School & College Shootings
The Columbine school shooting (April 20th 1999), saw Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold go on a shooting spree, which resulted in the deaths of 12 fellow students, along with a teacher, and a further 21 students injured – the spree ended when the two shooters committed suicide. This brought the phenomena of school shootings directly into the public spotlight. This wasn’t the first school shooting in the US (the first record of one was July 26th, 1764 in Greencastle, PA), however due to the extent and nature of the attack, for many, this made the reality of school shootings very, very real. Columbine was also unique in that we were able to access, the 911 recording between teacher Patti Nielsen and the Jefferson County Police Despatcher, which captured the events in the library as the shooters went on their rampage, before killing themselves (to read the transcript of the call, please click here.) Along with this, the failure to predict the incident, despite what we now see as clear and obvious warning signs, as well as the failure of the traditional “Lockdown” response (getting under tables and hiding) to save lives, played their part in the impact of this event. Since Columbine, there have been 77 Active Shooter incidents where the perpetrators explicitly mentioned being inspired by the Columbine Killers. Columbine makes for a worthwhile case study, as it contains some extremely valuable lessons regarding school shootings specifically, and active shooter incidents in general.
Failure To Identify The Warning Signs
In 1998, Joe Schallmoser and Howard Cornell, who were in charge of security for the school district that included Columbine, wrote a security plan that called for school officials to meet with parents and law enforcement, should they believe that any student was a threat or a danger to others. Schallmoser and Cornell, understood that their rural schools could suffer from the conditions, that lead to students feeling isolated, and potentially turning to violence. Columbine didn’t adopt or follow the plans, despite some very obvious and public statements made by Harris e.g. in March 1998, Harris made a direct threat on his personal website, to kill a fellow student (Brooks Brown), using pipe bombs. Although Columbine ended up being an active shooter event, that wasn’t how Harris and Klebold had planned it. Their goal was to replicate the Oklahoma Bombing (1995 – where Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people and injuring a further 680), by blowing up the Columbine School cafeteria – it was only when their homemade bombs failed that they went on their killing spree. Harris had given a clear and public indication of where his thinking and intent lay, but it was denied and discounted by school officials – they failed to follow up on a deputy sheriff’s warning, in light of a report made to them by Brook Brown’s mother. Denial and discounting of facts/evidence is the plague of preventative security. Brook Brown wasn’t the only subject of a death threat on Harris’s website, a Sophomore Devon Adams, was also mentioned.
Harris and Klebold also showed fellow students firearms that they had amassed (including videos of them shooting) along with a pipe bomb that they had made. One of the killers’ friends/fellow student Nate Dykeman, stated that they made little attempt to hide or conceal that they were making bombs. In February of 1999 (2 months before the killings) Klebold submitted an essay to one of his teachers about an assassin in a black trenchcoat (something he used to wear to school), who shoots down students and bombs the city where he lives. The essay includes a statement towards the end where Klebold states about the assassin, “I understood his actions”. The teacher was duly concerned, and involved the school counsellor, but once again there was no intervention. Another warning sign had been missed. It’s true that hindsight is 20/20, however if we are to be effective in preventing future incidents, we must study the mistakes that were made in the past.
The principle of Columbine High School, on reflection, stated about Harris and Klebold that, “They didn’t come out of their mother’s wombs hating the world.” And in that he is right, yet nobody picked up on the transformations that the two boys went through, as they made their way through middle and high school. As they moved through the years, different teachers failed to pass on what could have been vital information to other members of staff. As we look back over their high school careers and join up the dots, it seems very obvious that there were clear warning signs that something was not right with these two young men, however when there are many people each possessing a single, or a few, facts, it can be hard for any one person to see the whole picture.
The Failure of The Traditional Lockdown Protocol
Columbine showed the fatal flaw of the traditional lockdown policy that was prevalent in schools at the time e.g. try to lock yourself in a classroom, hide under tables and desks, and wait for the police and law enforcement to intervene/deal with the shooter. Unfortunately, many of the parts of a school that contain the most students, aren’t able to be locked down and contained – shooters are looking for the highest kill count, and this means targeting cafeterias and libraries, etc. In most schools, the majority of doors are glass, or have glass panels surrounding them, so even if they could be locked, they wouldn’t form much of a barrier to a gunman who can simply shoot the windows out. Once Harris and Klebold entered the library, they found students hiding under the desks, who were in no position to either try and counter their attacks, or run away – and it wasn’t as if they didn’t have an opportunity to exit the library, as there was a door at the opposite end, from where the gunman entered. In fact, it would have been possible to evacuate the entire library based on the timings of the 911 call, between when Patti Nielsen told the dispatcher that the shooters were outside the library, to the time that they entered. This is not to blame Ms. Nielsen, she was simply following the protocols that she’d been taught, to get everyone to hide and stay out of sight under the tables – even when the gunman enters the library and the shooting starts, the dispatcher can be heard urging her to keep the children down, rather than run or try to physically counter them, etc.
