Last week, we learned that Australian twins Kristin and Candice Hermeler, whose suicide pact left the former dead and the latter seriously wounded, had an interest in the 1999 Columbine massacre, but we didn't know the roots of the connection. Now, however, Judy Brown, whose son Brooks had been friends with Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, reveals that Kristin reached out after the attack. The reason: bullying.
When Judy and her husband, Randy, first saw reports about the Hermelers, who acted out their plan at the Family Shooting Center, a memory of girls from Australia who'd been in touch after the Columbine assault surfaced. But it wasn't until Judy saw a report by Channel 4's Rick Sallinger revealing that a copy of a Time magazine cover featuring Columbine had been found among the twins' belongings did she check her collection of letters from the period.
Sure enough, she discovered that Kristin had written to Brooks (now a LucasArts staffer living in San Francisco) not once but twice. The notes expressed a level of understanding for Harris and Klebold, both of whom had been bullied, and shared the Hermelers' own experience with such mistreatment and ostracism. One letter reads in part, "You felt like everyone hates you. Words could never tell you how sorry I am that you feel like anyone hates you. It completely baffles me as to why anyone would hate someone when they don't know them, it sickens me." Also included was a reference to a phone conversation between Brooks and Candice -- and Judy recalls speaking to one or both of the girls while putting them in touch with her son.
The Browns contacted Sallinger in the hope that he could get the letters to the Hermelers' parents. "The letters were so sensitive, and we wanted them to know that their daughter had reached out to my son to help him through a tragedy," she says. Because the parents requested privacy, Sallinger has been unable to deliver the notes, so the Browns have been working with the Australian consulate to make the delivery.
Judy stresses that she's not interested in making excuses for Harris and Klebold. "I know for a fact that Dylan was bullied, but I don't want anyone to think it's okay to murder people, to think, 'Poor Eric and Dylan,'" she says. "They were the ultimate bullies."
At the same time, however, she feels that bullying "is a huge piece of the puzzle" in relation to the Columbine shootings, and it may also have been a factor in the Hermelers tragedy. "Bullying absolutely changes who these kids are," she says. "Just this morning, I was thinking about that. Brooks started out school with such a great attitude. When he was in kindergarten and first grade, he loved it. But then it started to snowball, and it just got worse and worse. I think if Brooks could go back to the time he was in school, the only time he'd want to relive would be kindergarten and first grade -- and that's really sad."
Just as unfortunate from her perspective is ongoing bullying at schools, which she feels isn't receiving the attention it did in the immediate aftermath of Columbine.
"I think it's getting worse," she maintains, "and it needs to be addressed in schools daily. I understand that it's more than just the kids, more than just the teachers, more than just the parents -- but we need to work on it, because it can be stopped in the schools. Things may go on outside the schools that the school can't stop, but inside the schools, there's no excuse.
"These girls called to specifically say, 'Bullying goes on here in Australia as well, and nothing is being done about it' -- and I can't tell you how many calls we got from kids saying the same thing. It's almost like schools look at this problem and think, 'Well, these kids are going to be gone in a few years.' It's like schools are factories: get them in and get them out. But the kids are suffering from this."
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Moreover, she knows the impact of such bullying doesn't end with graduation -- which is one reason why, in her view, Columbine continues to cast such a large shadow over our culture. "It impacted people all over the world," she allows. "It impacted adults, because it brought them back to the times they were being bullied, and it impacted kids who were being bullied then -- and those kids are now growing up."
Judy argues that talking about these issues helps people process them, and she's proud of the way Brooks tried to do so with the Hermelers back in the day. She adds that he was very upset when he learned about Kristin's death and Candice's serious injury, even though it wasn't the first tragedy of its kind.
"There were other suicides after Columbine," she says. "This wasn't the first one. But you certainly don't get used to it. It's always shocking and it's always sad."
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