Tag Archives: Columbine High School

The Infamy of Columbine: Twenty Years On

Twenty years have passed since twelve students and one teacher were murdered by two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. It seems that the word ‘Columbine’ is so infamous that is requires no explanation. Arguably, there were school shootings prior to the 1999 attack at Columbine High School that were just as shocking: for instance, the Westside Middle School attack in 1998 perpetrated by students aged eleven and thirteen years old. Over the past two decades since Columbine, there have been numerous horrendous school shootings, including ones at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Parkland High School. There have also been mass shooting incidents with a higher death tool such as the Pulse Nightclub massacre and the Las Vegas Strip shooting. None of these, however, have ever quite had the impact of Columbine.

There are a number of reasons for this. Columbine is so infamous. To start with, the news coverage was different to previous school shootings. Broadcast news stations showed footage from the scene of the attack as it unfolded, documenting schoolchildren leaving the school, SWAT teams storming the building and those who had been shot escaping. In one notable example, footage captured a student who had been shot jumped out the window of the library. After the shooting, Columbine continued to generate interest in the news. Debates unfolded about school violence and culture, Gothic culture, bullying, violence in films and mental health. The shooting at Columbine High School was the top news story of 1999, with 68% of viewers claiming they were following it ‘very closely.’ (1)

Columbine also had a notable impact on policy debates. There was strong criticism of the law enforcement response to the attack; additionally, gaps in the existing in emergency management plan for the school were highlighted. This led to changes in emergency management planning across the United States and law enforcement tactics for these types of shooting incidents. Measures to report threats such as the hotline Safe2Tell were set up to. Security measures like metal detectors were also installed in schools throughout the United States. Despite it giving salience to the issue of youth gun violence, gun legislative responses to Columbine were modest in nature. Age restrictions and child safety requirements on firearms were passed in a handful of states. The background checks system was tightened in Oregon and Colorado, the state in which Columbine occurred. There was no action at the federal action, with the policies of the Clinton administration failing to make it through Congress. Twenty years on, Tom Mauser, one of the parents of a victim of the Columbine shooting, is still campaigning for tighter gun laws, wearing the shoes his son, Daniel, died in. (2)

Unfortunately, Columbine also appears to have motivated school shootings that have occurred in the past two decades. It is claimed to have inspired seventy-four ‘copycat’ plots, twenty-one of which actually became mass shootings in schools and other locations. (3) Furthermore, in a compiled list of school shootings from 1999-2007, seven out of nine in the United States and six out of eleven occurring elsewhere in the world referenced the Columbine incident. (4) Some of the other more noteworthy attacks like the shootings at Virginia Tech University in 2007 and Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 have involved perpetrators who were interested in the Columbine perpetrators. Thwarted school shooting plots, such as one at Radnor High School devised by a female student, have involved individuals fascinated with the Columbine perpetrators. There was even a threat made against Columbine High School itself this week, made by a female perpetrator who was said to be ‘obsessed’ with the Columbine incident. (5) It appears that the Columbine shooters have become somewhat of a role model for the disenfranchised.

Lessons have been learned from this incident. Policies have been changed. Sadly, further attacks have been inspired by this attack. On the twentieth anniversary of the Columbine shooting, the most important thing is to remember the victims and their families, the survivors and all others affected by the attack. The bravery and dedication showed by those impacted by Columbine is commendable. As said by then-President Clinton “Columbine was a momentous event in the history of our country…Even in the midst of tragedy, we’ve seen the best, the best there is to see about our nation and about human nature.”

[This blog post was written for the twentieth anniversary of the Columbine attack. It was written based on previous research conducted by the researcher relating to school shootings. Regular blog posts will resume in summer 2019.]

