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My dad died a hero at Columbine but I march Saturday for us all

The March for Our Lives — a nationwide protest Saturday organized by teen survivors of the Parkland, Fla. shooting — will mark the 6,913th day I have marched through life without my dad because he was shot and killed saving his students’ lives at Columbine High School. My dad was a mentor to many students in the 24 years he taught, encouraging them to work hard and play hard and that success in life would follow.

On April 20, 1999, I was at work when I overheard my co-workers talking about Columbine High School in Littleton. I didn’t know why they were talking about it. But I will never forget the look of horror that flashed across their faces when I mentioned to them that my father worked there.

Just as it happened in Parkland, news of the Columbine school shooting emerged piece by piece. I called my mom again and again to see if she had heard from my dad, but I could not reach her. I told myself it was a big school and that the odds were on my side. I told myself my dad was alive.

A co-worker drove me to my parents’ house and I arrived to find family and friends glued to the television, watching coverage of students running from the school. The day dragged on and we still did not know where my dad was or if he was alive. We hoped he was still hiding in the school, but we also knew that didn’t sound like dad. As day turned to night, with no new information, it became apparent that my family’s nightmare wasn’t going to end. The sheriff asked my mom to identify the body.

We later learned that dad was not hiding in the school. He saw the shooters and ran from the parking lot into the school cafeteria, jumped on top of a table and yelled for students to get out. The shooters went into the cafeteria only to find it empty. Dad didn’t stop there. He was shot several times in the hall outside of the library, running next to his best friend towards the shooters. He fell riddled with bullets, but he got up and dragged himself into a nearby science room where students were hiding. The students used their shirts to wrap his wounds in an attempt to slow down the bleeding. It took more than three hours for help to reach him. Right before he died, he told a SWAT team member, “tell my girls I love ‘em.” My dad died a hero.

I am speaking and marching at Civic Center Park at 2 p.m. Saturday in Denver in his honor, along with some of the students he saved that tragic day. Our educators shouldn’t have to save their students; I am marching in hopes they will have a different future than my father and their children will never have to march in my shoes.

This is NOT just a march, this is a movement — a movement to allow schools to be a place to be educated, not shot. A movement of Americans, standing united and determined to create safety in our schools, people on all sides of the issues saying “enough!”  We are here. We are marching, and this movement will not stop until we have safety in our schools because we are Americans and we don’t give up. After almost 19 years of seeing school shootings on the news, America has finally had enough and we are standing up together.

My dad should be here marching for his students’ lives, but he isn’t because he died saving them. I want people to march with their loved ones … not for them… I march for us all.

Coni Sanders, whose father, Dave Sanders, was the teacher/coach killed at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. As a result of her experience with gun violence, Coni now works with offenders of violent crime.

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