‘Columbine 2024: 25 Years of Trauma’ Documentary Chronicles a Teacher’s Eye-Opening Journey Through PTSD

Director-producer Jeff Vespa and subject Kiki Leyba discuss their new short film

When teacher Kiki Leyba was first approached about participating in a documentary about his experience with the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, he was a little skeptical. Few quality documentaries have been made about the horrific ordeal, and Leyba was hesitant about whether “Columbine 2024: 25 Years of Trauma” director Jeff Vespa’s approach would be any different.

“I always feel a little protective, not necessarily for myself, but I think for our Columbine community,” Leyba explained to TheWrap during an interview ahead of the film’s limited release. But that skepticism quickly dissipated – Vespa wasn’t as interested in rehashing the shooting as he was in exploring the lingering effects of trauma in the years that followed, resulting in a film that proves to be a heartbreaking guide for other survivors.

Leyba was in the middle of being offered a full-time teaching position at Columbine on the day that two students opened fire, killing 12 students and one teacher and wounding 20 others. He remains a teacher at Columbine to this day, but as the 25th anniversary of the event approaches, he reflected on the harrowing effects that PTSD has had on his life since the event.

Vespa (who, full disclosure, is TheWrap’s creative director) had experience tackling similarly sensitive subject matter as the director of the 2020 documentary “Voices of Parkland,” and he showed that film – which explores the 2018 high school shooting in Parkland, Florida – to Leyba and others before they rolled cameras on “Columbine 2024: 25 Years of Trauma.”

“It’s not about me. I don’t editorialize,” Vespa said of his approach to the Columbine documentary. “I come to these people and I basically say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna give you a voice. Just tell me your story.’”

While Leyba does recount his personal experience with the massacre in the beginning of the film, the bulk of “Columbine 2024” finds him reflecting on the years of depression and trauma that resulted from the event. Leyba said his level of trust with Vespa was “very high” once they got to the interview stage where he opened up about his journey alongside his wife Kallie.

“We were really very brutally honest about a lot of stuff that we had never discussed,” Leyba recalled. “The thing that makes it hopefully relevant for other people who’ve experienced traumatic things is they will recognize aspects of themselves in the things that we say.”

The only other subject in the documentary is Leyba’s wife Kallie, who provides her own perspective as the spouse of a gun violence survivor struggling to watch them combat PTSD.

“I thought that it was important to interview Kallie, because the people behind the survivors and victims really get lost,” Leyba recalled telling Vespa during their initial chats. “They don’t ever feel like they can identify themselves as a survivor or a victim, yet they experience so much trauma and I think many are having symptoms of PTSD.”

One of the most emotional revelations in the documentary is when Leyba discusses how difficult it was when the freshman class that lived through the massacre graduated, leaving only the teachers behind as those still inside Columbine wrestling with the lingering effects of the shooting.

Vespa said the revelation rocked him as well. “The crazy thing is, it’s not even just the freshman class leaving, it’s every year a class leaves,” the director noted. “So all of a sudden, you’re with all these other kids that don’t know anything about it.”

Leyba said he’s open about his experience with curious students: “I tell students, I’d rather have them ask me questions than go on the internet and come across weird stuff.”

When it comes to the documentary, the teacher hopes his story can help others who’ve survived other traumatic events, including other mass shootings.

“What would be the point of doing something like this if it wasn’t an opportunity for me to really be honest about my experience, that others can learn from that?” he said. “It’s amazing how many people will try to just walk through something like this on their own and not seek support.”

And for Vespa, he’s hopeful the power of Leyba’s story will inspire others.

“I didn’t make the movie to tell you what to think,” he said. “But the movie is so powerful in you understanding what happened that there’s no way you can’t think at the end of it, ‘Something’s got to change.’”

“Columbine 2024: 25 Years of Trauma” is playing at the Glendale Laemmle for one week from April 5-11. Find more information about the film here.

'Columbine 2024: 25 Years of Trauma' (Director: Jeff Vespa)
Photo by Jeff Vespa

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