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Lessons NOT Learned: Columbine 25 Years Later

It was supposed to take place on April 19, 1999. That was the date picked more than a year in advance. However, one of the killers wanted more ammunition. Rather than simply buying the bullets himself, now that he was 18, he used someone else to make the purchase. Perhaps it was simply routine to use others during the yearlong lead-up to the deadly events that were about to unfold, or maybe he simply forgot that he could make the purchase himself, now that he was old enough. Either way, late on April 19, he got his final supply of bullets. Setting the attack back one day would not matter much to the two killers.

There is still misinformation circulating around the date April 20, 1999. While some associate this date with Adolf Hitler’s birthday and marijuana references, there is no evidence to suggest that the killers had any connection to these themes. April 19 holds significance as the anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing and the Waco siege in 1993, events that the perpetrators were probably trying to emulate. It has been 25 years since that tragic day in Columbine when 13 lives were lost, prompting us to reflect on what lessons we have learned as a society.

As we look back over the past 25 years, it’s important to consider various factors, such as media influence, the profile of killers, global perspectives, access to weapons, exposure to violence, mental health awareness, school safety measures, emergency procedures, school design, political influences, law enforcement responses, and the legal system’s handling of such incidents. These are just a few of the issues that warrant examination as we honor the memory of the victims and reflect on the impact of school violence over the years.

Let’s take a closer look at the role of the media in this tragedy and see if any lessons have been learned.

News of the shooting was quickly broadcast on television within 30 minutes and continued for weeks. During this time, various news outlets reported inaccurate information as they rushed to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle. Unfortunately, many false narratives were spread, and some misinformation still persists today, being accepted as truth. It seems that news outlets are still focused on being the first to report stories, even if it means sharing inaccurate information. Lesson not learned.

Additionally, the news media published the names of the killers. They showed pictures of the killers next to their names and “statistics” for the number of people they killed. These stories closely resembled sports trading cards and sporting events. Almost to the day, eight years later the killer at Virginia Tech would use the names of the Columbine killers as wicked role models for himself. Because of news coverage, the Virginia Tech killer idealized the Columbine shooters and wanted higher statistics (a higher body count) than them.

Over the last 25 years, the media has shown pictures of killers, written their names, and described their acts in detail. This has done nothing but encourage others to kill. Lesson not learned.

Interestingly, during the 2024 Super Bowl, when a man ran onto the field, the television broadcast quickly cut away and changed the subject. This shows that there is an understanding that giving attention to such behavior can lead to more incidents in the future. It is worth noting that there is a conscious effort to avoid giving attention to streakers at sporting events, but the same consideration is not given to perpetrators of violent acts.

It seems that the media has not taken lessons learned from past tragedies like Columbine, as they continue to sensationalize killers. This raises the question: Has this altered the “profile” of killers? Historical data indicates that the majority of school shootings are carried out by individual males. While there have been instances of multiple shooters (such as in Columbine), the likelihood is still that a school shooter will act alone. Additionally, the majority of these incidents are committed by males, although there have been cases of female and transgender killers. It is still impossible to create a definitive profile of an active shooter. This serves as a reminder that anyone could potentially commit such a heinous act, and it is important not to rely on stereotypes. Lesson learned.

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Is the tragedy of Columbine 25 years ago, along with all the other school shootings since then, simply an American epidemic? School shootings are in fact a global phenomenon. Children in schools all around the world are targeted and killed at schools. On Dec. 14, 2012, 26 innocent people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. On the exact same day, 24 innocent people were stabbed in an elementary school in China. (There are conflicting reports on the number of people injured and killed in the attack due to Chinese government influence, apparently adjusting the total count after the total number of victims at Sandy Hook were identified. Seemingly the Chinese reports were purposely dropped to lower than the attack in the U.S.).

There are numerous other examples such as the attack in Norway in 2011, where 77 people were killed. If that number seems high, compare it to the over 800 students kidnapped in one week in Nigeria this spring. Of the top 15 deadliest school attacks in the world, all have occurred outside of the U.S. Yet on May 24, 2022, President Joe Biden stated in an open address to the world in response to the Uvalde, Texas shooting, “What struck me was these kinds of mass shootings rarely happen anywhere else in the world.” Lesson not learned.