The traditional lockdown goes against all of our survival instincts. The kids under the desks wanted to run (due to their fight or flight response kicking in) – in the transcript it is seen that they have to be told to stay down and stay hidden repeatedly, because everything about the situation told them to run; and they had an exit away from the one where the shooters were.
Waiting for law enforcement to arrive and deal with the shooter takes too long. At Columbine, the shooting started around 11:19 AM, the first 911 call was made at 11:23 AM, by this time there were already 3 dead and 6 wounded. At the time of the shooting, there was a Deputy Sherriff on site and within 5 minutes he was actively engaged in a fire fight with Harris – within a few minutes he had 6 other officers assisting him. Believing that they were dealing with 6-8 shooters, the law enforcement officers waited for the local SWAT team to arrive – it took them a further 40 minutes to assemble and get into position, and begin to enter the building. From the start of the shooting to the time when the SWAT team entered, 46 minutes had passed. Two minutes after the building was breached, Harris and Klebold committed suicide. In 46 minutes, they had expended most of their ammunition and killed 12 students. Law enforcement played no active part in the Columbine Massacre, other than crowd management, and confirming that the buildings were safe.
School Shootings In The Present Day
Law enforcement have updated their training and methods so as to be able to respond sooner to these types of incidents, and some schools have instituted protocols and methodologies, for dealing with Active Shooter incidents – such as running appropriate drills (Run Hide Fight; ALICE, etc), just as you would with a fire drill. Unfortunately, many institutions don’t feel it is relevant or appropriate to try and implement these types of proactive policies (ones that have been proven to save lives) and instead hold to the familiar but fundamentally flawed lockdown policies of the past. There hasn’t been a death by fire in a US School since 1958, but fire drills are practiced on a regular basis (in fact around 50% of the costs of building a new school go to fire prevention), if we consider the number of lives lost in recent years to school shootings, it may be seen that we are misaligning our efforts and resources to the dangers that schools and their students face. If you would like to learn more about how to bring effective training to your educational institution (be it a college or a school), please click here.
Columbine and other school shootings have taught us a lot of lessons, some good, some bad, and it is our job to learn from them, and improve our ability to predict and identify danger before it happens so we can enact effective solutions for those times when it does. To not learn from past events is to allow history the unhindered opportunity of repeating itself.
Below is the transcript of the 911 Call made from the Columbine School Library, by Patti Nielsen. As you read it consider the floor plan of the school library. Klebold and Harris, for much of the conversation between Patti Nielsen and the Dispatcher, were outside the library, in the corridor. When Patti Nielsen went outside to investigate the noise she was actually shot in the shoulder, but the shooters did not follow her as she went back in to the libary. Klebold & Harris walked up and down the corridor before entering the library, through the doorway in the top right of the floorplan. There were two other doors, shown at the top of the diagram, where students could have exited. It is worth considering how many students might have escaped through these exits before Harris and Klebold entered the library, if they had not been told to hide under the tables. The time from when the 911 call was made, to Harris and Klebold entered the library was four minutes and 10 seconds; a considerable amount of time that could have been used to evacuate the library. One again this is not blame Patti Nielsen, she was simply following the traditional lockdown process.
Dispatcher: Jefferson County 911.
Patti: Yes. I am a teacher at Columbine High School. There is a student here with a gun. He has shot out a window. I believe one student-- uh.. um.. um.. I've been--
Dispatcher: Columbine High School.
Patti: Um.. I don't know if it's.. I don't know what's in my shoulder.. if it was just some glass he threw or what.
Patti: I am--
Dispatcher: Has anyone been injured, ma'am?
Patti: Yes! Yes!
Patti: ..and the school is in a panic and I'm in the library. I've got-- Students down, under the tables, kids!! Heads down under the tables!! Um, kids are screaming, the teachers, um, are, y'know, trying to take control of things. We need police here...
Dispatcher: OK, we're getting them there.
Patti: Can you please hurry?
Dispatcher: Who is the student, ma'am?
Patti: I do not know who the student is.
