A Columbine High School massacre survivor said she struggles with sending her own kids off to school — as gun violence that she once “never thought” could happen in a classroom is routinely unleashed on campuses across the US.
Kacey Ruegsegger Johnson was a 17-year-old junior at the school in Littleton, Colorado, when deranged seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 classmates and a teacher before committing suicide in the library on April 20, 1999. The ruthless attack marked the deadliest school shooting in the US to date at the time.
But some 23 years later, in the aftermath of Tuesday’s attack at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Ruegsegger Johnson is still reliving the horror of being hit in the shoulder and hand by a single shotgun blast while inside Columbine’s library.
“I never thought it could happen the first time, being in the library and being told by my teacher to hide,” Ruegsegger Johnson told The Post on Wednesday. “Facing that kind of evil is still unbelievable, that’s something that actually happened to me. But like I said before, I don’t know how you fix a human problem.”
Ruegsegger Johnson said she was devastated when she heard the news that Salvador Ramos, 18, gunned down at least 19 children and two teachers Tuesday before being killed by cops.
“Heartbreak, for so many reasons,” Ruegsegger Johnson told The Post when asked her initial reaction. “The obvious being the loss of life of so many young people, but also just knowing what these families are entering into. I call it this club — the school shooting club — that no one signs up to be a member and they’ve been thrown into it.”
Ruegsegger Johnson, a 40-year-old mom of four, has children the same age as some of Tuesday’s victims. She said she has trouble seeing them go off to school because of her own trauma more than two decades ago.
“Sending my kids to school has always been something difficult, but I didn’t want my own trauma to keep them from living a full life,” she said. “So, it’s just a lot of thought and prayer and believing that sending them to school is the best thing for their development.”
She has written about her tale of survival in a book, “Over My Shoulder,” and mentors shooting survivors as a motivational speaker nationwide.
“What was normal for these people yesterday morning can no longer exist,” she said of relatives of Tuesday’s shooting victims. “They’re entering a new normal that they didn’t want.”
Ruegsegger Johnson said she had no possible solutions on how to end school shootings, but offered a grim assessment of what she thinks lies ahead.
“I don’t know what the country does as a response,” she said. “I feel there’s a human heart problem here. I wish I had the answer, but I don’t have an expertise just because I survived a school shooting.”
Ruegsegger Johnson balked at the suggestion of US lawmakers passing additional gun control measures, saying it’s a “complicated” issue.
“There’s people who land on either side of that debate, and for good reason,” she said. “How to unify that into action is really difficult.”
Repealing the Second Amendment, which guarantees Americans the right to be gun owners, isn’t the correct response either, she said.
“My personal opinion is that human nature is sinful and as long as there’s sin and evil in the world, tragedies of all kinds are going to continue,” she told The Post.
Ruegsegger Johnson said she didn’t have flashbacks on Tuesday upon seeing news of the Texas school massacre, but has had intense memories regularly flood her mind in the past.
“I can’t even imagine,” she said of the prospect of losing a child. “I talk about having grace for yourself along the journey and letting the hard days become days that are opportunities for deeper healing.”
Ruegsegger Johnson was wounded with a shotgun at close range by one of the gunmen during the 1999 attack. She declined to identify whether Harris or Klebold pulled the trigger, but said she had surgery two years ago to replace her right shoulder.
“It completely shattered my shoulder bones to dust,” she said.
The regularity of shootings in schools — at least 27 this year alone, according to Education Week — is a near-constant on Ruegsegger Johnson’s mind, she said. Still, her children and others nationwide need to grow up as normal as possible, despite Tuesday’s shooting coming just 10 days after a gunman killed 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York.
Relatives of the victims must now somehow “turn pain into purpose” by taking the horrible circumstances and finding hope in tomorrow, she said.
Ruegsegger Johnson said she keeps details of her 1999 trauma shielded from her own children as much as possible, but realizes they’ll one day be able to read about it.
“What’s hard is I wrote a book that has every single detail of the whole thing,” she said. “I never lie, but I only answer as much as they ask. But I share my story to help others find purpose and healing in their own stories.”