Magazine Feature

Reef For All

This reflection accompanies the feature story "Voices of Columbine."


Columbine High School English teacher Jason Webb took an uncommon approach in coping with emotional repercussions following the 1999 tragedy.

"Shortly after the shootings, I decided to build a saltwater aquarium to help take my mind off of the tragedy," Webb said.

Although experienced with freshwater tanks, he spent the summer learning of the construction and care of a marine aquarium — a process that also helped him find solace and healing.

Webb returned to school in the fall of 1999 and learned that students and teachers were avoiding the temporary library housed in a doublewide trailer, in part, according to Webb "because of what had happened in the previous library."

Research scientists have long known that watching fish in aquariums has a calming effect. Webb decided fish therapy might help bring students back to the school library.

Webb contacted aquarium enthusiasts through Internet bulletin boards called reef chats.

He received more than just technical information about building an aquarium in a school setting. when reef-chat readers learned he taught at Columbine, Webb was flooded with offers of donations — everything from fish, rock and coral to the glass aquarium itself.

He dedicated hours planning and setting up the reef tank, and he began to spend even more time maintaining it. Fortunately, his actions caught the eyes of students wanting to lend a hand, and soon he had a small team helping him.

Excitement spread as teachers created aquarium-focused lessons.

"Art classes designed posters of saltwater inhabitants, and a creative writing class produced a 21-page handbook of the fish and corals in the tank," Webb said.

The tank was generating the result he had hoped: "Each day, students would sit and gaze at the wonder and amazement of the underwater world."

The Healing of People Everywhere Foundation (HOPE), a nonprofit established to raise funds for a new library, was so impressed with the aquarium's success that the library's floor plans included a larger, built-in reef aquarium.

Coordinating with HOPE and the school district, as well as businesses and individuals, Webb raised funds to build the aquarium. Once again, donations came in to support the effort.

Webb met with architects and engineers to design the new aquatic home. After six months of painstaking planning and peer support on the reef chats, Webb was able to accomplish what he called "one of the most rewarding endeavors of my life."

Today, the tiny, colorful marine creatures provide cherished moments of solitude and escape in a library that does more than house books.

"Just as the horrible tragedy of April 20th brought the nation closer together, so did the nation come together in this effort to help Columbine High School," Webb said. "This is a reef for all."

A map of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi with overlaid images of key state symbols and of people in community

Learning for Justice in the South

When it comes to investing in racial justice in education, we believe that the South is the best place to start. If you’re an educator, parent or caregiver, or community member living and working in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana or Mississippi, we’ll mail you a free introductory package of our resources when you join our community and subscribe to our magazine.

Learn More