Like children who remember where they were when they heard about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 or the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, for an entire generation, April 20 is synonymous with one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history.
It’s hard to believe that a decade has gone by since the shocking 1999 killing spree at Columbine High School carried out by two students who murdered 12 peers and a teacher and injured two dozen others before taking their own lives. In the years since, the country has gotten used to the sight of metal detectors at the doors of elementary and high schools, more security guards and cameras and elaborate emergency-response plans aimed at heading off another disaster.
Columbine wasn’t the first school shooting and, sadly, it wasn’t the last, but the spree by troubled teens Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris has since become a shorthand for these types of horrific assaults, spawning a raft of books, a major Hollywood movie (director Gus Van Sant’s thinly veiled 2003 fictionalization “Elephant”) and a new film by one of the survivors, Andrew Robinson, called “April Showers.”
Despite the increased efforts, these types of shooting sprees have continued across the country, from schools in Red Lake, Minnesota, to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Virginia Tech University, as well as a number of overseas assaults, leading many educators to fret over how, or if, schools can effectively stop the violence before it takes place.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that in the decade since Columbine, 6,300 police officers have been deployed on campuses across the country to help manage bullying and potentially dangerous situations and that hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in order to increase school safety. But now that money is beginning to run out. Federal grants for school security have been cut by a third ($145 million), the Justice Department has mothballed the police-in-schools program, and states are slashing spending once earmarked for security. How bad is it? Even the Colorado district that includes Columbine High has canceled its annual violence-prevention convention.
Some schools around the country have enacted a number of policies in an attempt to stave off another Columbine, from teachers assigned to specifically mentor small groups of students in a small Kentucky high school, to after-school and kindness clubs and sponsored pizza and skating parties to reward students for good behavior. Those efforts appear to be paying dividends, but author Dave Cullen — who has just released a book exploring the Columbine massacre in minute detail called “Columbine” — recently offered more suggestions in the Slate.com essay “The Four Most Important Lessons of Columbine.”
One of the most salient points he makes is that in the years since Columbine, a number of teens have plotted to blow up their high schools with homemade explosives (as Harris and Klebold attempted to), and while some have even gotten to the action stage, not a single one has succeeded. And of the many who’ve brought automatic weapons and guns to schools, some have indeed killed, but the majority have failed in their attempts.
Cullen claims that part of the reason there hasn’t been another Columbine is that the police, school administrators, parents and children have learned these four lessons from the assault: 1) There isn’t a distinct psychological profile of a school killer; 2) a Secret Service study found that in 80 percent of the 37 school shootings between 1974 and 2000, the shooters had explicitly revealed their intentions to others before the attacks; 3) students and teachers need to be better prepared in emergency procedures, and 4) instead of setting up a perimeter, police need to advance toward the sound of gunfire and neutralize the shooter.
While the Columbine assault played out in real time on TV — with footage of frightened students running screaming from the school, a bleeding boy trying to escape out of a window and heavily armed SWAT officers waiting an agonizing 47 minutes before being given the OK to enter the school — in the years since, fears have arisen about how the nonstop coverage and attention might have served to provide the very thing Klebold and Harris claimed they wanted to achieve: infamy.
The pair have been named by other school shooters as inspirations for sprees, including Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, who left a video diary behind referring to “martyrs like Eric and Dylan.”
Which is why unlike films such as “Elephant,” and 2003’s “Zero Day” — which looked at two students planning a rampage — Robinson told the Los Angeles Times that he wanted “April Showers” to take a look at how survivors go forward in the aftermath.
“I didn’t want to focus on the gunmen or the actual shooting,” Robinson said of the film, which follows a handful of survivors in a middle-class suburban neighborhood not unlike Columbine as they deal with post-traumatic stress and the sensationalized media coverage of the event.
“What is more important is what do we do now. You know, these neighborhoods get turned upside down. These lives get turned upside down. We kind of almost became strangers in our own land … the media trucks just sort of descended upon everyone. And the camera lenses became similar to guns in a way — out to get us. It made it hard for some people to get closure.”
Hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of the spree on Sunday night at Clement Park in Littleton, and a community gathering is planned for Monday (April 20) at 5 p.m. in the Clement Park Amphitheatre. The school will be closed on Monday.
Around 81 percent of school attackers tell someone of their plans beforehand. If someone mentions or threatens to use violence against you or anyone else, don’t be afraid to speak up. You can contact a parent, school administrator or law-enforcement agent for advice, or if you would like to take action anonymously, you can call Speak Up at (866) SPEAK-UP (866-773-2587). Speak Up is a national toll-free hotline for students to report threats of violence at school and feature both English- and Spanish-speaking operators. After talking with you, they can work with your school and local officials to evaluate the situation and act accordingly on the potential threat. Go here for more information on this service.