SAFER SCHOOLS NEWS – VOL. 89
An Analysis of Columbine
A Brief Analysis of the
Predictability of the
1999 Columbine High School
The events that unfolded on April 20, 1999 in Littleton, Colorado at Columbine High School shocked most people in North America. The actions of two senior students, as they carried out their siege on their high school, shooting other students and throwing pipe bombs were later met with comments from those in the community, “Why didn’t we see it coming?”
What is most disturbing about the carnage is that the event was predictable and, had the warning signs that were quite apparent been acted upon by concerned individuals; the whole event would have been prevented.
On Tuesday, April 20th, 1999, 17-year-old Eric Harris and 18-year-old Dylan Klebold, after many months of planning, brought two twenty-pound propane bombs, concealed in a large duffle bag, into the school cafeteria where they had predicted 500 students would be eating their lunch. They set the timer for 11:17 and left the cafeteria to wait in their vehicle in the school parking lot. Their plan was to wait until their homemade bomb detonated then ambush the survivors fleeing to the parking lot with two sawed-off shotguns, a 9 mm carbine and a Tec-DC9 assault pistol.
When the bomb did not detonate, they donned their long black trench coats and wrap-around sunglasses, armed themselves with several pipe bombs and firearms and approached the school entrance on foot.
Their first victims were a girl and a boy who were sitting on the grass having lunch and reading. Both were shot, the girl in the face, and the boy in the back as he tried to crawl away. The girl died instantly and the boy managed to crawl to safety and survive.
Three other boys who were exiting the school at the time observed that killing. One boy, holding the door so the others could flee, was shot in the leg. Dylan and Klebold approached the wounded boy, who was attempting to crawl to safety, and shot him in the back with a blast from the shotgun. He died instantly. Klebold shot toward the parking lot, wounding a girl who had been sitting with friends on the curb.
Others within the school, observing what had just occurred through the large windows began to realize the severity of the situation and began to scream and run. Some students had already begun to take cover under tables in the cafeteria. A teacher came into the cafeteria and ordered the students to flee to the upper level of the school. As the two killers entered the school, they began firing in the main hallway, wounding students, laughing as they shot. They also set off several pipe bombs. They shot at the teacher who had been assisting students to escape to the upper level with a shotgun blast, seriously wounding him. He would later die of his injuries.
Once the two killers entered the library where 56 students, two teachers and two library employees had taken refuge, they demanded, all “jocks” to stand up. When no one responded, one of the gunmen said, “Fine, I’ll start shooting.” The two perpetrators moved through the library, tossing pipe bombs and shooting several students, before turning their weapons on themselves and committed suicide. In the carnage, lasting approximately 45 minutes, the body count reached 15, while another 23 were seriously wounded.
Warning Signs Existed
The investigation that followed the tragedy lead the police and FBI to sort through tens of thousands of pieces of evidence, and over 5000 leads. In January, 2000, Governor Bill Owens of the State of Colorado created by executive order a Columbine Review Commission, to inquire into the Columbine High School Tragedy on April 20, 1999, and to submit recommendations on several matters, one of which was the identification of key factors that might have contributed to the tragedy and of methods that might prevent similar future occurrences (Erickson, 2001).
A disturbing aspect of the tragedy at Columbine High School was the fact that many people had pieces of information about perpetrators Harris and Klebold well before they launched their attack, but that information was never acted upon, in part because at the time no protocols or procedures were in place that would have allowed all the pieces of information to be assembled in one place and evaluated (Erickson, 2001).
Police were alerted to the two in January 1998 when both were arrested for breaking into an electrician’s van stealing a number of items. Both were placed in a juvenile diversion program, because of the non-violence of the incident and of their lack of prior records. The two were embittered by their arrest and vowed to take revenge on the police.
A few months later, in March 1998, Harris had been a suspect in a threat made to another student through Harris’ Internet web page. Harris had written on the website that he “would like to kill and injure people, like Brooks Brown.” Brown’s parents had gone to the police to report the incident, which eventually became what police define as a “suspicious incident”. Sheriff’s office personnel later said they could not access the Web Pages, and so could not trace the sender; because the Browns wished to remain anonymous, the case was left open, and an application for a search warrant was never pursued to completion (Erickson, 2001). The Browns had supplied police with copies made from the web page, which included a discussion of pipe bombs and clear warnings about their intentions. The indications were that they were going to kill as many people as they can and that they will show no remorse or sense of shame. This incident was never brought to the attention of the Jefferson County Magistrate prior to placing the two in the diversion program.
