15 years after Columbine: Why our approach to school killers is a misfire

No policy or legislation could address even half of the unique circumstances of school murders

There are some words that chill the heart. Pearl Harbor, Nine-eleven, Columbine. They are not preceded by explanation or followed by further description. They become descriptors of other events and a standard by which evil and destruction are measured. Pearl Harbor set us off to war. Nine-eleven reordered our government. What did Columbine do?

When Harris and Klebold invaded their school as teen commandos, the nation responded viscerally in a way that — even 15 years hence — still defies the cool reflection of logic. It is impossible to merely quantify Columbine because should we do so, that emotional scar that is both national and personal, is insulted — mere numbers would diminish our reverent horror. 

Everyone wanted a connection to the drama played out on CNN. Friends of my two kids knew that we had moved from Colorado in late 1997. Some heard that I had applied for a job in Littleton and postulated what might have been had we moved there, as though we had escaped the attack by the skin of our teeth. 

A Visceral, Vicarious Experience
My daughter married a Columbine survivor [Editor’s Note: You will read about his Columbine story next week]. When the subject is raised, he doesn’t add his voice to the discussion. The event was so pervasive in everyone’s vicarious experience, it hardly mattered that he had lived it and they had only gathered around the television to watch the iconic images it produced. 

Our national narrative must repeat that crime and violence were out of control in 1999 even though the UCR shows homicide and firearms deaths dropping dramatically. 

Commentators routinely used phrases like “yet another school shooting” and “increasing school violence” when the reality is that 1999 was part of a downward trend in the already small number of school shootings.

An analysis of 45 school shootings from 1996 to the writing of this article shows a death toll of 77 youths and 22 adults. The loss of those lives and the grief of family and loved ones is immeasurable. 

Dispassionately, the number of bodies pales in comparison to the other quarter million murders over the same time period. In 1999 alone there were 964 murders of school aged children in the United States. What pricks one’s conscience the most is that of those child killings — 440 were black kids, a number far out of proportion to the racial balance of our schools. 

The panic about how unsafe our schools are infuses the minds of nearly every parent, and certainly occupies significant brain space in the minds of police administrators and school officials. 

SWAT teams are formed, drills are conducted, buildings are reinforced. All for an institution consisting of about 130, 000 public and private schools that are — by far — statistically the safest places in America. We invest not only dollars but mental energy in preventing and planning for an event less likely than a lightening strike, a lottery win, and literally one in a million according the Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education. 

No One “Solution” to So Many Unique Circumstances
Finding a pattern around which to design prevention is elusive. Of the 45 shootings I reviewed, six occurred outside the school building. Four assailants were non-students. One shooter was six years old. Many shootings were not random, but motivated by gang conflict, planned fights, or domestic entanglements. While some shooters brought multiple weapons, a killer with a rifle shot ten of the murder victims, 32 by a killer with a handgun, and three with a shotgun. Analysis of the perpetrators may show that many were medicated, alienated, or had other dysfunction, but those challenges pervade American youth. 

No policy or legislation could address even half of the unique circumstances of school murders. 

No one can advocate a do-nothing stance on the issue of school murder. The real question is whether our political, social, and personal capital is being wisely invested. 

Fifteen years after the unspeakable memories of young bodies hitting the floor at Columbine, we know something of why this hurts so much. I just wonder why the hundreds of dead in neighborhoods that don’t look like mine seem to hurt so little. 

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