Tag Archives: copycat effect

Tearing Down Columbine?

In my last blog post published on the 20th of April 2019, I wrote about the legacy of Columbine twenty years on. The school shooting at Columbine High School in which thirteen victims were killed has been cited by numerous subsequent school shooters and aspiring attackers. The most recent example of this involved a female teenager said to have been infatuated with the shooting who travelled to Colorado from Florida, made some threats that were enough to shut down a number of schools and ending up killing herself. Another woman who was stopped in the parking lot of Columbine High School was said to have frequently posted about the Columbine shooters on Tumblr, describing them as ‘God-like.’ Those said to be obsessed with the massacre are described as ‘Columbiners.’ (1)

Littleton, the suburban neighbour where Columbine High School is located, is associated with the site of a high-profile tragedy. Although there has been remodelling of the school, the building more or less stands as it did in 1999. Unfortunately, this has meant it has become somewhat of a macabre attraction for visitors. Superintendent Jason Glass reported that the amount of individuals trying to enter the school building or trespassing in the campus area were the highest on record in 1999. Some of them are coming just to see where the tragedy took place, others coming to pay respect to the victims. (2) There are a minority, however, who may pose a threat. The challenging part is trying to distinguish which of the many threats — which spike exponentially following a new school shooting — are credible. The unprecedented growth in the amount of threats Columbine High faced ahead of the twenty year anniversary coupled with the constant stream of macabre visitors have provoked a debate about whether the school itself should be torn down and rebuilt. Following the Sandy Hook school shooting, the building was demolished and rebuilt. This massacre took place in 2012, however, when the United States had tragically became all-too-familiar with school shootings. In 1999, when Columbine occurred, it seems unlikely that anyone had actually envisaged the infamous status the Columbine shooters and the school itself would take on.

There are those who in favour of doing tearing down Columbine and starting afresh with a new building. The former principal who was in post at the time of the shooting, Frank DeAngelis, supports a new building facility writing in a Facebook post that “it is people that make us a family, not the building.” (3) Similarly, in the community blog about schools in Jefferson County, a letter was submitted by Superintendent Jason Glass in early June 2019 advocating rebuilding the school further away from the road. He advanced some ideas for the new school. These included keeping the name, school mascot and colours the same and preserving the Hope Library that was built in honour of the victims. (4) On the other hand, there are those who feel that this would not solve the problem — particularly if the name Columbine was still retained— or that the building represented a symbol of strength in the community. (5) This debate is likely to unfold over the coming months. Regardless of what Jefferson County School District decide to do about the building, it is likely that the term ‘Columbine’ itself will always be synonymous with a terrible and destructive act of violence.

 

[This blog post was put together using articles about the potential destruction of Columbine High School and previous knowledge about Columbine. The next blog post will look at Jamie’s Law, a bill for purchasing ammunition named in honour of a victim of the Parkland School Shooting.]

(1) Brianna Provenzano. (2019) ‘A “Morbid Fasicnation” with Columbine High School Might Lead to Its Shuttering.’ Pacific Standard, 10 June. Retrieved from https://psmag.com/news/a-morbid-fascination-with-columbine-high-school-might-lead-to-its-shuttering 
Jessica Contrera. (2019) ‘The Man Keeping Columbine Safe.’ Washington Post, 5 April. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2019/04/05/its-been-years-since-columbine-shooting-his-job-is-stop-next-attack/?utm_term=.e48d700ae442
(2) Brianna Provenzano. (2019) ‘A “Morbid Fasicnation” with Columbine High School Might Lead to Its Shuttering.’ Pacific Standard, 10 June. Retrieved from https://psmag.com/news/a-morbid-fascination-with-columbine-high-school-might-lead-to-its-shuttering
Jessica Contrera. (2019) ‘The Man Keeping Columbine Safe.’ Washington Post, 5 April. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2019/04/05/its-been-years-since-columbine-shooting-his-job-is-stop-next-attack/?utm_term=.e48d700ae442
(3) Julie Turkewitz and Jack Healy. (2019) ‘Columbine High School Could Be Torn Down to Deter copycats.’ The New York Times, June 7. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/07/us/columbine-high-school-demolition.html
(4) Jason Glass. (2019) ‘A New Columbine?’ Advance Jeffco, June 6. Retrieved from https://advancejeffco.blog/2019/06/06/a-new-columbine/
(5) Julie Turkewitz and Jack Healy. (2019) ‘Columbine High School Could Be Torn Down to Deter copycats.’ The New York Times, June 7. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/07/us/columbine-high-school-demolition.html

