On the morning of April 20, 1999, in the small, suburban town of Littleton, Colorado, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, seniors at Columbine High School, enacted a full-blown assault on their school. The boys’ plan was to kill hundreds of their peers, using 20-pound propane bombs in duffel bags that they placed near tables in the cafeteria at 11:14 am, a time when the room was full. Having placed the bombs, the two boys returned to their car to await the explosion. It never happened. (If it had, it’s likely that all 488 students in the cafeteria would have died.)
No problem – they had a back-up plan. Klebold, wearing cargo pants and a black T-shirt with “Wrath” on the front, was armed with a 9-mm semi-automatic handgun and a 12-gauge double-barrel sawed-off shotgun. Harris wore dark-colored pants and a white T-shirt that said “Natural Selection” and carried a 9-mm carbine rifle and a 12-gauge pump sawed-off shortgun. Both wore black trench coats to hide their weapons. Together, they entered the school and started shooting randomly. By the end of the day, twelve
students, one teacher, and the two murderers were dead.
I was teaching my French AP class in suburban Los Angeles that morning, when someone got wind of what was happening and we turned on the television. (No Internet in my classroom 11 years ago.) My students simply sat in silent disbelief, a few of the girls cried, and slowly the questions came out: “What’s going on?” “Why are they doing that?” “Could that happen here?” I had never seen my normally self-assured and lively students so shaken and so much at a loss. I’m not sure that I was able to help them, but we stopped our mock AP test, (that suddenly didn’t seem to matter at all), and just talked. They were in shock.
Eleven years later, what lessons have we learned from that day? Klebold and Harris were able to obtain their weapons from gun show hobbyist dealers through a friend. On 2010, the situation is much the same. Public polls show a majority favoring the closing of the gun show loophole, but in most states legislators have not passed laws to require buyers at gun shows to undergo rigorous background checks. Indeed, as I write this on April 19, dozens of Second Amendment rights activists are gathered along the banks of the Potomac in northern Virginia at a gun rights rally, while hundreds more, unarmed as required by the District of Columbia’s strict gun laws, have converged on the nation’s capital. Gun control is a lesson that has not yet been learned.
Could the tragic events at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 have been prevented? Impossible to tell for sure, but since that tragic day, schools have increased security and trained with police, firefighter and paramedics to prepare for an emergency, zero-tolerance policies have been instituted, and educators have been made aware of the possible signs of a violent student offender. As a result, there have been some near-misses, but the Columbine tragedy has not been repeated. Numerous teenagers have plotted to blow up their high schools, and administrators are still extremely nervous on this day, April 20, (Hitler’s birthday), since it’s turned out to be a favorite day to attempt violence at schools. But no plot has succeeded in a high school setting. This lesson has been well learned, and schools are safer places than they used to be.
Another lesson: there is no distinct profile of the school killer. The Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education studied every American school shooting from 1974 – 2000 (there were 37 in all) and came to this conclusion: shooters came from all ethnic, economic, and social classes. What did they have in common? They were all boys, 98% had suffered a recent loss or failure, and 93 % planned their attack in advance. But there was no common demographic uniting these would-be killers.
A final lesson that hopefully school administrators are learning now is the link between bullying and violence. As Peaco Todd wrote here last week, discussing the story of Phoebe Prince, the teenager who committed suicide as a result of relentless bullying, “There are few things, to my mind, more despicable than bullying.”
“Between 15 and 25 percent of U.S. students are bullied with some frequency, while 15 to 20 percent report that they bully others with some frequency,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Bullying often leads to violence, so it is vital that anti-bullying programs become a central focus of our schools.
An ongoing lesson from Columbine should be the recognition that teachers and parents have a joint responsibility to help young people develop a deep regard for themselves and others, and a commitment to core values such as courage, caring, and service. To deal with the growing incidence of bullying, that may lead to violence, schools need to implement character education programs for
all. That would be a wonderful outcome of that awful day 11 years ago.
Creative Commons - Ben Stephenson