 

(1) Pew Research Center (1999) “Columbine Shooting Biggest News Draw of 1999.’”http://www.people-press.org/1999/12/28/columbine-shooting-biggest-news-draw-of-1999/

(2) Christopher Bucktin. (2019) ‘Dad of Columbine shooting victim wears shoes his son died in as he fights gun laws.’ The Mirror, 13th April. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/dad-columbine-shooting-wears-shoes-14308219

(3) Follman, Mark. 2015. “Inside the Race to Stop the Next Mass Shooter.” Mother Jones November/December edition. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/09/mass-shootings-threat-assessment-shooter-fbi-columbine

(4) Larkin, Ralph W. 2009. “The Columbine Legacy: Rampage Shootings as Political Acts.” American Behavioural Scientist 52: 1309-1326.

(5) BBC News. (2019) “Denver schools close as FBI hunt ‘Columbine-obsessed’ woman.” 17th April. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-47959374

Snapshot 1 (14-04-2019 19-29)

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Responding Across Cultures: Are European school shooting responses different to American ones?

The previous blog post compared and contrasted a handful of European school shootings with American ones and found that there was not much difference in the motivations and actions of perpetrators. This post will follow up on that looking at the aftermath of school shootings across different cultures.

 

Starting with European incidents, the Jokela school shooting in 2007 was discussed at length in a blog post published on the 25th of September 2017. The aftermath of this school shooting involved a number of recommendations centring on creating a better school environment and helping students: improving student welfare and ensuring the relevant authorities (e.g. social work) cooperate; clarifying mental health disorders such as adolescent anxiety; devising and implementing school safety plans; formulating programs to tackle bullying. More importantly, a report by the Ministry of Justice in Finland acknowledged that the perpetrator ‘copied school killings perpetrated in the USA’ with his use of a firearm with him being a legal gun owner. Recommendations, therefore, centred on more stringent checking of who is permitted to have a gun permit and greater use of fixed-term permits. Another point raised in this report was the fact that the perpetrator engaged in online discussions about school shootings prior to his attack and also used the internet to promote his manifesto. It was advised that administrators of online communities should stage interventions in such cases and moderate content more closely. Looking at the German Winnenden school shooting (2009) finds that this lead to the passage of gun legislation intended to improve handgun security: a nation-wide registry of gun owners, increased age limits for purchasing guns and unannounced inspections at homes to check guns were stored securely. Since the perpetrator stole his firearm from his father, this case also led to a lawsuit being filed against the father. As it transpired, his father was found guilty of involuntary homicide caused by negligence with a weapon. Another example was the Dunblane school shooting in the United Kingdom in 1996, which led to a more or less ‘blanket ban’ on handguns in the UK. Current gun owners were encouraged to return their guns after the 1997 law was passed and the criteria on who was allowed to own a gun became very strict, with people requiring a valid reason for doing so.

 

Looking at the United States now finds that earlier school shootings in the 1990s (e.g. Heath High School, Pearl High School, Westside Middle School) led to a ‘Conference on School Safety’ held at the White House in 1998. Responses centred on anti-bullying programs, reducing youth violence more generally, greater parental involvement and creating networks of support within the community. When the Columbine school shooting occurred in 1999, this expanded the scope for debate to violent entertainment media, ‘goth culture’ and gun laws. There were some provisions in place regulating violent media for a while and schools began developing emergency management plans to deal with active shooter incidents. Zero tolerance disciplinary measures were also implemented across a number of schools for carrying weapons, wearing certain types of clothing or any other action deemed ‘risky.’ Proposals were raised around children and guns but these never gained traction in Congress. The main changes to guns came at the state-level following Columbine. School shootings since then have resulted in changes to mental health laws and some restrictions on guns at the state-level. Similar to the Winnenden school shooting, some incidents in the United States have resulted in the parents of victims filing lawsuits against the parents of the perpetrators (e.g. Columbine) or in some cases other targets like the film industry on the basis of it influencing the actions of the shooter (e.g. Heath High School).