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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)

Thwarted attacks: the phenomenon of near-misses

This blog post will examine the phenomenon of thwarted school shooting attacks, bringing a conclusion to the theme of copycat attacks. As mentioned in the blog posted on the 26th May 2016, there tends to be a spike in threats following a high-profile school shooting. Sometimes these threats are fabrications intended to attract attention; other times, they are real and concrete, requiring intervention to prevent them becoming deadly attacks. The difficulty of trying to conduct research into thwarted school shootings is it will involve studying attacks that did not actually transpire. Probably the most effective approach is to only study incidents where there is some degree of proof that the incident would have taken place. (1) This post will look at some of the instances where copycat threats became thwarted school shootings.

 

Following the Columbine school shooting, there was a spike in copycat threats across the United States. Those which could actually be considered ‘thwarted,’ however, are the ones with some degree of planning involved. An example of this occurred less than a month after the Columbine school shooting, where a 15 year old boy at Kennedy High School was alleged to have plotted an incident: the plan was to handcuff a target list of people to desks and shoot off their hands or shoot them in the head and then go into the hallway and shoot other students. This planned massacre was thwarted because the boy told two students (which a third one overheard) at the school, threatening to kill them if they reported it; the three students thereafter came forward with the information. The preparation of the target list and the boy’s access to a rifle in his home showed that the likelihood of this attack taking place was higher than other copycat threats. Around this time, a copycat Columbine-style massacre plotted by four current and former students at Adams City High School was also impeded. The seriousness of the purported threat was documented in a written plan, drawings and a map of the school given to the authorities by an unnamed informant.

 

What can be taken from these examples is that following a high-profile school shooting like Columbine, staff members, law enforcement officers and students at the school have heightened awareness about the possibility of copycat attacks. This is positive in the sense that they are perhaps more likely to come forward with information pertaining to threats, no matter whether these are hoaxes or serious copycat attacks. Such a sense of attentiveness to threats will not be permanent, however, with it likely to fade when the high-profile school shooting begins to receive less media coverage and public and political attention. This highlights the need for permanent vigilance when hearing about potential school shooting threats, particularly those with detailed plans and other concrete actions (such as procuring a firearm).

  1. Daniels, J. A., A. Volungis, E. Pshenishny, P. Gandhi, A. Winkler, D. P. Cramer et al., (2010). ‘A qualitative investigation of averted school shooting rampages.’ The Counseling Psychologist 38 (1), 69–95; Daniels, J. A. and J. W. Page. (2013) ‘Averted School Shootings.’ In N. Bockler et al. (eds.) School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies and Concepts for Prevention. Springer Science-Business Media: New York, 421-439.

 

[This blog post was put together using school shooting literature and media reports about copycat threats. It concludes the thread on copycat attacks for the moment.]

Female School Shootings: A New Phenomenon?

The last few blogs have discussing the phenomenon of ‘copycatting’ in relation to school shootings. This post will look at the recent trend of females threatening to become school shooters — something rather unprecedented, considering almost all previous perpetrators have been male. As discussed in the blog posted on the 11th of June 2014, masculinity is one of the socio-cultural factors contributing to school shootings. This blog will explicate the details of female school shooting copycatters and critique whether this could be considered a new and worrying phenomenon.

