On April 20, 1999, two armed teenagers stormed their high school in Littleton, Colorado, killing 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves. More than 20 other students were injured.
Prior to the massacre at Columbine High School, the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people in April 1995 was the act of domestic terror most familiar to many Americans. Schoolyard shootings had horrified the nation in the past — two students dead in Mississippi in October 1997, three students killed a few months later in Kentucky, four middle schoolers dead in Arkansas in 1998 — but Columbine felt different.
In Oklahoma City, the media had arrived when the federal building was already rubble. In Littleton, the terrifying events unfolded live on television and radio, as trapped students used cellphones to call local media outlets. For hours, as police waited to storm the building, it was unclear where the shooters were and how many victims were inside.
Afterward, details about how the killers had tried to murder as many people as possible — and might have taken many more lives if their homemade bombs hadn’t failed — chilled the country.
Twenty years later, mass shootings have become tragically frequent news. But Columbine was a turning point. Dave Cullen, whose 2009 book “Columbine” is often called the most comprehensive work on the tragedy, spoke to Legacy about the shooting’s aftermath, noting four lessons that emerged from the tragedy and the “biggest lesson we didn’t learn” that still desperately needs to be addressed.
“Columbine took school shootings from this simmering fear of Americans — with scattered events happening here and there — and really opened the door to copycats. It showed you had to make it bigger and worse and more horrifying to grab the spotlight,” Cullen said. These acts of terror, he said, “are performances, whether they’re conscious or not.”
Among the lessons from Columbine, according to Cullen:
1. Not everything reported is true, especially not in the early hours and days after an incident. As media outlets battled each other to provide information about the shooting, many mistakes were made, many of which remain part of the Columbine lexicon. It’s now known that the shooters weren’t bullied and they didn’t belong to an evil “Trenchcoat Mafia.” There was no agenda to kill athletes or minorities or students with certain religious beliefs.
2. Columbine led law enforcement to change the standard response protocol to mass shootings — a change that has saved lives. At Columbine, police set up a perimeter and did not allow anyone inside the building to leave as they tried to assess the danger. It was standard procedure at the time, and teacher Dave Sanders bled to death without fast aid.
The post-Columbine protocol, developed largely by the Los Angeles Police Department, says that if shooters are active and still shooting, “You charge the building immediately to neutralize them. Even if you’re just one cop,” Cullen said. “Optimally, you want at least four guys to go in a diamond formation to get all directions covered, but the key is not to wait,” he said.
The new protocol has saved lives, Cullen said, noting how the gunman at Virginia Tech who killed 32 people in April 2007 turned his weapon on himself when he heard law enforcement arrive. More recently, the Sandy Hook Elementary School murderer, whose rampage took 26 lives, shot and killed himself when first responders arrived.
3. Schools are more secure, Cullen said, with not only on-site security but also planning: Local law enforcement works with educators to have key information before tragedy strikes.
In 1999, Cullen said, “It was pretty rare for local cops to have blueprints to a school or alarm codes in their files. At Columbine, you had the vice principal on the sidewalk sketching diagrams for the SWAT team, which took up a lot of time. The fire alarm went off for hours, just blaring, because the assistant principal who knew the code was flustered and couldn’t remember it.”
4. The extent of the Columbine massacre was unthinkable, so when the killers asked other students to join their plot, they were ignored. Now people take these threats seriously.
“The majority of plots are foiled before they come to fruition,” Cullen said, because someone tells authorities what is being planned. The FBI says about 80 percent of would-be shooters tell at least one other person of their plan, while a vast majority tell multiple people.
“Before Columbine, friends didn’t turn each other in because they never took it seriously. If, in 1998, someone said, ‘I’m going to bring a gun to school and kill everybody,’ it was, ‘Oh yeah, yeah. Me, too,’ ” Cullen said.
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Cullen said, some schools adopted “zero tolerance” policies, punishing anyone who made a threat aloud or brought something that could be seen as a weapon to school. Those policies aren’t helpful, he said.
“A kid who brought a nail clipper with a pointy file to school was suspended and all kinds of ridiculous things,” he said. “It made it risky to turn in your friends, because you might think your friend was joking and you wouldn’t want to get him expelled. … It took a few years to scale back from that and to let kids know they could turn their friends in and, if they were joking, it would be fine, a slap on the wrist.”
And here is the lesson the country didn’t learn: Teen depression is a real and deadly problem.
There were two Columbine shooters. Cullen’s book includes discussions with experts who say one teenager, often referred to as the leader, was a psychopath.
“They fool everybody so there’s not much we can do with that,” Cullen said. “But the good news is they’re extremely rare.”
The second teenager “was deeply depressed,” Cullen said. “What we’re dealing with is sad, depressed kids with deep self-esteem issues. That’s very different from the profile the media has invented of these kids.”
Diagnosing depression in teens can prove challenging, especially when it “looks like a lot of other high school boys who have stopped communicating, especially with their parents,” Cullen said.
One low-cost and effective way to diagnose depression involves a quick screening questionnaire, perhaps given in school or at a doctor’s visit. Some tests have as few as 10 questions. Teens tend to answer truthfully, Cullen said.
“Almost all depressed kids want help but they try to hide it from their parents because they feel bad or like they’ve failed. All we need is a standard detection,” Cullen said.
“By just dealing with the teen depression issue, we would solve so many problems: drug and alcohol abuse, pregnancies, car crash rates, and in the process eliminate most of the school shooters,” Cullen said. “We would stop the problem before it started.
“It’s the easiest, most obvious thing to do.”
Sign the Guest Book in memory of the lives lost at Columbine
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”