Patti: I saw a student outside, I was in the hall-- [sound of shots being fired out in the hall; Patti begins to panic] Oh, dear God! Okay! I was on hall duty, I saw a gun. I said "What's going on out there?" And the kid that was following me said it was a film production, probably a joke, and I said "Well, I don't think that's a good idea and I went walking outside to see what was going on. He pointed the gun straight at us and shot and, my God, the window went out and the kid standing there with me, I think he got hit.
Patti: There's something in my shoulder.
Dispatcher: Okay. We've got help on the way, ma'am.
Patti: Okay. [More shots can be heard] OH, God!!
Dispatcher: Stay on the line with me.
Patti: Oh, God! ..Kids, just stay down!
Dispatcher: Do we know where he's at?
Patti: I'm sorry?
Dispatcher: Do we know where he's at?
Patti: Okay. I'm in the library. He's upstairs. He's right outside of here.
Dispatcher: He's outside?
Patti: He's outside of this hall.
Dispatcher: Outside of the hall or outside--
Patti: He's in the hall. I'm sorry. There are alarms and things going off.. There's smoke.. My God, smoke is, like, coming into this room.
Patti: I've got the kids under tables here. I don't know what's happening in the rest of the building. I don't know-- I'm sure someone else is calling 911.
Dispatcher: Yes, we have a lot of people on... Okay. I just want you to stay on the line with me, I- we need to know what's going on.
Patti: I am on the floor.
Dispatcher: Okay. You've got the kids there?
Patti: Okay? In the library. And I've got every student in the library-- ON THE FLOOR! You guys STAY ON THE FLOOR!
Dispatcher: Is there any way you can lock the doors?
Patti: Um, smoke is coming in from out there and I'm a little-- [More shots, louder this time] The gun is right outside the library door, okay? I don't think I'm going to go out there. Okay?
Dispatcher: Okay. You're at Columbine High School?
Patti: I've got-- I've got three children--
Dispatcher: Okay. We've got it.
Patti: Okay. Um. I'm not going to go to the door. He just shot toward the door. I've got the kids on the floor, um. I got all the kids in the library on the--
Dispatcher: [Speaking to someone else] We have paramedics and we have fire and we have police en route, okay sir?
Patti: Okay. Okay.
Dispatcher: Yes. Bye.
Patti: Yes. I mean-- He's-- I can't believe he's.. not out of bullets-- He just keeps shooting and shooting and shooting.
Dispatcher: Okay. Yeah. We have a police officer on scene--
Patti: --I talked to him. I thought it was--
Dispatcher: Okay. Just try and keep the kids in the library calm.
Dispatcher: Is there any way you can block the door so no one can get in?
Patti: I think-- I do not--
Patti: I-- Yeah. I guess I can try to go, but, I mean like, he's right outside that door. I'm afraid to go to the door.
Dispatcher: That's okay.
Patti: That's where he is. I'm afraid to go there.
Patti: Okay. I told the kids to get on the floor. I told them to get under the tables. All of the children are on the floor, under the tables. Um.. um.. yeah. They're all under the tables.
Dispatcher: Okay. As long as we can just try and keep--
Patti: And I'm just trying to keep calm. No one's saying a word.
Dispatcher: Okay. As long as we can keep everyone there as calm as we can--
Patti: I hear some yelling out there going on right now.
Dispatcher: Yeah, we've got alarms going off now as well.
Patti: Yeah, there's alarms.. this room is filled with smoke.
Dispatcher: Keep everyone low to the floor.
Patti: Yeah. Yeah. Everyone's, uh-- Everyone stay on the floor! Stay on the floor. Stay under the tables. Um..... I... I don't know. I--
Dispatcher: Okay, I know. Just--
Patti: I don't know. I didn't.. I said "What- what has that kid got?" He was outside at the time. And.. and.. and.. um... I was on hall duty. [Explosion] Oh, God! Um. He was going like "Woo-hoo-hoo!"
Dispatcher: I know.
Patti: --are getting shot off. I do not know who the student was. I don't even-- I saw him. He was wearing black. He looked very large. Um. Male student. Um.. He was out there shooting. [Another explosion] It looked like he was... out shooting and somebody-- I said "What is that?". [Another explosion]
Patti: I said "What's going on out there?" Well it's probably a cap gun. Probably a video production, you know, they do these videos...
Patti: And the kids... Well, I said-- That's not, you know, a play gun, a real gun, I was goin' out there to say "No.". And I went [Another shot, very loud] Oh, my God!! That was really close! That just rattled me.
