with their reentry to society.
“Instead of complaining about our youth we have to get into the grassroots and be part of the solution.”
Chain Reaction Bermuda has initiated mentoring for at-risk youth and has started two youth groups, Up Link and The Source.
Up Link is for M1-M3-aged students and is held at CedarBridge Academy every Friday, 7-9:30pm. The Source is for S1-S4-aged students and is held at 82 Church St every Saturday, 7-9:30pm.
Pastor Simons said: “It is a safe place where they can have approved positive adults involved in their lives, meet other positive teens, eat good food, hear inspirational messages and find purpose for their existence.
“It is a proven fact that youth that have positive adults and peers in their lives are four times more likely to avoid the common perils of peer pressure and to live productive lives.”
For more information on Chain Reaction Bermuda go to www.chainreactionbermuda.org or call 295-9640.