On several occasions while Jefferson County authorities were dealing them, the two gave overt indications that they were dangerous (Erickson, 2001). Authorities had at least 15 contacts with Harris and Klebold in the two years prior to the attack on Columbine. Authorities also received an anonymous tip that the two had built pipe bombs and had indicated that, “Now our only problem is to find the place that will be ground zero.” (Associated Press, 2004, February 27).
School personnel knew significant things about the two killers prior to the attack. It was reported that Harris and Klebold had been the victims of a particularly humiliating incident in which they were surrounded by other students who squirted them with ketchup, laughed at them, and called them, “faggots,” and that teachers were present at the time but did nothing to intervene (Erickson, 2001). Klebold had submitted an essay as part of his English class to which his teacher called “ghastly”, and had been sufficiently concerned enough that she met with parents and a school counselor about it. Harris had played tapes in the school’s video studio showing them and others engaged in target practice with the weapons that were used during the attack. In another school assignment, the two submitted a videotape of a school shooting where the two of them killed all the jocks in the school. School officials determined that the video was too graphic to allow it to be seen by the student body, which upset Harris and Klebold further.
Although investigators concluded the pair had carried out their deadly attack by themselves, there is evidence that others knew of Harris and Klebold’s bomb making and gunplay. For example, Klebold and Harris enlisted a fellow employee at the pizza parlour where the pair worked part-time, Philip Duran, to help them buy a semi automatic pistol that was later used during the rampage (Erickson, 2001). The two bought the TEC DC-9 assault pistol from a friend of Duran, and the two shotguns at a Denver gun show in November 1998, through another friend because she was of legal age to purchase firearms.
At various times, friends accompanied the two when they assembled and tested explosives from bomb-making recipes downloaded from the Internet (Erickson, 2001)
Co-workers and the owner of the pizza parlour knew they had ignited fireworks and detonated dry-ice bombs behind the restaurant and on the building roof, and Harris once brought a pipe bomb into the shop. (Erickson, 2001)
Other students at the school are not reported to have heard from Harris or Klebold that they were planning the attack. It is unlikely, however that no students had been given some indication of their intent though veiled or indirect. The fact that Harris’ web site bragged about the bombs that they had made and tested, and of the suicidal anger and rage displayed on each page practically hollered the gunmen’s vicious intentions.
The parents of the two killers were also given a few clues, which were either ignored or they were totally unaware. Harris and Klebold managed to build and store some 90 bombs in their homes, as well as purchase and store several firearms and knives. At one point a gun shop employee had called the Harris’ home to let them know that the clips that were ordered had now arrived. The father of Erick Harris had answered the call telling the clerk that he had not ordered any clips. Had the father followed up and asked a few questions, Harris and Klebold’s plan may have been uncovered.
You could fill a good-size room with the people whose lives have been twisted into ropes of guilt by the events leading up to that awful day, and by the day itself. The teachers who read the essays but didn’t hear the warnings, the cops who were tipped to Harris’ poisonous website but didn’t act on it, the judge and the youth-services counselor who put the boys through a year of community service after they broke into a van and then concluded that they had been rehabilitated (Gibbs and Roche 1999).
The Profiling Paradox
The shooting at Columbine High School in April 1999 followed the deadliest school year in United States history. The 1997-1998 school year saw similar incidents of targeted violence at the nation’s schools by students. Events in Moses Lake, Washington, Bethel, Alaska, Pearl, Mississippi, West Paducah, Kentucky, Stamps, Arkansas, Jonesboro, Arkansas, Edinboro, Pennsylvania, and Springfield, Oregon had stirred up a number of media, conference, and other professional debates around concerns of labeling or misidentifying children as potentially violent offenders (Trump, 2000).
In the year following the massacre at Columbine High School, the nation’s fifty largest newspapers printed nearly 10,000 stories related to the event and its aftermath, averaging about one story per newspaper every other day (Newman, 2004). The intense media coverage of the school shootings around the country caused what some would call an epidemic. Whether justified or not, the events did create several government agencies to explore this trend of school violence.