 

Contrasting the responses to school shootings across cultures is indicative of the differences. The motivations of school shooters are rooted in feelings of marginalisation, possibly being bullied and the need to get ‘revenge’ against the institution, no matter which country the attack took place in. When it comes to the aftermath, however, European countries have taken overt steps to tighten gun laws in response to school shooting incidents. In the United States, this has not really been the case for the entire nation; any gun restrictions have arisen at the state-level only. The similarities between the U.S. and European countries have been to improve the school culture and provide assistance to students who are struggling with mental health or other personal problems. In ensuring that responses to school shootings help to avert and negate future attacks, countries should try working together and sharing strategies about what has worked best for them.

 

[This post was put together by reading about cases in Europe and the United States. The next blog will continue the global theme by examining patterns and motivations in Canadian school shootings.]

Managing the Risks of School Shootings: Flaws to Avoid

Continuing the theme of the last two blogs of emergency management plans and training — something which is crucial to managing something as deadly as a school shooting — this post elucidates what to avoid when planning for and responding to acts of violence. Since something like ‘risk’ cannot be entirely eliminated, what organisations should strive to achieve instead is a level of ‘safety,’ i.e. what is deemed to be “an acceptable level of risk.”[1] In terms of school shootings, this means planning for which actions to take in a crisis should be located within the wider rubric of school violence; as well as accounting for potential spectacular events, which are rarer but more likely to be lethal in nature.

A common flaw of emergency management plans in educational institutions where school shootings have already taken place is not considering the possibility of such an event occurring in the first place: for instance, Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University had guidance in place for fires, bomb threats and so forth; yet not for an active shooter scenario. Whilst schools may feel that ‘it can’t happen here,’ the myriad school shootings which have occurred in the United States show that these tend to occur in suburban areas with relatively little crime. Moreover, the danger in not acknowledging the risk of a school shooting is that no plans would be put into place about how to eliminate or reduce that risk.[2]

Another common mistake is outdated or incomplete information in emergency management plans. An example of this is Virginia Tech University’s plan, which, at the time of the shooting, was two years old: this meant it had outdated information in it, such as the name of a previous police chief. Another instance of incomplete information is the case of Columbine High School, where, prior to the shooting, the building layout for the school had not been included in the plans — it has been said by delayed the response of police and other rescue personnel.[3] In situations like these, it certainly seems the point that Coombs[4] makes about the danger of having a plan in place is providing a false sense of security is correct: these have limited usefulness when actually applied to a crisis.

Probably the most well-known of emergency management mistakes is the delay in emergency communication at Virginia Tech University (refer back to the blog posted on the 20th August 2014 for more information). In addition to staff error, this transpired because of a number of pre-existing flaws: there was confusion about what ‘timely’ actually meant; there was no set template(s) for emergency communication messages; there were inconsistences in the emergency communication policy and emergency management plans about who had the authority to release an emergency alert. This exemplifies the importance of the linkages between different facets of emergency management: prevention, planning, communication, training and response.

[This blog post was put together using analyses of policy documents produced after the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings, as well as further reading. The next blog post will document some of the changes made to law to eradicate these flaws.]

[1] Borghesi, Antonio and Barbara Gaudenzi. (2013) Risk Management: How to Assess, Transfer and Communicate Critical Risks. Springer: London, New York. Page 19 cited.

Vestermark, S. D. (1996). ‘Critical decisions, critical elements in an effective school security program.’ In A. M. Hoffman (ed.) Schools, violence and society. Westport, CT: Praeger, 101-122. Page 108 cited.

[2] Coombs, W. Timothy. (2012) Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing and Responding (third edition). Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage. Page 41 cited.

[3] For more details refer to Jefferson County Sherriff report. http://extras.denverpost.com/news/colreport/columbinerep/pages

[4] Coombs, W. Timothy. (2012) Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing and Responding (third edition). Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage. Page 106 cited.

15 Year Since Columbine: A Legacy of Fear

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.)

This photograph was taken at the Columbine Memorial Site, behind the High School in Littleton, Colorado.

This photograph was taken at the Columbine Memorial Site, behind the High School in Littleton, Colorado.