The Columbine High School Incident - Fact and Fiction
G. Dwayne Fuselier, Ph.D.
The April 20, 1999, school shootings and use of homemade pipe bombs at Columbine High School garnered months of front page attention from media and law enforcement agencies worldwide. Years later, the school's name has been transformed into a descriptor, meaning a shocking, violent school eruption, as in, "We don't want to have another Columbine."
However, it is ironic that with such a notable amount of media attention and investigation surrounding this incident, significant myths and misconceptions persist. The most important of those myths and misconceptions were reported as early as Sept., 1999, by freelance journalist Dave Cullen writing in Salon.com online. Here are the facts on some of the central myths:
The Trench Coat Mafia: A small group of Columbine students did dub themselves the Trench Coat Mafia (TCM), and they did have a feud with a band of jocks in 1999. But it was never a formal gang or club, and most of the members graduated nearly a year before the massacre. Harris and Klebold were never closely affiliated with the group and did not appear in the 1998 yearbook picture identifying the members. The TCM had little to do with Harris and Klebold and nothing to do with the massacre. Harris and Klebold wore long coats in order to hide their weapons upon approaching the school, and not to represent any affiliation with the TCM.
Targeting jocks, blacks, and Christians: No specific students or groups of students were targeted. Harris and Klebold just wanted body count, and they didn't care who died. They expected their bombs to do most of the killing, murdering everyone in the cafeteria, irrespective of clique or social standing. When the bombs failed, they shot indiscriminately, firing into open crowds and under tables without bothering to see who their victims were. They made derogatory comments about jocks, blacks, and Christians while in the library, but did not seek out any school athlete, or any student based upon race or religion. Every person killed was simply a target of opportunity.
The Hit List: Eric Harris did create an enemies list, with a wide and sometimes comical assortment of personalities-students who "pissed him off," girls who refused his dates, and various celebrities, among others. There is no indication that these people were ever intended as targets and no one on the list was killed or targeted during the shootings.
Outcasts: Perhaps the most pervasive myth is that Harris and Klebold were rejected outcasts. They were not captains of the football team, but they were far more accepted than many of their schoolmates. They hung out with a tight circle of close friends and partied regularly on the weekend with a wider crowd.
In the aftermath of the tragic events at Columbine High School, educators, law enforcement officials, mental health professionals, parents, and others began asking: "Could we have known that these attacks were being planned?" and, "What can be done to prevent future attacks from occurring?" The United States Secret Service (USSS), together with the United States Department of Education launched a collaborative effort to begin to answer these questions. The result was the Safe School Initiative, an extensive examination of 37 incidents of targeted school shootings and school attacks that have occurred in the United States beginning with the earliest identified incident in 1974 through June 2000.
Some of those incidents examined were eerily similar to Columbine. For example, on December, 30, 1974, in Olean, N.Y., 18 year old, Anthony Barbaro, an honor student brought guns and homemade bombs to school, set off the fire alarm, and shot at janitors and firemen who responded. He hanged himself while awaiting trial. Nicholas Elliott, 16, of Virginia Beach, Va. went to his school on Dec. 16, 1988 with a semiautomatic pistol, 200 rounds of ammunition, and three firebombs. He wounded one teacher, killed another and fired on a student who had called him a racist name.
So, what is it about the incident at Columbine that resulted in it becoming one of the most infamous school shootings of the late 20th century and generating significant policy and procedure review and change among many U.S. law enforcement agencies?
First, this incident, unlike most previous ones, which are over by the time police arrive, was on national television news from about noon until at least 6 p.m. that day. So television viewers were experiencing the incident live and in real time. Viewers saw a police SWAT team entering the school at about 12:10 p.m.. They saw hundreds of students evacuated by police, running from the building with their hands clasped over their heads. (The shooters, still unaccounted for, were known to be Columbine students themselves.) It was the ultimate reality show, with the tragic outcome as yet unknown.
Second, the shootings seemed to last for hours. We know now that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold committed suicide just after noon, approximately 45 or 50 minutes after they fired their first shots. But throughout the afternoon, students hiding in classrooms, offices, and closets throughout the 250,000 square foot building were calling out on cell phones, saying that they were still hearing explosions and shotgun fire. What they were hearing were the SWAT teams breaching the doors with both mechanical means and shotgun breaching rounds, but at that time, it seemed that there was an ongoing assault in the school.
Third, it was the deadliest school violence incident on record, with 13 students and one teacher murdered, and the two shooters committing suicide during the incident
Fourth, this was not simply a "school shooting." From the beginning, Harris and Klebold were throwing homemade pipe bombs in the west parking lot, throughout the school, and even on the roof. The post incident investigation quickly discovered two large bombs with timers made from 20 lb. propane tanks, surrounded by gasoline and shrapnel, in the cafeteria, which were designed to kill as many students as possible. Four more propane tank bombs were in their cars, designed to kill first responders.
Fifth, the extensive post incident investigation revealed that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were both bright, academically achieving students from upper middle class families. This set the stage for the enduring question, "Why would these two young men, who were seemingly on their way to college (Klebold) or the U.S. military (Harris), commit such a violent act against fellow students, and then commit suicide?" It seemed that this tragedy would have been more easily understood if the killings had been committed by someone with a violent criminal history and who was truly an "outcast."
Finally, the emotional aftermath in the community degenerated quickly. Some parents began to complain that the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office (JCSO) and the school administration could have or should have taken more definitive and earlier action against these two young men. The coverage by the local print media also seemed to grow more antagonistic, particularly toward the JCSO, alleging that the JCSO was not being completely forthright in statements about prior contacts with Harris and Klebold. Despite the fact that an ad hoc SWAT team entered the school just a little over 30 minutes after the first shots were fired, criticism began to develop around first responder actions, and how long it took SWAT teams to clear the entire building. In the absence of factual information, the erroneous belief that first responders "did nothing" began to emerge.
These six factors, fueled by national news media coverage for months after the incident, set the stage for law enforcement agencies nationwide to review or restate their first responder plans, particularly the plans or policies involving the "active shooter." It is logical and appropriate that following an incident of this magnitude and with such tragic consequences, law enforcement agencies should review existing procedures to do everything possible to prevent such an occurrence in their jurisdiction. However, it is just as appropriate that these agencies ensure that they are conducting their review using the best available factual information regarding the incident.