An article in the September 1999 issue of FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (Band & Harpold, 1999) included sections on violence indicators, and in particular an offender profile, in connection with the school shootings in previous years. The involvement of the FBI into the field of school violence began after a two-day summit on the subject held in Arkansas in August 1998. The summit included representatives from six cities that had previously experienced school shootings. The FBI article summarized the lessons learned from those shootings. The article caused several debates by a number of professionals, especially educators, who questioned everything from the validity of the offender profile to the expertise and the appropriateness of the FBI having involvement in the school violence arena. Although a number of issues in the lessons learned covered logical and coordination preparation suggestions, public and media attention seemed to focus strongly on the profiling aspect; that is, on suggestions that the FBI was teaching educators how to profile potentially violent offenders (Trump, 2000).
The above mentioned article identified several factors “that may indicate that individuals have the potential to commit violence” such as:
- Low self-esteem;
- Previous acts of cruelty to animals;
- Fascination with firearms;
- Disrespect from mothers or other family members; and
- Seeing violence as the only alternative left for them. (Band & Harpold, 1999)
These indicators were made with several references to the six school shootings, despite the article indicating that they were, “by no means certain or present in every case of violence”. The debates and controversy the article stimulated were centered on the concept behind the profile of the offender. The FBI included the following traits:
- They were white males, under 18 years old, with mass or spree murder traits;
- They sought to defend narcissistic views or favourable views about themselves;
- They experienced an event prior to their acts that resulted in depression and suicidal thoughts turning homicidal;
- They had perceived a lack of family support, and felt rejected and wronged by others;
- They had a history of mental health treatment;
- They were influenced by satanic or cult-type beliefs;
- They listened to songs that promoted violence;
- They appeared isolated and felt powerless; and
- ·They openly expressed a desire to kill, an interest in previous killings, and had no remorse after the killings. (Band & Harpold, 1999)
Although the FBI should be given credit for taking a leadership role in bringing the information they collected and disseminated from these high profile incidents to school and law enforcement officials, the connotation of the word “profile” spawned a number of strong feelings and uneasiness regarding the FBI’s interest in the school safety issue.
Availability of Training to Recognize Early Warning Signs
The United States Department of Education had also developed a guide for educators in August 1998, titled, Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide To Safe Schools. The guide was an effort by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice to make sure that every school in the nation had a comprehensive violence prevention plan in place.
This guide presents a brief summary of the research on violence prevention and intervention and crisis response in the schools. It tells school communities:
- What to look for – the early warning signs that relate to violence and other troubling behaviours; and
- What to do – the action steps that school communities can take to prevent violence and other troubling behaviours, to intervene and get help for troubled children, and to respond to school violence when it occurs (Dwyer, K., Osher, D., & Warger, C., 1998).
The guide centers on such safe school initiatives, such as: the characteristics of a school that is safe and responsive to all children; getting help for troubled children; developing a prevention and response plan; and responding to a crisis. The most public attention however, was drawn to the section on recognizing early warning signs. These signs include:
- Social withdrawal;
- Excessive feelings of isolation and being alone;
- Excessive feelings of rejection
- Being a victim of violence;
- Feelings of being picked on and persecuted;
- Low school interest and poor academic performance;
- Expression of violence in writings and drawings;
- Uncontrolled anger;
- Patterns of impulsive and chronic hitting, intimidation, and bullying behaviours;
- A history of discipline problems;
- A history of violent and aggressive behaviour;
- Intolerance for differences and prejudicial attitudes
- Drug and alcohol use;
- Affiliation with gangs;
- Inappropriate access to, possession of, and use of firearms; and
- Serious threats of violence (Dwyer, K., et al. 1998).
Early warning signs were also distinguished in the guide from “imminent warning signs” which indicate a higher danger level requiring an immediate response. These signs include:
- Serious physical fighting with peers or family members;
- Severe destruction of property;
- Severe rage for seemingly minor reasons;
- Detailed threats of lethal violence;
- Possession and/or use of firearms and other weapons; and
- Other self-injurious behaviours or threats of suicides (Dwyer, K., et al. 1998).
The guide encouraged the readers not to label or stereotype students using these early warning signs, to use them within the environmental context in which attention has been brought onto the student, and expressed the potential dangers of misinterpreting these identified signs.
