Noel Sudano: from Columbine with optimism
On a warm April day in 1999, a 16-year-old Noel Sudano sat in her Algebra II class at Columbine High School. This day felt like any other, but was to be very different. It was April 20, 1999–the day of the Columbine shootings.
The day started off normal, the school made its announcements; students went to different lunches. It seemed to be like every other day.
As Sudano sat in class, students could be heard screaming in the hall. “It wasn’t unusual to hear noise in the hallways during class, but that day was very different. Usually you hear kids laughing and yelling at each other, but that day, it was like 20 minutes into class and we heard screaming, like shrieks, and it was very intense.”
The class thought something odd was going on, students looked to the teacher for an explanation, but when the screaming didn’t stop, Sudano’s teacher knew this wasn’t just kids messing around in the halls. “In an instant my teacher’s face went completely white and she just looked at us and very quietly said get out.”
As Sudano and other students prepared to leave, they heard explosions in the building. “Before we stood up I remember hearing some pops, and some explosions and we thought someone just did something really stupid in one of the chemistry rooms, like something exploded in someone’s face, something that sounds more reasonable than what was actually happening.”
The fire alarm went off and Sudano and her friend walked out of the classroom as casually as they would, had it been a fire drill. It only took a moment before she realized that this wasn’t just a fire drill. “When we came out of the classroom we looked to our left and saw kids literally bolting out of the building.”
Students and teachers, including Sudano, left the building in a rush and took refuge in a neighborhood park across from the high school.
“I remember finding my friends who had lunch and they were crying, and all kinds of other people were crying, almost hysterical, and slowly I started piecing together what was going on.”
Word began to spread throughout the park that there were kids with guns and people had been injured. As students and teachers alike began to understand the severity of the situation, teachers took measures to protect the students.
“The teachers who had come out with us were at the front of the park on the sidewalk and they were standing there like a shield. I don’t know how they found the strength to do that or even knew to do that.”
Students were still able to see the school from where they were standing. Sudano’s friends told her they saw the building shake when pipe bombs exploded inside. The Columbine attackers had planted pipe bombs throughout the school and as these bombs started to go off, the teachers turned and ran toward the students in an attempt to herd them even further away from the building. “They screamed at us to run, just run and get into someone’s house.”
The students went running. Girls wearing flip-flips took them off and let them fly so they could run. “I thought I was running for my life because everyone had been talking about kids with guns so we thought that some gunmen had come out of the building, and we thought that we needed to get out of there or we could get shot.”
Sudano and a group of students ran to a nearby friend’s house. “We got to his house; his dad was a police officer, so he had us go down into the basement. He was very intense about us not going outside of the house because we didn’t know if the gunmen were roaming through the neighborhood or what was going on.”
The experience was very intense for some of the other students, and news reports claiming 25 students had been killed only added to the tension. “We stayed down there. There were lots of people crying, lots of people breaking down.”
After the shootings were over, the school and police announced on the news that all Columbine students needed to go to Leawood Elementary. Once there, students had to recount their experiences to the police. Then their parents had to check them out, even if they were 18.
“I remember my dad hugging me tighter than he ever has, I had to tell him to let go because I couldn’t breathe.”
As harrowing as this experience was, the hardest part for Sudano had not come yet. “I think the most excruciating part of the day for me was after my dad came to get me.”
Sudano and her father waited with friends on the lawn of Leawood as parents searched for their children. “Everyone was watching the busses roll in to see what students were on the busses. So parents whose kids had been killed were looking to see if their kid was on one of those busses. It was pretty horrific.”
For many Columbine families the nightmarish day was coming to an end but for 15 families the nightmare was just beginning. Twelve students were murdered that day as well as a teacher. And two other families began moving through the nightmare of knowing that their children took thirteen lives along with their own.
Sudano was lucky that she got out of the school so quickly. Other students were trapped in the school for hours. “The kids were so afraid; they didn’t know what to do. They piled on top of each other in the corner of one of the classrooms, because there was glass in the window and they didn’t want the gunmen to see they were in there.”
Like many others, Sudano was in a state of shock, “even afterwards, coming back home, I didn’t have time to really think about how I felt because our phone was ringing nonstop. People were coming to our door, if anyone knew a Columbine student you better believe they were calling. I had to tell my story like 50 times that day,” said Sudano.
Of the 13 people killed in the shootings, Sudano knew Rachel Scott the best. After the shootings Rachel’s parents started Rachel’s Challenge, an organization that supports a healthy learning environment.
Rachel’s younger brother Craig was in the library, and he wasn’t shot, he was ok, but emotionally he was not. “I was good friends with Craig all throughout elementary school, middle school and high school. He was so distraught from everything that he saw and his sister being killed he had to take a year off from school.” Sudano says that even after Craig returned to school, he was never quite the same.
After the shootings, the community was very supportive and caring to the students. The students were moved into Chatfield High School, where they received generous support.
“They were really hospitable and very welcoming to us. I remember in Chatfield they had huge barrels in the cafeteria full of letters that people had written to Columbine students just expressing their support.”
It took Sudano years to be able to come to terms with what she had gone through. “Everybody has a different way of dealing with it, and for me it took years, and years, and, years and I don’t think it was until I got to college that I really felt like I’d come to terms with some of the thoughts and feelings I had.”
The experience did affect Sudano. But unlike Craig Scott, it affected her in a positive way.
“I think it’s forced me to step outside of myself a lot. It was very difficult, and still is difficult to grasp why and how something like this could happen.”
Sudano says that going through this experience forced her to look at things from a lot of different perspectives. “To find any kind of peace and reconciliation with it I’ve had to learn how to look at the positive in things because with something like this if you don’t, you just get overwhelmed with the tragedy and the pain.”
Last year Sudano returned to Columbine as a counselor. “It was strange at first, because I hadn’t been in the school since my last day as a senior.”
Sudano lived in Indiana for eight years for college and during that time when people found out she was a student at Columbine during the shootings, they would often respond in horror or with concern but they were always curious.
“I think my high school experience, because of the shock and all of that, I think it dwindled down to that one single day. So it was really good for me to be back in the building interacting with the kids, having some good positive experiences that didn’t revolve around horror.”
With the anniversary approaching, Sudano feels better than she has in the past. “I really haven’t thought about it much this year, and I think that’s good; it shows I’m moving on– I’m healing. So I’m thankful that it’s not in the forefront of my mind right now.”
The experiences that Sudano has gone through have helped her to become a better person and a better counselor. “I think it’s changed the way that I think about people. I don’t mean that in a negative way. I know that there’s a lot of students that have taken it that way. They are more skeptical, more pessimistic. But in some ways, it makes me more optimistic and gives me a different ability to be empathetic with people.
Sudano believes that she can connect with tragedy and pain at a different level now, which is an important skill for a counselor. “I think too that everyone has a story that gets them to where they’re at and prompts the behaviors that they have.”
Despite what happened to Sudano the experience has left her with memories she will always have. “I was very fortunate that I got out as fast as I did. But regardless, I still know what it feels like, to feel like you’re running for your life. It was pretty scary,” said Sudano.
The events at Columbine High School changed the way schools think about crisis, the way police respond to schools in trouble, and an entire generation’s feelings about safety. It also changed the way counselor Noel Sudano views the world.
“I think it’s really strengthened me in some ways. I have had some wonderful opportunities to talk to people, to share my story, and just lead a lot of different people. But I think the biggest thing; it’s been something that’s propelled me towards my career as a high school counselor, because I think it’s a position of honor to be someone that students can trust, and can report any kind of concerns that they have about their friends, or just issues themselves.”