In November 2014, a 17 year old girl at Radnor High School, Pennsylvania, had expressed a desire in her journal to become the ‘first female school shooter.’ When examining previous incidents, it becomes evident why she would have thought her massacre would be noteworthy. In 1979, a girl, Brenda Spencer, shot children walking to Cleveland Elementary School; there was also Laurie Dann who shot children in Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Illinois. It is questionable, however, whether these qualify as ‘school shootings’: the rationale for Spencer seemed to be the convenience of the victims, given she shot them from her bedroom window across the street; whilst Dann appeared to be attacking the school she believed her former sister-in-law’s children attended. For an event to be defined as a ‘school shooting,’ the attack should be against the institution itself, with victims targeted for their symbolic value. The closest to ‘female school shooters’ could be construed as Latina Williams, who killed two peers at Louisiana Technical College, and Professor Amy Bishop, who carried out an attack at the University of Alabama. Despite this, Professor Bishop targeted her colleagues because she had recently been denied tenure and Latina Williams did not leave any notes or other evidence explaining her motives; this suggests that perhaps they were not aspiring to become ‘school shooters.’

The planned attack at Radnor High School was thankfully thwarted. The girl in question had showed a fascination with the Columbine school shooting, writing to the parents of one of the perpetrators, Dylan Klebold, to describe her ‘emotional connection’ with him. Almost a year after this case, another story emerged about two teenage girls alleged to have planned a shooting at Mountain Vista High School, which is fewer than ten miles away from Columbine High School geographically. One of the girls involved wrote in her journal that she wished she could have participated in the Columbine school shooting and referenced the film Natural Born Killers, cited by the perpetrators of this massacre in their own writings. The fascination with the Columbine shooters has appeared in other school shootings, such as Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. The appeal of these perpetrators to females, however, is an emerging and worrying trend. Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan, said she has received mail in the past from girls who claim they love him and want to have his baby. Although these fan letters are not really anything new — some women have married death row prisoners in the past — the worry is that females fascinated by the Columbine or other school shooters, then take the next step of trying to ‘become them’ via a similar attack.

The implication of this for assessing threats is that those coming from females should be taken just as seriously as those from boys and men. The planned attack at Mountain Vista High School had involved the drawing up of a map of the school, denoting the locations of law enforcement — this exemplifies the seriousness of that threat. Gender is, therefore, something which must not be overlooked when assessing school shooting threats.

 

[This blog post was put together with research and pre-existing knowledge about actual and planned school shooting incidents. The next post will continue with the copycatting theme, by looking at thwarted attacks.]

Copycat Threats: Real or Fake?

As documented in the last blog post, the highly publicised nature of school shootings means that they are prone to creating ‘copycats.’ The amount of threats made tends to increase exponentially following a previous attack. Copycatters may try to ‘out-do’ the previous school shooting with the intention of gaining more media attention. (1) The purpose of this blog post is to explore the distinction between the threats that are empty in nature, with the sole intention of gaining attention or causing trouble; compared to those that do actually pose serious danger.

In the book The Copycat Effect, the author attributes copycatting to “thoughtless, sensational media,” claiming coverage of high-profile incidents like school shootings triggers a series of copycat attacks. Further to this, it is argued that the news media insidiously deflects any culpability for this, by instead discussing other ‘blame factors,’ such as violent video games or school culture. (2) The last blog post debated the extent to which the news media are to blame and questioned how credible this explanation really was when taken in isolation.

An important point to remember about the ‘copycat’ explanation is that the recognition to be ‘gained’ from media attention is not a sufficient enough reason for someone to carry out a school shooting. Notably, it is likely that carrying out an attack following a previous high-profile school shooting would keep the issue salient in the news for a while longer; yet, it would not guarantee particular notoriety for that particular incident. In fact, it would likely mean a discussion about school shootings in general or comparing and contrasting the two incidents that had occurred within a short period of time. Extrapolating from this means there must be additional motivating factors for copycatters whose massacres actually transpire; herein lies the basis for testing the credibility of threats made.

