Columbine graduate describes tragedy

At first glance, it’s not obvious that beneath sophomore Chip Dunleavy’s outgoing and friendly demeanor is a painful memory forever branded in his mind.

When he mentions his hometown of Littleton, Colo., part of that memory begins to unfold.

Dunleavy graduated from Columbine High School in Littleton and witnessed the infamous shootings at the school four years ago.

“I’ll never be the same after that … you can’t,” he said. “Everyone who went to that school has changed.”

Dunleavy’s tear-stained face was among those of several other UW-Eau Claire students this weekend in Davies Theater as they watched the Academy Award-winning documentary “Bowling for Columbine,” by filmmaker Michael Moore.

After graduating from Columbine in a class of about 600 students, Dunleavy chose to come to Eau Claire after he being asked to play on the men’s hockey team.

On April 20, 1999, Dunleavy – then a junior in high school – was returning from his lunch o school from his lunch break when he saw kids running out of the school.

“(At first) I thought everyone was just leaving school,” he said.

But when Dunleavy noticed police cars behind him, he began to question what was going on. After he saw a girl in front of his car who was shot, he got out of his car and started running with the rest of the kids. The girl survived the shooting, he said.

“I was told that two guys were in (the school) shooting athletes,” Dunleavy said, an athlete himself.

Eric Harris, one of the two students who went on the shooting rampage, actually had targeted Dunleavy as one of the people he wanted to kill. After the incident, police informed Dunleavy he had been on Harris’s hit list.

Dunleavy said he had gotten in a fight with Harris a month before the shootings. He was on a walkway outside of the school when Harris intentionally ran into him with his car, hitting the back of his leg.

Harris got out and the two started pushing each other.

“I made a reference about his car and asked him if he thought he was tough because he listened to funny music and wore funny clothes,” Dunleavy said. “He wouldn’t punch me. Instead, he said, ‘You just wait, you’ll get it.’ ”

Dunleavy said he thought Harris was going to beat him up, but never believed Harris was referring to murder.

“If you don’t like a person, you don’t need to shoot him,” Dunleavy said.

After the shootings, Dunleavy was advised to leave town for two weeks; so he went up to the mountains.

“(Harris) was ‘that kid’ in high school,” Dunleavy said. “Everyone knew him but no one really talked to him.”

Even if it was 80 degrees outside, Harris still would wear all black, including black jeans, trench coat and backwards hat, Dunleavy said.

The Trench Coat Mafia, the group to which Harris belonged, was named by the more popular group in the school, Dunleavy said.

“Just like every high school, everyone gets picked on,” he said, noting that he got picked on at times as well.

One of Dunleavy’s good friends, Isaiah Shoels, was shot that day. Shoels always used to come with Dunleavy to eat lunch, but he didn’t on the day of the shootings because he went to the library to study for a test.

“Isaiah loved everybody,” Dunleavy said. “He never said a bad word … I felt that I should have been there (in the library) as opposed to him. It angered me.

“For him to have to give up his life for what other people did is what bothered me,” said Dunleavy, inferring that one of the reasons the killings occurred is because fellow classmates picked on Harris and Dylan Klebold.

Heath Dingwell, assistant political science professor, said he believes there is a biological predisposition toward violent behavior, such as the type shown in the Columbine school shootings.

“To be able to inflict that kind of violence on others and ultimately themselves, leads me to think that the parts of the brain that are designed to inhibit aggressive behaviors were impaired,” Dingwell said.

He added that the adverse social experiences in school, such as being picked on and bullied by others, caused the two boys to want to have those experiences end.

“People do not like to be subjected to negative experiences, and (they) want to find solutions to alleviate those experiences,” Dingwell said.

There are many factors to the equation, he said, and when access to firearms is added, a shooting like the one at Columbine is the result.

Dunleavy said he thinks high school animosity will always be present.

“There’s always a group getting made fun of,” he said. “You don’t know other people’s mind-set, and that’s why you just have to be happy.

“If everyone is smiling, it’s a lot more difficult to create a killer,” he said.

The incident definitely has shaped who Dunleavy is today, he said, adding that he’ll “never get over the fact that it happened.”

He is thankful for three of his guy friends who are like family to him. They give him someone to open up and talk to about the incident.

“At first, I bottled everything up … I wanted to put it away,” he said. He said he can’t help but think that if maybe one of the killers would have had someone to open up to, the shootings might not have occurred.

Dunleavy’s parents still live in Denver, with Littleton about 10 miles away. He goes back to Denver about twice a year.

“(The Columbine shootings) will forever be tattooed on that town,” he said about Littleton.

Today, whenever Dunleavy sees someone wearing a trench coat, it scares him into thinking twice about the person, even though he knows he shouldn’t stereotype.

“When I walk into a building, like at a gymnastics meet for example, I think about where I’m going to go if something happens,” Dunleavy said.

Considering how everyone learns from experience, Dunleavy would like to be able to enlighten people of what he has learned from the shootings, without others experiencing what he did firsthand.

“I’d rather feel pain and sadness (discussing this) so others can realize how fortunate they really are,” he said. “Enjoy each minute, it might be your last … you never know.”