After their son was shot dead at Columbine High School 10 years ago, Michael and Vonda Shoels filed lawsuits against the police, teachers, and killers’ parents.
They participated in a gun buyback program in Atlanta, and rallied against racism and violence in Brooklyn. Michael Shoels travelled to the site of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.
For the Shoels, every day is April 20, 1999.
“I remember it like yesterday,” Michael Shoels said from Houston, Texas, where he now lives. “All these anniversaries don’t make any sense because it’s in my head everyday.”
Columbine’s 10th anniversary hits on Monday. But it has never left the rest of the world either.
The shootings at the school in the Denver suburb of Littleton have become shorthand not only for school violence, but a variety of social and psychological issues, from policing to troubled children.
The Shoels were among the loudest critics of how the shootings were handled. They were also among the most criticized. But their path has similarities with families of other victims.
Isaiah Shoels, one of the few black students at Columbine, was among the 12 students and a teacher killed at the school.
The shootings were random but the killers taunted 18-year-old Isaiah because of his skin colour once they happened upon him.
Gunmen Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, shot themselves dead at the end of the rampage.
Parents against violence and gun laws
The Shoels story actually began three days before the shootings. They were travelling in the family van when Isaiah asked: “What would you do if someone shot down all your children?”
Michael and Vonda were taken aback.
“I mean you know, no kid (is) supposed to be asking their parents a question like that for no reason at all,” Michael says.
The Shoels said they would speak out against violence. But they would not seek revenge.
Other victim families have recounted similar premonitions from their children before Columbine. And they have similarly become activists.
Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was killed, has advocated for gun control, even getting arrested for the cause. He said two weeks before the shootings, his son asked about loopholes in the Brady gun bill.
Brian Rohrbough, whose son Dan was also killed, has probably become the most high-profile critic of the sheriff’s investigation.
He also ran on the vice-presidential ticket for the small, conservative America’s Independent Party in the last election.
Ten years later, a common thread the Shoels seem to share with a sampling of others close to the tragedy is that the pain never goes away. And neither, it appears, does the activism.
Michael Shoels is now 52 and owner of Myvons BBQ and catering.
Five years ago Michael, who is also an ordained minister, founded Worldwide Impact Records and Ministries.
He says he has distributed about 1,000 CDs, mostly in Texas, that have a mixture of gospel and rap. He is looking to connect with a major label but in the meantime says Worldwide has converted about a dozen young men who were “gangsters and rappers.”
“They’re rapping about goodness and they’re telling other kids where they shouldn’t go,” Shoels added.
If Shoels’s message could be boiled down into one word it is “respect.” If there was more of that, he says,” the world would be a better place. It don’t hurt to say ‘good morning’ to someone.”
He also believes putting prayer in school would help, although he says it does not have to be Christian prayer.
Shoels says his message could play across the country where mass shootings have recently occurred in the states of Alabama, North Carolina and New York.
He does not believe in gun control, but argues that people should not be able to buy guns until they are 21 rather than 18.
“That’s when you really come in to your own,” Shoels says. “You shouldn’t have no reason to have a gun before that.”
He would make exceptions for those under 21 who are in the military or law enforcement because of their specialized training.
Shoels plans to stay in Texas on the 10-year anniversary. He is not sure what he will do that day, but knows that church has helped get him through the past decade.
“The word of God,” he says. “Knowin’ that it’s going to be alright tomorrow. And a whole lot of prayer and cryin’.”