Dispatcher: Okay. One of the shooters: YEAH!!! [Another shot]
Patti: [whispering] Oh, God. I'm really... frightened. [More shots, extremely close] I think he's in the library.
Dispatcher: What's your name, ma'am?
Patti: [whispering] My name is Patti.
Dispatcher: Patti? One of the gunman can barely be heard in the background: Everybody get up! NOW!
Patti: [whispering] He's yelling "Everybody get up" right now. [More shots] He's in the library. He's shooting at everybody.
Dispatcher: Okay. I have him in the library shooting at students and.. the lady in the library, I have on the phone.. Okay. Try to keep as many people down as you can.
The 911 call also caught conversations between Klebold and Harris, and their victims. For some of the time Patti Nielsen was on the line, but after she was killed, her phone stayed on and the Dispatcher was able to listen in on what was happening in the library. It should be remembered that fire alarms were going off, the sprinkler system had been activated, and there was smoke in the room. The whole scene was one of chaos. The start of this transcripts marks the time 4 minutes and 10 seconds into the call. The following transcript is disturbing in itself content and discretion is advised.
Eric: Get Up!
Dylan: GET UP!
Eric: Stand up right now or we'll blow your fucking heads off!
Dylan: Fine I'll Start Shooting Them...(Shoots Velaquez) Woohoo! All Jocks stand up...white baseball cap
Eric: Pigs are here! (begins to shoot out the windows)
Dylan: (Shoots Hall, Ireland and Steepleton) Yahoo!
Patti: Our Father...who art in Heaven...hallowed be they name
Dispatcher: Ma'am, you need to forget about praying right now. What's happening there?
Patti: They're in here...they're killing kids...I have to go (drops the phone)
Eric: (Shoots Curnow) Die Motherfucker!
Kasey Ruegsegger: (Having Been Shot) Ohh!
Eric: Stop your bitching! It's merely a flesh wound! (Dylan is recorded laughing hysterically)
Eric: Peekaboo! (Shoots Bernall)
Dylan: (Shoots Ireland) Die!...down on the floor!
Dylan: REB? (The name Dylan Klebold uses to address Eric Harris )
Dylan: Hey, man...there's a nigger over here
Eric: Shoot him
Dylan: SHIT YEAH!
Isaiah Shoels: No...No...No...Mom! (Shoots Shoels and Kechter - the sound of a CO2 Bomb detonating goes off)
Valeen Schnurr: Oh my god...help me...
Eric: Do you believe in God?
Eric: God is gay
John Tomlin: Don't...done enough (Tomlin shot)
Dylan: (Laughing) You think we've done enough
Eric: Nice glasses! (Mauser shot after a scuffle)
Dylan: Was he trying to jump you?
Eric: Yeah (shoots DePooter)
Dylan: Look what we have here...
Dylan: Just some fat fuck...give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill you?
Evan Todd: I don't want to get into trouble
Dylan: Trouble? You don't know what trouble is...
Evan Todd: That's not what I mean...I don't have a problem with you guys...
Dylan: I'm going to let this fat fuck live...little fat fucking piece of shit...you can have him if you want
Eric: let's go to the commons
Dylan: One more thing (sounds of smashing). Reb, ya ready?
To return to the main article please click here.
Remarkably Patti Nielsen survived the massacre in the library. She hid under a desk, and pulled a chair in front of her. At one point the chair was pulled out, and slammed on top of the desk. She doesn’t know if one of the killers saw her, but they left the library shortly afterwards. Evan Todd, although shot survived the incident.
Ironically, Evan Todd, later bragged in a Time Magazine article (December 20th, 1999), to bullying Harris and Klebold. He’s quoted as saying:
“Sure, we teased them. But what do you expect with kids who come to school with weird hairdos and horns on their hats? It’s not just jocks; the whole school’s disgusted with them. They’re a bunch of homos, grabbing each other’s private parts. If you want to get rid of someone, usually you tease’ em. So the whole school would call them homos, and when they did something sick, we’d tell them, ‘You’re sick and that’s wrong.'”
The effect of bullying and isolating students is a major part in creating a climate, which sees disaffected students become angry and resentful, to the community which they’re asked to belong and support. Evan Todd was a defensive lineman, who played for the Columbine School Football Team, which enjoyed a lot of support within the community. Being expected to support a group, which routinely ridicules and bullies you, can be a bitter pill for many individuals to swallow – few take revenge in the way that Klebold and Harris did, however when we try to make sense of school shootings we have to try and understand what causes and motivates such individuals to take action against their communities in this way. For more information about anti-bullying programs in Boston, please click here.
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