What have we learned from Columbine?

This was written as a commentary on Columbine and what happened after. I’m a licensed teacher in the state of MA, and have experience teaching in middle school. I have three degrees, a B.A in Sociology from Clark University, a M.Ed in Elementary Education from Anna Maria College, and a M.Sc in Educational Studies from University of Glasgow. I am currently pursuing my Ph.D in Education at the University of Glasgow and am studying the effects of cyber bullying.

Please note that this essay is 2,350 words long.

Thank you,

Thirteen years ago on April 20, 1999, after nearly a year of preparation, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered Columbine High School and gunned down twelve classmates and one teacher in cold blood before turning the guns on themselves. In less than an hour, fifteen individuals were killed and twenty three were injured, and a school was in disrepair emotionally and physically.

So many questions still remain. Why did they do it? Were they really bullied? Was Eric Harris a psychopath? Why was it so easy for them to get access to firearms? Why after all this time, is bullying still such a major issue in schools today?

Some of these questions have been answered, but the true answers died when the pair committed suicide after their rampage.

In the months leading up to the massacre at Columbine, Harris and Klebold entered a twelve month juvenile program after being arrested following a breaking and entering attempt. “They’d completed the program with glowing reviews exactly ten weeks before the massacre,” according to Cullen in his book, Columbine. However, the entry into the diversion program did not dissuade the pair from stockpiling homemade weapons, and acquiring guns.

Prior to the massacre, in March 1998, a complaint had been made by Randy and Judy Brown out of concern for their son, Brooks to their local police department. “Eric had made death threats toward Brooks. Ten pages of murderous rants printed from his Web site had been compiled,” stated Cullen. A lot of other frightening information was also discovered, including the makings of pipe bombs, and ingredients for napalm. What is even more frightening (and has led to numerous conspiracy theories) is that no investigation was ever made on those complaints by the Browns, despite their frequent attempts to contact police for more information and a follow up on the information that they passed along. All of this is documented in detail in No Easy Answers- The Truth Behind Death at Columbine by Brooks Brown and Rob Merritt.

Thirteen years have passed and we still know so little about what had gone on leading up to the Columbine shootings. So many misconceptions came out of the incident, and so many conflicting stories have been published in the media. No one will ever truly know the definitive cause of Columbine except for Harris and Klebold; and while they left plenty of clues and evidence, much of what is determined now is theoretical speculation. Also much of the evidence seized has been not released to the public and is not set to for nearly a decade.

Why did they do it?

Ultimately, they did it because they could. They were angry, and most certainly depressed and troubled. They had been placed at the bottom of the social hierarchy that existed and still exists in schools today where the jocks and those with other social capital rule, and everyone who doesn’t fit in their social creation of labels and stereotypes are at the bottom.

Most of us who were in school in the 1980s and 1990’s know how this caste system worked. The attractive, athletic, and affluent were at the top of the social structure. They made and enforced the “social” school rules of who could sit with who and where, who could compete, who could attend parties. Other cliques thrived (or were at least allowed to exist in some sort of peace) in spite of those at the top of the hierarchy, supported by their peers; the drama kids, the band kinds, the academically talented. However, there were and are always those that do not fit neatly into societies boxes. Kids who do not have a lot of social capital, those who choose not to participate in athletics, fast paced academic tracks or school clubs for whatever reason. Those who were on the fringe, the edge, the periphery. They were the ones who were targeted for not fitting in to the social norms dictated by those with the social capital, influenced from society at large. (“The man with the key is king.” Moriarty to Sherlock, BBC Sherlock, The Reichenbach Fall)

While much of the anger and rage that Harris and Klebold exhibited was due to the fact that they were placed in a diversion program after they broke into and entered a van in January 1998 according to Kass’ book Columbine: A True Crime Story. Some of their anger came from the school itself and its policies written and unwritten. In No Easy Answers, a telling book by one time victim of the pair Brooks Brown, he concludes, “Eric and Dylan are the ones responsible for creating this tragedy. However, Columbine is responsible for creating Eric and Dylan.” The school social hierarchy caused a lot of dissent, that was felt by Harris and Klebold, and countless others.

Many stories have come out regarding bullying as a primary cause or motivator as a precursor to Columbine. Claims have been made that Isaiah Shoels, a victim of Columbine as well as Jewish kids, and those on the fringe (like Harris and Klebold) were bullied by jocks. Others have claimed that Harris and Klebold were bullies. Bullying however, was not seen as the main focus and reason for the Columbine massacre, as Harris and Klebold, and others were not continuously being victimized. They had friends, were sociable with them, and kept themselves engaged according to Langman in Why Kids Kill.

While this many be true there, is plenty of evidence in favour of bullying being a precursor. “A painstaking investigative report by the Washington Post describes pre-massacre Columbine as filled with social vinegar. The high school was dominated by the ‘cult of the athlete.’ In this distorted environment, a coterie of favoured jocks who wore white hats to set themselves apart- constantly bullied, hazed, and sexually harassed their classmates while receiving preferential treatment from school authorities,” state Clabaugh and Clabaugh in their article Bad Apples or Sour Pickles. Brown, also a student while Harris and Klebold were at Columbine strongly stands by the ethos of bullying at Columbine. “If people wanted to know what Columbine was like, I’d tell them. I’d tell them about the bullies who shoved the kids they didn’t like into lockers, or called them ‘faggot’ every time they walked past. I’d tell them about the jocks who picked relentlessly on anyone they considered to be below them. The teachers who turned a blind eye to the brutalization of their pupils, because those pupils weren’t the favourites.”

