When the news of the deadly events at Columbine High School in Colorado broke on April 20, 1999, like most Americans I was far away both geographically and emotionally, near Boston, Mass. It was just another work day for me, Columbine just another headline from the Internet too strange to believe. A lot has changed since then.
Numbingly repetitive coverage into the evening, and the shock of something so hard to fathom made it easier to see as just another “media event” requiring token sympathy and contemplation. I tuned in and, for the most part, moved on, since the events were nothing I could relate to, even surreal. I didn’t have any children in school, and my high school not only didn’t have locked doors and metal detectors, but it had an open campus where students passed between buildings outdoors. I couldn’t imagine anything like Columbine.
The Columbine story, at the time, was more like war coverage from a distant country than an American situation. Now, I live a few miles away from Columbine, and I can feel reverberations of the event even a decade later. Certainly security is tighter, but when I’ve visited local schools as a volunteer I’ve seen a security model more like most corporate facilities than a military or prison environment. Even so, it’s not that hard anymore to imagine automatic weapons mixed with school pride and student lockers.
At the time Columbine seemed like an isolated event, like the Challenger explosion or the Oklahoma City bombing or the government’s attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Each had its own, isolated analysis. Unfortunately, school shootings have been recurring throughout the country over the past eleven years, including another recent Colorado shooting a few weeks ago at Deer Creek middle school in Jefferson County, where Columbine High School is also located, and several years ago in rural Bailey, Colo., as well.
As USA Today reported, a lot of the “information” first reported about Columbine turned out to be incorrect, and with it a lot of the conclusions about what happened and why. Groups that sought to leverage the tragedy to support their own conclusions about gun control, psychiatric drugs, school bullying and other topics found that the revised conclusions didn’t really support their causes. The best result? Understanding that neither technology nor ‘zero tolerance’ is protection enough, nor can anyone protect ‘us’ from ‘them’. Neither metal detectors nor administrators would have had much effect on the Columbine situation once it reached its critical moment.
Community involvement and awareness is now seen as our best bet, and efforts are underway both to help the public identify situations before they become critical, and to raise the level of ‘incident handling’ skill in those who might be on hand before public safety professionals arrive. In particular, CERT training is being offered nationwide, which runs the gamut from basic fire suppression skills to assisting first responders in a large-scale disaster. Local police departments are conducting simulations, often using CERT-trained civilians as ‘actors’ in the scenario, which test readiness and build skills throughout the force.
While the police were criticized for delaying entry to the school until the shooting was finished in the case of the Columbine incident, today’s training would allow a response by any available officers before the specially trained SWAT teams were able to arrive. At Deer Creek, it was actually school personnel who took action and subdued the gunman leaving only two students injured.
It seems undeniable to me that today’s students have lost the innocence that we seemed to have in the 1970s, and schools are now focusing on what are very real risks. Even suburban and rural schools face daunting challenges of balancing education with safety and other practical issues, including trying to project an ‘image’ to the public that they have everything under control.
To their credit, I have seen many schools in this area facing their demons, whether it’s the specter of another Columbine-like shooting, or internal problems like bullying and social disconnection. Best of all, I see extracurricular programs from band to sports to robotics all thriving. Whatever the purpose or lack in the Columbine tragedy, the schools don’t seem to be shying away from their focus on education, albeit with a lot more reality checks.
Columbine High School massacre, Wikipedia
Greg Toppo, 10 years later, the real story behind Columbine, USA Today
Tom Kenworthy, Investigation of Colorado school shooting turns up letter from gunman, USA Today
Victoria A.F. Camron, Local police agencies practice for Columbine-like event , Longmont (CO) Times-Call
Emily Friedman, Shooting Bears Resemblance to Columbine High School Massacre, ABC News
Moni Basu, Columbine prepares for shooting anniversary, CNN