It seems we may be getting caught up in semantics when it comes to the term “shooting.” After all, the mass killing in China in 2012 was committed with a knife. This is why law enforcement training nationwide has started using the term “active threat” instead of “active shooter,” as killers do not always rely on guns. Guns are just a small part of the issue, regardless of political beliefs. The deadliest school attacks in world history show that the U.S. only ranks 16th with the Bath, Michigan attack, which used a bomb and resulted in the deaths of 44 people. Just days before the Sandy Hook tragedy, an active “shooter” walked into a Casper, Wyoming school and began to shoot people with a bow and arrow. Killers can choose from a variety of weapons. Law enforcement has learned from this, but politicians and the media seem to have missed the lesson.

If guns are not the main problem, then what is? It could be the exposure to violence in our society. The Columbine killers played the violent video game “Doom,” which was so effective that the U.S. Marines even had a version made specifically for training purposes. Video games have become increasingly realistic and graphic over the past 25 years, blurring the lines between games and movies. During the “Defund the Police” movement, attacks on police officers rose, coinciding with the release of the game “Grand Theft Auto,” which allowed players to commit horrendously violent acts against law enforcement officers. Coincidence? Video games now simulate actual killing movements, with some even requiring players to physically act out the motions of killing with virtual reality headsets and gun replicas. There have even been games like “Active Shooter,” which depicted shootings in American schools. Many games reward players for violent acts like headshots, and even popular games like “Fortnite” involve killing other players. The winners of these games are glorified in a comparable manner to how the media portrays killers. Lesson not learned with video games

Movies and television shows today seem to have more violence than they did 25 years ago. It’s interesting how the Columbine killers mentioned the movie “Natural Born Killers” and Quentin Tarantino in their journals. Tarantino is known for his violent movies, with “Grindhouse” being ranked as his seventh deadliest movie. Surprisingly, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” actually has the most onscreen deaths with 836 witnessed deaths, despite being rated PG-13. It makes me think about how we approach violence in media with children. We might say no to buying them cigarettes with a warning label, but we are more likely to let them play “Fortnite” or watch “The Lord of the Rings” without hesitation, regardless of any warning label. Lesson definitely not learned with movies.

It is concerning to think about how much violence children are exposed to in games, movies and television. By the time they turn 18, it is estimated they will have witnessed approximately 20,000 murders and over 200,000 acts of violence. It’s a harsh reality that we need to consider. Studies have shown that exposure to violent content can influence behavior, especially in young people. In fact, just 20 minutes of playing a violent video game can desensitize us to real violence. The FBI even looks at a student’s history of playing violent video games as a key indicator of their potential for violence.

So, does exposure to this colossal amount of violence have an impact on the mental health of people, especially young people? It’s clear, yes it does! Mental health should be a top priority when it comes to addressing the impact of violence in the media. We need to learn from these lessons and take action to protect the well-being of our youth. The mental priming of being involved with violence in movies and games reduces the physiological arousal of real-life violence. People become numb to violence and death. What help exists to help people and what stigmas are attached to seeking mental health? The answer to both is not good. Mental health lesson not learned.

It seems that children today are more aware of the threat of school shootings, due to the constant media coverage and the prevalence of smartphones. Students have been encouraged to report any suspicious behavior through campaigns like “See Something, Say Something,” which have proven to be effective in preventing potential attacks. This heightened student awareness has undoubtedly saved lives as numerous school attacks have been thwarted by students properly expressing their concerns. Lesson learned.

Along with student awareness, student training has taken place. For decades students were taught the drills for response to fires, tornadoes, and earthquakes. During the Columbine shooting, students were unable to escape (fire drill training) so they hid under desks (tornado and earthquake drills). They were not taught how to respond to an active threat within the school. Today, students are taught proper response drills for these events. In fact, many states mandate that schools undergo annual active shooter training. (It should be noted that some of these training courses have been conducted by unprofessional, inadequate trainers that taught students in an inappropriate manner. It is not necessary to set the building on fire to train for a fire drill, nor are large fans brought in for tornado drills. Active threat training for students must be conducted properly by professionals.) Lesson learned.

Faculty and staff have also been trained to respond to active threats. Their responses vary some from a student’s response as their role during an active shooting situation will be more complex. Just like students, faculty and staff are required to undergo training annually in many states. However, it is important to ensure that the training they receive is conducted properly to avoid causing trauma or being counterproductive. Lesson learned.

