Considering the horrific event that took place in Littleton, Colorado, in April of this year, you may wonder why we are writing about a shooting that took place in an Oregon high school in May of 1998. We had just finished this story and scheduled it for publication when the tragedy took place at Columbine High School. We knew then that this story needs to be told more than ever. This story is not about violence; it’s about the comfort and perspective the gospel offers. Here are thoughts and experiences shared by those who know both the pain and the healing firsthand.
It’s been just over a year since a tragic shooting occurred at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon. Two students were killed and 23 others wounded when a fellow student opened fire in the crowded school cafeteria.
Some 60 seminary students were in school at Thurston on the day of the tragedy—one of whom helped to stop the shooter. Of course, the seminary students wish the tragedy had never happened. But they also say they’ve learned priceless lessons they’ll never forget.
Although they’ve been reluctant to talk with the media about the shooting, the students were eager to share their testimonies with the youth of the Church through the pages of the New Era.
More than anything, the students talk about how they’ve come to know just how much they love—and are loved by—their families. Just after the shooting, students were instructed to go to enclosed rooms of the school until the situation was secured. In that long period of waiting, teens with brothers or sisters at Thurston found themselves consumed with thoughts of their siblings.
“When I thought that the last thing I said to my little brother was, ‘Don’t be late to class today’ instead of ‘I love you’ … You never understand how important someone is to you until you think they are gone,” says Lacy Stockwell, 18. Lacy had spoken to her freshman brother, Taylor, in the cafeteria just seconds before the shooting erupted. As she ran from the cafeteria, she’d been unable to find him.
Like Lacy, Melissa Piepgrass was also terribly concerned for her brother. “We were taken into the gym, and all of a sudden I was really scared about my older brother, because I know he goes into the cafeteria a lot. I was crying and praying for him.”
After what seemed like an eternity, the students were released. All around the school, emotional reunions took place as students found their siblings and their parents who had gathered outside. Melissa found her brother in a park across the street. “I ran over and gave him a big hug.” Her voice trembles as she says, “That’s the first time I ever really felt how much my older brother loves me.”
Of her reaction at finding her brother safe, Lacy says, “It was incredible when I saw him. We yelled each other’s names and ran down the hall to each other and hugged. I can’t express the emotions I felt.”
Kawika Lawther, 17, describes the reunion that took place between worried parents and their children. “When they let us out into the parking lot, I looked around and saw people hugging their parents. When I saw my dad I ran to him and gave him a big hug. The men in my family don’t really show their emotions, but when he hugged me my dad started to cry. I really felt how much he loves me.”
Adam Buchanan, 15, remembers a similar experience. “I didn’t realize the extent of what had happened until I saw my mom and dad in the parking lot. They were praying for me.
“That really stands out in my mind because it’s one of the very few times I’ve seen my dad cry. It’s meant so much to me that he loved me so much and that they were so worried about me.”
Perhaps Lacy speaks for all the students when she says, “I’m so grateful for an eternal family, because now I realize they are so essential to my life!”
The seminary students say they’ve also felt the love of their Heavenly Father. After 15-year-old Chad Durfee ran from the cafeteria to his classroom, he became even more frightened when he learned that his father, who teaches at Thurston, was in the cafeteria. “I realized then that I wanted to talk to my Heavenly Father. I dropped to my knees in front of everybody and prayed. I was so comforted and I felt the Spirit so much even after what had just happened.
“I probably prayed about 500 times that day. It totally strengthened my testimony of prayer,” says Chad. “Every time I’ve had a problem from that time on, the first thing that comes to my mind is talking to my Heavenly Father. It makes me feel so good to know He lives and loves us and wants us to be happy.”
Like Chad, many students talk about the comforting influence of the Spirit in their lives. Fourteen-year-old Kirk Blair was at his junior high school when he heard about the shooting at Thurston, where his sister, Katie, is a student. “We were worried for her, but I knew through the Spirit that she was okay.”
The Holy Ghost helped Tiffany Austin, 16, regain her sense of security. Several days after the shooting, “I was sitting in the pew at youth conference and felt the Spirit come over me. Then I knew that Heavenly Father wasn’t going to leave me alone no matter what happened. I finally got my security back.”
The example of the Savior and the power of His Atonement have helped students forgive and become whole again after such a trying experience.
“I was so mad that someone could do something like this, and I couldn’t make it go away,” says Alisha Stott, 16. “Forgiving is really hard, but I’m working on it. Being around others going through the same process and watching them forgive makes me feel that I can also. And remembering that Jesus Christ forgives our sins. He forgave people who wronged him, so I should be able to forgive also.”
“No matter what we go through, Jesus Christ knows how to heal us,” says Corwin Lewis, 17. “He can do that because of the Atonement.”
Many students gained stronger testimonies of the power of the priesthood. “The day they let us go back to school, I was afraid to go, so my uncle gave me a blessing,” says Jena Johnson, 16. “It gave me a sense of peace that I knew we were going to get through this. Then I had the confidence to face my fear.”
Adam tells how he felt as he watched his father administer a priesthood blessing. “My dad and I are the Rogerses’ home teachers, so Brother Rogers asked my dad to help him give his daughters a blessing.
“The Spirit was so strong. It was a really humbling experience. I was thinking, I’m going to be 19 in a few years. Will I be ready for the Melchizedek Priesthood? It’s such an awesome responsibility, but I think having it would be the best thing in the world.”
The seminary students also talk about their deepened appreciation for each other, for their ward families, for the scriptures, and for the gospel.
Fortunately, most of us will never experience the kind of tragedy the youth in Springfield have. But from their experience we can learn what matters most in life, and know that a loving Father in Heaven can bless us no matter what the trial.
“I had always taken things for granted before,” says Chad. “I went to church but didn’t really think about it. But now I’ve started to get very spiritual. I love the Church, every aspect about it. Sometimes at night I look up at the stars and think how wonderful it is to know our Father in Heaven lives.”
Melissa remembers, “On the night of the tragedy, I saw the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen. I just knew that Heavenly Father was showing his love for us, telling us that everything would be okay.”
After the tragedy in Littleton, Colorado, the Springfield seminary students wanted to do something to help. They wrote letters to the seminary students in Littleton, sharing their testimonies and messages of hope and encouragement.
The Springfield youth weren’t the only seminary students to give their support to Littleton. Letters, e-mail messages, and posters have poured in to the Columbine High School seminary from seminaries and Church members all over the world.
“It’s helped the kids to see that there are people all over the world who care about them,” says Rob Hildebrandt, seminary teacher at Columbine. “It has really hit them that in this Church we are truly a worldwide family.
“With every new poster, the first thing the kids want to know is where it’s from. When I tell them, they say ‘Wow! They know about us there?’ They’re overwhelmed at the people who love them whom they don’t even know.”
Brother Hildebrandt says the students have also felt the many prayers of support that have been offered for them.