Mother of Columbine shooter reflects on that day, 19 years later

Nineteen years ago, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. They injured 21 others, before taking their own lives. Since that day, Dylan Klebold's mother Sue Klebold has tried and tried to make sense of what happened.

Sue Klebold's son Dylan was one of the shooters in the mass killing at Columbine High School

Sue Klebold's son was one of the shooters in a mass killing at Columbine High School 19 years ago. Now, she spends her time advocating for suicide prevention and mental health services. (Stephanie Noritz)

For the past 19 years, Sue Klebold, has tried and tried to make sense of what happened.

On this day in 1999, her son Dylan and his friend Eric Harris shot and killed 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. They injured 21 others before taking their own lives. 

Today she's thinking about her son, who would be in his 30s now and wondering what would become of him "if he hadn't derailed the lives of so many people."

After many years of trying to hide herself from the public eye, Sue has become an advocate for mental health and suicide prevention. 

She shared some of her story with CBC News. 

What is your most vivid memory of that day?

"I actually have two vivid memories of that day. One is in the morning when Dylan left the house and said 'Goodbye.' And it was still dark. I heard him get up early and walk quickly past my door. He was a little earlier than he usually gets up and I didn't know why. I popped my head out the door and called his name and all I heard in the darkness was the word 'Bye.' And then he slammed the door. That is a memory that is very vivid and I will always carry that intense feeling."

"The other memory that I have of that day, mostly, was the day itself. We were asked to leave our home and I spent most of that day sitting on the ground outside, because we had no place to sit. And I was crying a lot and I just remember asking the police that were there over and over again 'Is my son alive? What's happened to Dylan?' And I just remember this long day of me just sitting there, wondering what was going on and not quite understanding what was happening."

Sue and Dylan Klebold, in a photo from Sue's book, A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. (Courtesy of Sue Klebold)

How did you find out what your son had done?

"Well, it really came in pieces. Not only throughout that day but [it took] months and even years to put all this together. I was aware that there was something going on at the school, some kind of shooting — that people believed he was involved. Very early on in my mind, I was in denial. I could not believe that my son was capable of hurting other people and Dylan's friends had the same experience. We were perceiving that somehow this was a prank or a trick or something that had gone wrong. And that perhaps they were staging something as they often did for video classes and maybe why the ammunition was replaced, blanks. We really didn't know."

"I didn't even know when he had died, I was hearing news reports that many people had been killed …. But I kept wondering, you know, if Dylan was alive or dead, and I remember asking a policeman for the millionth time 'Is my son dead?' and finally someone turned to me and said, 'Yes he is.'"

What, if any, indication did you have about what your son was going to do?

"I can't say that I had any indication that I knew what he was going to do. Dylan behaved very much like any other teenager that I had ever known. I was a teacher for years, I taught in a community college, I was an educator I had a master's degree in education, I can't say that there was ever anything that Dylan did that worried me except in his junior year he got into some trouble for the first time in his life. He had a couple incidents all at once, he scratched a locker at school, he and his friends hacked into the computer system at that school, because he was one of the computer technicians at the school, and he and his friend Eric were arrested for stealing something."

Dylan Klebold was 17 when he and another classmate killed 12 people at Columbine High School, and then took their own lives, in 1999. (Courtesy of Sue Klebold)

"That happened in a cluster in his junior year. And I was very very upset I didn't know what it meant, the boys were put in a diversion program rather than going to jail — they had counselling, they had classes, they had to pay money to compensate their victim. So all these things were occurring and I remember asking the diversion councillor 'This is so out of character for Dylan what could this mean? Could this mean something?' And we talked with Dylan and she said 'Dylan, do you think you need counselling?' And he said 'No. I don't, but I will prove to you I'm fine and I'll get my life back on track.' And he did — over the next 14 months."

"Even in the days preceding the shootings he went to a prom, just a few days before the shootings. He came home at four in the morning and we talked. He told me, 'Thank you for sending me. I had the best time of my life.'"

"Three days later, he was participating in a massacre. We were very, very confused. None of us could understand he had been there willfully, couldn't believe it because it didn't match his life."

Dylan had applied to and been accepted at four colleges, and even selected a dorm room. Sue said there were never any guns in the home.

Why do you think he did what he did?

"It's very hard to answer that question, because I don't think I can, I don't think anyone can. After I learned more about Dylan and his state of mind after his death, I think one of the big factors in this was the fact that he was, himself, depressed and suicidal, and we had found some writings he had done at the age of 15 where he was talking about being in agony and wanting to die and wanting to get a gun to end his life. And I had no idea that he felt that way. I think he was feeling disgraced and belittled in some of the social interactions that occurred at the school."

Sue said she believes Dylan was experiencing some bullying at school, and that being arrested with his friend Eric solidified their bond.

Do you think some people blame you as Dylan's parent?

"Of course. Yes. And one of the things that occurred right from the beginning was just this storm of blame ... our own governor went on national television and said it was the parents' fault."

After the shooting in Parkland in Floria, President Trump suggested teachers should be armed. What do you think?

"I don't like that idea. I believe, certainly in my state in Colorado, we know that of deaths by firearms, about three-fourths of those deaths are suicides. What this tells me is that I want to make it as difficult as possible for someone to have a firearm .... I think arming teachers raises more risks than it creates in safeguards. People who use guns like the FBI or police officers have tons and tons of training and impulse control. Even with those things in place, they still harm people that they shouldn't be harming. It's too great a risk to arm a teacher — in my opinion, we are making schools less safe by arming teachers."

She said she applauds the movement that students from Parkland, Fla. have touched off, taking a stand for stricter gun control.

Have you been able to find some peace?

"I have. But it's been a very long time. What I have found to be helpful for me was my connection with other survivors of suicide loss, because in my mind, and yes I cannot imply at all that Dylan's death was [only] about suicide because he murdered people and I know that, but when i look into what he was experiencing and his state of mind … I feel that I am the mother of someone who died by suicide. That's how I identify myself."

Twelve classmates and a teacher were killed when students Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, went on a shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999. (AP)

"We've passed through these doorways of just feeling like a victim where you feel helpless and beaten by life and then you begin to feel like a survivor, like I still feel horrible but I'm going to make it, and I'm going to try to help other people going through this type of loss. And then you become an advocate, someone who wants to make a change and it kind of crystallizes what you want to live for and fight for. And I think that's sort of what has happened to me."

Sue said that she can relate to the feelings of guilt felt by other parents who have lost a child to suicide.

Sue Klebold wrote a book about her experience, A Mother's Reckoning; Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy.

She'll be in Windsor, Ont. on May 1, as a featured guest at the Canadian Mental Health Association's "Breakfast of Champions" at the St. Clair Centre for the Arts.