Columbine survivor uses tragedy to start 'chain reaction of kindness'

Craig Scott was in a dark place after surviving the mass shooting at Colorado's Columbine High School that took the life of his sister.

But one trip changed the trajectory of his life, and he harnessed the weight of his grief in ways that would be unimaginable to most, using it to carry on his sister's legacy of kindness and compassion and positively impact the lives of millions of people along the way.

Scott spoke Monday night to a packed auditorium at Riverton High School as part of Riverton's Live in Real Life program that was launched to combat the rising trend of anxiety, depression and other mental, physical and emotional health issues increasingly found among teens.

Not only was Scott in Columbine High on the day of the shooting, but he was hunkered under a table in the library where 10 of the 12 total students were killed, taking shelter from the shooters.

"I'm not here tonight to focus on tragedy. I believe that what we place our attention on we give power to, and the shooting is a part of my story. My story is no more important than your story," Scott said.

It would be hard-pressed for one to not expect Scott to focus on tragedy, as he experienced it in a truly unimaginable fashion.

April 20, 1999, started as a regular day for Scott. He talked about how he and his sister, Rachel Scott, were running late to school that day because he was taking extra time to make sure his hair was perfect.

How survivors of mass shootings are helping a new generation heal

"I cared a lot about what people thought about me. Like a lot of kids, I wanted to be seen with the cool kids at school, or popular kids, and that was always important to me," he said.

On the way to school, he and his sister bickered over the radio station that was playing.

"The last moment that I had with her was I got out of the car and I turned and looked at her and I slammed the car door shut," Scott recalled.

What Scott didn't know at the time was that moment would be the last time he would ever see his sister.

While studying for a test during lunch in the Columbine High School library, Scott described hearing popping noises coming from outside of the school. It was late in the year, so he figured it was just some seniors playing a prank.

It wasn't until a teacher ran into the room, telling the students to get under the tables. Scott and two of his friends hid under a table as the popping noises grew louder and louder.

The library was the first room that the shooters entered that day.

"They went around the room just choosing who would live and die — playing God," Scott said.

Soon, Scott would watch the shooters approach where he was hiding, eventually shooting both of his friends right before his eyes.

In this moment of shock, Scott said he heard the voice of God telling him to get out of the library, so he ran out of an emergency exit into a field where he and others took shelter behind a police car.

Eventually, other police cars came by to pick up Scott and other students. As he rode away from the scene, a friend tapped on his shoulder and told him he thought a girl had been shot, pointing to an area near the school.

"I looked out from behind the police car and I couldn't tell in the moment, but I was looking at my sister. My world changed and my family's world changed forever," he said.

Scott's sister, Rachel, was the first person shot that day.

Setting himself free

After the shooting, Scott described himself as a different person and being in a "broken place," where he wasn't present; he was dissociating and angry.

"It really started to negatively affect my family and the people around me. I was not an easy person to be around," Scott said.

About two years after the shooting, Scott got a call from a church group that his sister was involved with, asking if he wanted to go on a mission trip to South Africa in place of his sister. Scott agreed.

While on the trip, Scott was wandering around the village, trying to shake off some nightmares when he was approached by a man who could tell he was upset. The man asked him what his story was, and Scott felt compelled to open up to him.

"He listened and (then) he told me his story," Scott said.

The man told Scott a story of losing his entire family — 17 members — in a massacre.

"Then he told me something I never forgot. He said, 'Forgiveness is like setting a prisoner free and finding out that prisoner is you,'" Scott said.

Craig Scott talks about surviving the Columbine High School shooting and emotional resilience as part of Riverton’s Live in Real Life program at Riverton High School in Riverton on Monday, Jan. 31. Scott was in the Columbine High School library during the shooting, where 10 students were killed around him. His sister was the first student killed at the school.
Craig Scott talks about surviving the Columbine High School shooting and emotional resilience as part of Riverton’s Live in Real Life program at Riverton High School in Riverton on Monday, Jan. 31. Scott was in the Columbine High School library during the shooting, where 10 students were killed around him. His sister was the first student killed at the school. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

After this moment, Scott decided to not only forgive the Columbine shooters but to start using his pain and grief to make a positive impact.

"I came back from that trip and my family said I was different. ... If you take that anger and focus it on a goal, it becomes determination," Scott said.

He said his sister wrote an essay in which she talked about being honest, looking for the good in others, not being quick to judge, on kindness and compassion, and her theory, or challenge, that if one person goes out of their way to show compassion, they will start a chain reaction of the same behavior.

"My anger turned into determination. As a goal, I was going to be part of my sister's challenge," Scott said.

With that, he and his father started Rachel's Challenge, a program that has reached 26 million students through live presentations.

"She's inspired millions to start a chain reaction of kindness and compassion," Scott said.

Challenge to change

Scott challenged those in attendance to take steps to deal with feelings of heaviness, sadness and depression, saying that along his journey he learned that feeling of sadness can be turned into an appreciation for life.

"At the end of your day, start saying what you're thankful for. Even the hard things, even the things that are challenging, maybe the things that you normally complain about. I want you to flip the script — it really does work," Scott said.

He also talked about the greater societal need to not judge people by their title and avoid labeling individuals based on how you might perceive them.

"We have so much more that we have in common than we do that's different. We have to appreciate our differences ... but you have to focus on common ground," Scott said.

Live in Real Life provides diverse educational opportunities focused on critical issues related to mental health, physical health, safety and other challenges that teens face on a regular basis. Events are hosted twice a year and open to all teens and parents within the greater South Salt Lake County area.

The event was co-sponsored by Bluffdale, Jordan School District, Riverton High School and Rocky Mountain Power.

Monday night's event was the eighth Live in Real Life event since the onset of the program in 2018. Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs said that Live in Real Life was born out of a school safety roundtable with school administrators during the summer of 2018.

"From that roundtable, we heard two things: They said, 'It really would be nice if we had more school resource officers,' and, 'Is there something the city can do to help us talk about the alarming trend in anxiety and depression and just other mental health challenges?'" Staggs said.

As a result, the City Council funded more school resource officers and started the Live in Real Life Program, with Scott being the latest speaker of the program.

Those wanting to learn more about Scott and his story can do so here.