It is fifteen years today since the massacre at Columbine High School, Littleton, Colorado, where thirteen people were murdered and numerous others wounded. Accounts from eyewitnesses in news reports documenting the attack conveyed the horror of the shooting; long-term news coverage portrayed school shootings as an on-going trend and a naturalised risk which could occur at any time. It now appears the term ‘Columbine’ has become shorthand for an event so horrific that it requires no explanation. Last week, a colleague of mine at a university in the United States attended an emergency meeting to deal with the threat of a student threatening to ‘pull a Columbine’ if a situation about their finances was not resolved. Following the Columbine school shooting, copycat threats escalated at an exponential rate for a number of months. These threats eventually dropped, only to spike again every year around the time of the anniversary of Columbine on the 20th April.
The threat of future attacks meant there were positive policy legacies to come from this fear: revising emergency management plans to address flaws which had been highlighted by past school shooting situations; adapting training to a potential school shooting scenario; making emergency alerts sent out in a school shooting situation clearer and detailed, with explicit instructions about actions to take; it created a market for mobile phone safety applications, such as LiveSafe, which facilitates communication in an emergency situation and allows users to alert others of an on-going incident.
Despite these positive changes, fifteen years later, discussions on social media indicate that students still feel vulnerable and anxious about the prospect of a school shooting occurring. Embracing the idea that they are likely to become victims, some students are devising potential strategies to deal with an attack, such as searching for exits and windows in classrooms to escape from. Such feelings of vulnerability have also given traction to movements like ‘concealed carry on campus,’ lobbying to allow students to carry concealed firearms in higher education institutions to negate any threats which may occur. The tragic legacy of Columbine means conquering the fear, dread and anxiety it left behind is the only way to move forward.
(The statements made here are taken from the research findings of my doctoral thesis on news media and policy responses to school shootings.)