According to Barbara Coloroso, the cliques were so ingrained in Columbine, that anyone who didn’t fit into their hierarchical structure were teased and humiliated. Harris and Klebold were both falsely accused of bringing marijuana to school based on a tip off from a fellow student, and were subjected to having their belongings searched. They were also enveloped by students one day, and were taunted incessantly and had ketchup squirted all over them, which they were not allowed clean up. During both situations, neither boy made the attempt to retaliate, and when the ketchup incident occurred, a teacher was present, but did nothing to stop the attack.

Other reports claim that “there was a ‘popular’ sect of students at Columbine High School. (There is at every school, to varying degrees of prominence and influence.) The school’s state wrestling champion was allowed to park his $100,000 Hummer in a fifteen minute parking space – all day. A football player repeatedly teased a girl about her breasts – in class, in front of a teacher – with no fear of retribution. And just like any school in America, the sports trophies were displayed in the front of the school, the art in a back hallway. The discrimination was even evident in the yearbook – sports pages were in full colour, other clubs were in black and white,” according to Nessa in an article on Columbine.

The families were either unaware of the problems their sons were facing, or were in denial that any existed. “The Klebolds also say that they pretty much don’t know the causes of Columbine, but it wasn’t the family. They maintain that the ‘toxic culture’ of the school, the worship of jocks, and the tolerance of bullying is the primary force that set Dylan off,” stated Kass. It also did not help that some of the behaviours that Harris and Klebold exhibited ‘caused’ negative responses from even those considered close to the pair. “For example, when Eric and Dylan got strikes in their bowling class, they gave Nazi salutes and yelled ‘Heil Hitler!’ As a result their peers harangued them,” according to Langman.

In Tonso’s reflection on Columbine, she states that “Columbine’s ‘jocks’ were a small subset of football players and their friends, those willing to use their power in inappropriate ways, such as in the after-school rock-throwing incidents reported by ‘weirdos.’ Many ‘weirdos’ (some from Columbine) reported that administrators and teachers in their schools had turned a blind eye to their mistreatment. Some ‘weirdos’ suggested that this gave them the impression that they must take matters into their own hands, although only ‘shooters’ resorted to revenge violence”.

What is happening in our schools? Why are things like this still happening now? The main reason is society and how kids are socialized. They see that in order to be “important” that they need to be akin to celebrities; beautiful, rich, athletic. If you aren’t in the right clique, if you aren’t wearing the right clothes, you are a nobody.

What could have made a difference?

There are many factors that could have made a difference for Columbine. For starters, the Jefferson Country Sherriff’s office had “twelve pages from Eric’s website spewing hate and threatening to kill,” according to Cullen. The Browns has been contacting the police for over a year over the two troubled boys. An affidavit for a search warrant was drafted but it was then never taken to a judge. Even after their arrest no link was made between these accusations and concerns. There was no communication between the sheriff’s office, district attorney’s office, and the juvenile diversion program office.

The parents of Harris and Klebold may also seem to be negligent in noticing what was going on. Granted, Eric was featuring psychopathic tendencies and was able to lie and connive his way out of any situation. Somewhere, at some point the parents had to have noticed the secrecy, missing household materials that went toward making bombs and the actual constriction of bombs and other materials under their roofs. However as Harris himself said: “I could convince them that I’m going to climb Mt. Everest, or I have a twin brother growing out of my back. I can make you believe anything,” stated. Most parents are not dealing with the psychopathy of Harris or the depression Klebold was most definitely suffering from.1

The school was also clearly a part of the problem. Time and time again both Harris and Klebold wrote disturbing essays featuring death and destruction (and Nazi’s in the case of Harris) for various English assignments. Parents were notified about the content, but no further action was ever taken, according to multiple sources.

While it can be understood that there is an element of imagination and leeway to be allowed when it comes to creative writing, any student who writes about such dark elements with such knowledge and authority should be monitored for signs of depression and violence for their own benefit.

Since children and young adults spend increasing more time away from home and at school and at various extra-curricular activities, schools and other agencies and associations need to be able to meet the needs of the whole child, not just the academic or physical rigors, but the emotional well being needs as well. If the needs of the entire individual are not being met, then there is a disservice being done. Had someone at little league or soccer noticed that Harris was fixated on guns, or that Klebold had a hard time socializing with his peers, and it was taken to the next level where the boys could have received help, a tragedy could have been kept from occurring.

Hindsight is twenty-twenty. During their more than a year of preparation, intervention could have occurred at any time, be it from the parents discovering the pipe bomb materials2, or the police taking the concerns of the Brown’s more seriously. It is impossible to know whether or not any diversion in notice of the behaviour of Harris and Klebold would have changed the outcome. However, it is fair to say that if state agencies and the school had liaised better, the massacre at Columbine may have been stopped. That is not to say that an incident wouldn’t have happened or that lives would not have been lost. With the deceptive nature and psychopathy of Harris, and the depressive anger of Klebold combined into a volatile situation, a circumstance may have still occurred.

What needs to happen now?

Schools need to make sure they are meeting the needs of all of their students, not just the ones who make the social rules; not the ones who are at the top of the social hierarchy. Bullying needs to be eliminated, especially in regards to students who identify as LBGT. More than 30 children committed suicide due to bullying and cyber bullying behaviours in 2010 because they either were or identified (by themselves or others) as LBGT.

Teachers and administrators need to address bullying when it occurs, nipping it in the bud, instead of waiting to deal with it, or not dealing with it at all. If students see that it is being addressed immediately, then future attempts are less likely to be made.

Research into bullying, and specifically cyber bullying can help address these issues and keep children safe from violent behaviours, para-suicide, and suicide. The more we know about these behaviours, the more we can do to prevent them.

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