Twenty Years After Columbine

Spring 2019 marked the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High school massacre. The Columbine school shooting occurred on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado. The perpetrators were high school seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who murdered twelve students and one teacher. The gunmen also wounded over 20 others before committing suicide by turning their guns on themselves. At the time, the Columbine massacre was the deadliest high school shooting in United States history.

National School Walkout. Image Courtesy of Phil Roeder © 2018

Unfortunately, it seems that high school shootings have become regular news headlines. In 2018, the United States had 24 school shooting, with 113 killed or injured. In early May 2019 yet another school shooting took place just miles from Columbine High School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. The high number of mass shootings are a growing societal concern, and solutions must be multifaceted. Addressing areas such as widespread media coverage glorifying shooters and destigmatizing mental health problems are two important aspects of such a multifaceted approach. Mental health issues and increased media coverage that gives fame to perpetuates are arguably connected. As students struggling with mental health issues may be easily inspired by extensive media coverage of violent incidents, and could make susceptible students think committing a similar act would be a way for them to gain national, or even global, attention. Columbine and many of these recent school shootings highlight the powerful role media can play. For example, the extensive news coverage of the two Columbine shooters made them legendary or famous, particularly among alienated students. A 2014 ABC News investigation found that in “the 14 years after Columbine, at least 17 school shooters, and 36 other students who threatened rampages that were averted, directly cited the Columbine shooting or its perpetrators as partial motivation for the attack.” “We don’t do this intentionally, but we glorify shooters by showing the damage they’ve done — all the crying, all the empty seats — and for people with rage that has a particular appeal for them,” Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the two Columbine gunmen, said. Giving shooters media coverage has negative consequences. While the public may be interested in the perpetrators and understanding motivations, the media should instead focus on the heroes, survivors and victims of tragedies, showing potential or interested active shooters that killing others will not bring fame. School shootings are not slowing down in 2019. In March in San Paolo, Brazil, two young men open fired in a school, killing 10 people, including the perpetrators. The young men were former students of the San Paolo high school, and according to police the shooters were inspired by Columbine. In April 2019, a Florida teenager, Sol Pais, who was “infatuated” with the Columbine shooters traveled to Colorado with the possible motivation of carrying out her own attack. Hundreds of schools were closed in Colorado as a precaution, after news spread that Pais traveled to Colorado and purchased a weapon. Pais was eventually found dead from self-inflicted gun wounds and carried out no attacks in Colorado. While thankfully no one was physically hurt, the precautionary school closings show the power the Columbine shooting still has in communities and the emotional pain and trauma its memory still brings. School age children are no strangers to lockdown procedures and active shooter drills, and some schools have even tried extremely outside the box tactics such as arming students with mini baseball bats or rocks in classrooms so students could try to defend themselves if there is an active shooter. While keeping kids physically safe in school is important, schools seem to be missing an integral focal area: mental health. Mental health issues and societal pressures, such as the need to “fit in”, coupled with an easy access to guns in American society, with no prior mental health check, all contribute to the active shooter epidemic in the United States. The recent STEM School Highlands Ranch school shooting shows the importance of schools establishing systems to handle the in-take of parent and community concerns. For example, in December 2018, Highlands Ranch executive director Penny Eucker received a letter from a school administrator saying that an anonymous call was received from a concerned Highlands Ranch parent warning of a Columbine copycat, noting “an extremely high drug culture” in the school, potential “student violence due to a high pressure environment,” and mentioned other incidents of bullying and safety issues. The concerned parent called it “the perfect storm,” citing concerns of group think and the fact that students may be susceptible to “copy-catting,” the letter said. While hindsight is 20/20, this incident highlights the need for schools to better address parent and community concerns. Schools must have the infrastructure to address concerns, such as methods in place to share necessary information with local law enforcement, all while assisting students struggling with mental health issues so that these students are not inspired to become the next Columbine shooters. This is no small feat, but in order to successfully address the growing number of mass shootings, changes and better systems must be incorporated in schools and nearby communities. Both schools and society-at-large must take a holistic approach to countering school shootings. Real solutions must address access to mental health support in schools, destigmatizing mental health issues and addressing how the media covers shooters.  

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Sheila Archambault Helke

Sheila is a national security professional working in Washington, D.C. for the federal government. She focuses on counterintelligence and counterterrorism. Sheila graduated with an M.A. in international affairs from the Catholic University of America and a B.A. in international studies with a focus on the Middle East from the University of St. Thomas.
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