All of these incidents of school shootings, especially post-Columbine sent shock waves across the nation unlike any school violence incident had ever done in the past. Then Attorney General, Janet M. Reno directed the FBI to give new urgency to the research of school violence. Staying away from the profiling aspect, which caused much controversy a year earlier, the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime developed a model that provided a logical, methodical process in assessing the risk of a threat and the one making the threat. This model is not a “profile” of the school shooter or a checklist of danger signs pointing to the next adolescent who will bring lethal violence to a school. Those things do not exist (O’Toole, M., 2000).
In the wake of the Columbine High School massacre, the International Association of Chiefs of Police teamed up with the U.S. Department of Justice to produce a document, the purpose of which “to present different strategies and approaches for members of school communities to consider when creating safer learning environments” (Kramen, A., Massey, K., Timm, H., 1999). The guide covered threat assessments briefly, but mostly concentrated on the roles of several individuals in the school community during the planning, response, after-math, and the prevention of a major school crisis.
The U.S. Department of Education had also teamed up with the U.S. Secret Service to create the Safe School Initiative with its purpose to develop accurate and useful information about prior school attacks that could help prevent some future ones from happening. The Safe School Initiative began with a study of the thinking, planning, and other pre-attack behaviours engaged in by students who carried out school shootings (Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., Reddy, M., Borum, R., & Modzeleski, W., 2002). That study examined 37 incidents of targeted school violence that occurred in the United States from December 1974 through May 2000 when researchers concluded their data collection. The Safe School Initiative concluded that most attackers did not threaten their targets directly, but did engage in pre-attack behaviours that would have indicated an inclination toward or the potential for targeted violence had they been identified (Fein, R., Vossekuil, B., Pollack, W., Borum, R., Modzeleski, W., & Reddy, M., 2002). One of the ten key findings of the Safe School Initiative, which disputed earlier publications from the FBI, was that “there is no accurate or useful profile of students who engage in targeted school violence” (Vossekuil, B., et al., 2002). The appraisal of risk in a threat assessment focuses on actions, communications, and specific circumstances that might suggest that an individual intends to mount an attack and is engaged in planning or preparing for that event (Fein, R., et al., 2002).
The initiatives by the FBI, the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Department of Justice following the series of school shootings in the 1997-1998 school year were universally available to the school and law enforcement communities across the nation, including Columbine High School. The most accepted report by the school community was the Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide To Safe Schools. It provided educators with several early and imminent warning signs and action plans to prevent further school violent events. The document was available to the public before the school year began that saw the carnage at Columbine High School. Educators had almost the full school year to disseminate the material and train its staff, students and parents on how to recognize and report warning signs that affect the safety of the school. The guide also encourages information sharing with other agencies within the community, including law enforcement.
Had those individuals who had been in contact with Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold prior to the attack, shared the information that each had possessed, and had been able to identify the warning signs as verifiable behavioural indicators of future violence, we would not be presently associating the word “Columbine” with the horrific images of dead and wounded school kids.
- Associated Press (2004, February 27) Police Had 15 Contacts With Columbine Killers, The Record, Kitchener, February 27, 2004
- Band, S., and Harpold, J., (1999, September). School Violence. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 68(9), 9-16. Washington D.C.: Federal Bureau of Investigation
- Dwyer, K., Osher, D., & Warger, C. (1998). Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools, Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Education
- Erickson, Hon.W. H., (2001). Columbine Review Commission – The Report of Governor Bill Owens, State of Colorado
- Fein, R., Vossekuil, B., Pollack, W., Borum, R., Modzeleski, W., & Reddy, M. (2002). Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program and U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center, Washington, D.C.
- Gibbs, N. and Roche, T. (1999, December 20), A Special Report: The Columbine Tapes, Time Newsmagazine, p. 24
- Kramen, A., Massey, K., Timm, H., (1999). Guide for Preventing and Responding to School Violence, Security Research Center (SRC) for the Private Sector Liaison Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Alexandria, Virginia.
- Newman, K., (2004). Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. Perseus Books Group, Cambridge, MA
- ’Toole, M., (2000). The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective, Critical Incident Response Group (CIRG), National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC), FBI Academy, Quantico, Virginia.
- Trump, K., (2000), Classroom Killers? Hallway Hostages? – How Schools Can Prevent and Manage School Crises, Corwin Press Inc., Thousand Oaks, California.
- Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., Reddy, M., Borum, R., & Modzeleski, W., (2002). The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program and U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center, Washington, D.C. 2002
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