Columbine survivor and Bay City resident: Let’s go back to basics

At approximately 11:20 a.m. on April 20, 1999, Sarah Gillings (now Sarah Noble) was in the Columbine High School lunchroom, headphones blaring while waiting in line. A then-freshman in the campus of nearly 2,000 students, she has fond memories of her high school experience to that point.

“I was 15 years old, and so excited that I was in high school,” said Noble. “They had an open campus concept; people kind of came and went as they liked.”

Noble has spent the past 22 years trying to make sense of what happened next. She’s also very thankful she wasn’t where she should have been at that moment: The school’s library.

“I was in the commons that morning, but I was supposed to be in the library doing an assignment for my civics class,” said Noble. “I’m standing in the lunch line with my best friend Chris, oblivious to everything with my headphones on. Then Coach Sanders came rushing in from the teacher’s lounge, motioning with his hands for everyone to get down. I thought it was a prank.”

Chris then grabbed her arm, pulling her to the ground and laying on top of her in protection. Dave Sanders, CHS business teacher and women’s basketball and softball coach, then rushed up the stairs to warn other students and staff. He did not survive.

After a few terrifying minutes of taking cover, Noble fled from the building with others. In what became known as the “library massacre,” 10 of the 13 victims that day lost their lives inside the room Noble should have been in. The two gunmen then took their own lives in the library.

“We had no training for anything like that,” said Noble. “It wasn’t even fathomable that a student would bring a gun to the school.”

When asked how she now feels about training staff and students for active shooter situations, Noble didn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely, it’s necessary. As much as it breaks my heart, my children, who are now 13 and 10, have had that training,” said Noble. “I also have a sometimes unpopular opinion. I believe if a teacher or administrator has a concealed carry license and is properly trained, they should be able to carry within the school.”

Within a year of the tragedy that turned her school’s name into a byword for school shootings, Noble would experience more trauma. A friend passed away in a gruesome car accident. Two more friends were murdered in a restaurant just up the road from her school. Noble confided in her parents that she needed a change, and her family moved to her father’s hometown community of Standish-Sterling after her sophomore year. Noble says she was bullied after students in her new school learned she went to Columbine.

Now a parent of two students enrolled in Bay City Public Schools, the Columbine tragedy is never far from her mind. While meeting in an office for this interview, she had memorized each exit from the time she walked into the building.

“I know where the exits are behind me,” Noble said. “I know there’s a window behind you with two latches on top that I could quickly open and get out onto the rooftop. I always know there’s a way out.”

After graduating college, Noble worked for several years in an office with high windows. She often struggled with the what-ifs.

“I prefer having multiple exits, and wasn’t sure I could climb out if I needed to,” she said of her old office. “I also didn’t have anything heavy enough where I felt like I could break those windows.”

Noble is a member of several social media groups comprised of mass shooting event survivors. They share coping methods, how to have conversations with their own children, and ways they can help in their communities and others. Their numbers swell following each new tragedy. New survivors often come seeking answers. They are hard to come by.

Following the Nov. 30 school shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan, Bay City Public Schools learned of an anonymous copycat threat toward one of its buildings. The decision was quickly made to close all district buildings that day. Parents were notified via phone and email.

Noble responded to the email almost immediately: “I’m wondering if there is anything I can do for the school or district? I’m a survivor of Columbine. I have children in the district and both are aware of what these threats and instances do as a whole. Please, anything. I don’t have any ideas but I’m here.”

Communities that experience mass casualty events go through a grieving process, especially survivors and those close to the victims and their families. But Noble says even false threats carry enough weight to cause emotional harm. Like many, she considers mental health to be a root cause, and wishes more would be done to get anyone the help they need.

“Help with mental health issues wasn’t something that was on my radar back then,” said Noble. “We still called it ‘going to a shrink.’ We shouldn’t feel awkward just going to see a therapist the same way we go see a medical doctor for a check-up.”

In 1999, there were 22 recorded school shootings in the United States. 2018 (116) and 2019 (112) were the highest two years on record. 2020 was on track to surpass those numbers (29 in the first 2.5 months) before the pandemic closed most schools. While studies show most of those suffering from mental illness are not violent, the majority of school shooters report depression and/or suicidal thoughts.

Noble advocates for easier access to mental health assistance, as well as a larger focus on anti-bullying efforts and reaching children at younger ages.

“Waiting until there is a problem is a problem,” said Noble. “We need to go back to the basics in preschool - don’t be mean with your words. Words do hurt. We need to teach the kids who seem to have the most friends that they should be the kids with the nicest words.”

Having gone through the unthinkable, Noble doesn’t shy away from sharing these lessons with her own children. In 2019, Columbine survivors met at the Colorado school for a 20th anniversary gathering.

“I took my children with me so they could meet some of the teachers and walk those hallways,” said Noble. “One of my favorite teachers was still there, and my kids got to meet him. My son looked at him and said ‘I’m really sorry there was a school shooting here, I’m sorry you had to go through that.’ He was 8 years old.”

After the Columbine tragedy, districts around the nation adopted several safety protocols. The concept of an open campus, which had been gaining momentum in the 1990’s at the high school level, has mostly been abandoned in favor of a single point of entry for visitors. Several districts purchased metal detectors and limited where students could carry backpacks. Resource officers employed by local police departments are now working full-time within school buildings.

Heightened security measures have been met with little resistance. However, critics continue to point to both gun control and the lack of mental health assistance as major areas for concern. While the former is heavily debated, very few disagree that access to mental health services should be a higher priority.

“Let’s build each other up,” said Noble. “We’re all here to help the next generation of adults. We need more mental health resources, but we can start by going back to the basics and treating others the way you want to be treated.”