Every threat should be examined — even when claimed to be said in ‘humour’ or a moment of anger — because school shootings and other attacks do occur. When a copycat threat is made following a high profile incident, the threat itself, the context in which it was made and the threatener must all be critically assessed. Examining the content within the threat and its context gives some indication of its risk level: Does the threat give specific details, such as a location, methods (e.g. bombing or shooting), date and time? To who was the threat made and is this someone the threatener is likely to confide in? Was the threat said in a moment of emotional distress? Was the threat made repeatedly? Coupling this with information about the person(s) making the threat should provide a fuller picture: Does the threatener have the ability to carry out the threat? Is the threatener suffering from any personal problems and/or mental health issues that have been altering their recent behaviour? Do they have a motive and desire to follow through with the threat? Have those closest to the threatener noticed any changes in behaviour and/or similar threats being made? Is there any evidence of plans being plan to carry out the attack (e.g. purchasing firearms)?

Taking all that into consideration should go some way to fundamentally distinguishing between genuine and fake threats. A disingenuous copycat threat is likely to be said for a variety of reasons: gaining attention, attempting to be ‘humorous’ or controversial or perhaps intimidation of the school and people within it. A copycat threat where the threatener intends to follow through could be seen as a pre-warning to an attack.

[This blog was put together using relevant literature and threat assessment knowledge. The next post will continue this theme by looking at a recent case involving female copycatters.]

(1) Newman, K. S., Fox, C., Harding, D. J., Mehta, J. and Roth, W. (2004) Rampage: the social roots of school shootings. Basic Books: New York, 154, 250.
(2) Coleman, L. (2004) The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines. London, New York: Paraview Pocket Books.

The Copycat Effect: Is the Media to Blame?

‘Copycatting’ is the act of replicating something which was previously successful. In relation to school shootings, this would involve attempting to pull off a similar attack to a highly-publicised one. More problematically, the incidents with the higher death tolls tend to get more attention. This could be said to set a ‘bar’ by which future school shootings are measured, with copycatters aiming to go a step further with their attack. What will be debated in this blog post is whether the news media can be held accountable, given its saturated coverage can make an event infamous in the first place.

 

The former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, once said that “Publicity is the oxygen of terrorism.” As an event intended to generate infamy and publicity, this statement could also be applied to school shooting attacks. It could be argued that if these attacks were not covered in the news media, there would be no ‘script’ for future perpetrators to follow. The prominence given to the story is also pertinent, with school shootings generally gaining ‘front page’ status and saturated broadcast coverage. In the case of the Columbine school shooting, the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper declined to put the story on the front page in case it encouraged others. Likewise, the National Enquirer showed a colour photograph of the two shooters lying in a pool of blood in order to ‘de-glamourise’ their actions. Probably the most notable example of this link is the Virginia Tech school shooting, where the perpetrator sent a copy of his manifesto to broadcast news station NBC prior to the attack. This then led to the dilemma of whether to show this footage; in the end, NBC decided to broadcast it, arguing it was in the public’s interest to see it.

 

It is notable that threats for further school shooting attacks occur shortly after an incident and sometimes on the anniversaries of when they took place. Following the shooting at Columbine High School, bomb threats made at schools peaked over 5000. There were also numerous examples of individual incidents across the country. A 17 year old boy wore a trench coat and walked round his school pretending he had a gun in Houma, Louisiana. In Oxon Hill High School, Virginia, a 15 year old boy threatened to blow up the school if he continued to receive poor grades in algebra. These are just a couple of examples of the types of copycat hoaxes that transpired.

 

Overall, it is debatable to what extent the news media can be held responsible. On the one hand, if the media failed to report the story and to attach a degree of significance to it, they would fail in their duty as ‘public watchdogs.’ There is a danger, however, in portraying school shootings — particularly those with high death tolls — as a way to gain infamy. The advent of social media has made this particularly dangerous, with there being even greater potential for news of school shootings to spread widely and quickly. As an explanation for school shootings on its own, the news media and copycat correlation seems particularly rudimentary. A better way to look at it is that the media provides a platform for school shooters and threateners to promote a particular presentation of themselves, the extent of which is dependent on the amount of coverage generated. More will be said on the way school shooters ‘use’ the media in blog posts later in the year.

 

[This blog post was put together using readings about the Columbine and Virginia Tech school shootings. The next post will look at copycat threats in more detail and what action can be taken against them.]