Active threat drills and student awareness have altered emergency procedures for schools. Lockdown procedures have been established for intruders, active shooters, and other community-wide threats. Some schools have adopted a comprehensive emergency response protocol, while others have specific and detailed protocols. Each school is unique and may have some variations, but in general, schools nationwide have implemented emergency procedures for active threats based on proven techniques. The most effective schools involve local first responders in their procedures and planning. There is always room for improvement, as some schools have overlooked how to handle school buses with children during a campus-wide lockdown. It is crucial to involve transportation departments in these procedures. Overall, though, lesson learned.

Just like how emergency procedures, training and drills have changed since 1999, the physical structure of schools has also evolved over the past 25 years. Instead of classroom doors with large glass windows, doors now have smaller, reinforced windows. The materials used for construction are stronger and more durable, making it harder to break through. School entrances now have buzzer systems for access control and multiple doors to slow down any potential intruders. Schools are now designed and built with a focus on deterring, detecting, delaying, denying, defending, and defeating attackers. Lesson learned.

Government funding has been allocated to enhance school safety and security measures. However, this also means that politicians and political issues come into play. When there is a school shooting, political parties will try to capitalize on the tragedy and use the incident to their political advantage, to move their political agenda forward. Political parties can be influenced by various lobbyists pushing their own individual causes in these responses. Liberals might push for gun control (weapons have already been addressed above in this article) whereas conservatives might push for more police within schools (a topic upcoming). Unfortunately, in the modern political climate, effective comprise is exceedingly difficult to achieve. Politicians put their spin on the Columbine tragedy, and they continue to do so today. Lesson not learned.

The approach to police response in active shooter situations, not just in schools but anywhere, has changed significantly since the Columbine incident. Before 1999, the standard procedure was for officers to establish a perimeter and wait for backup, often involving SWAT teams. However, this approach proved to be ineffective as it allowed the shooters to harm more people. A new strategy was implemented, where officers were trained to engage the shooters in small groups as soon as possible upon arrival. This caused some confusion among officers from different agencies, as not all were trained the same way. Eventually, a protocol was established where every officer would act independently to confront the threat without waiting for others. This swift response has saved many lives. Nonetheless, there is still some confusion in certain departments regarding active shooter situations versus hostage situations, as seen in the Uvalde shooting in 2022. Proper law enforcement training is essential, and while some programs may be lacking, most police agencies have developed effective protocols and tactics for handling active shooter scenarios. Lesson learned.

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As mentioned above, some believe that having more police officers in schools can help prevent active shooters. School Resource Officers (SROs) are present on campus and can quickly respond to all emergencies, not just shootings. This is usually funded through a partnership between the school and local law enforcement. SROs also serve as D.A.R.E. officers, educating students about drugs and offer support for everyday issues. However, during the “Defund the Police” movement, some SROs were removed from schools due to objections from some individuals as the police were seen as being offensive by their mere presence. This led to an increase in student violence in many of those districts. Over the past 25 years, the number of schools with SROs has increased by approximately 90 percent. It is important to note that not all SROs receive the same level of training or preparation. For example, during the Parkland, Florida school shooting in 2018, an officer failed to confront the shooter. In 2023, that officer was acquitted of criminal charges for his actions. With some shortfalls, overall lesson learned.

Criminally charging an SRO for failure to act is not the only legal action taken against individuals involved in an active shooter situation. The legal landscape surrounding school shooters has evolved to hold more people accountable. For example, in 1999, two individuals were charged and ultimately convicted for assisting the Columbine shooters in obtaining their weapons. Similarly, this year two parents were convicted and sentenced to 10 to 5 years in prison because their son was the killer in a school shooting in Michigan in 2021. It is important to note that legal precedence exists to hold parents responsible for their children’s actions, such as providing them with weapons, even if they were not directly involved in the shooting. Active killers who do not commit suicide or are killed by law enforcement are also criminally charged and sentenced accordingly. While each state’s legal system may differ, all killers are held accountable for their actions. Some states have even implemented terrorism-related charges to impose stricter penalties on offenders. Lesson learned.

Reflecting on the tragic events of Columbine 25 years ago, where 13 innocent lives were lost, it is crucial to consider if we have truly made our schools safer since then. This article explores 13 key issues, each representing one of the victims, including media coverage, profiles of killers, global perspectives, weapons, exposure to violence, mental health, student awareness, training and drills, emergency procedures, school construction and architecture, politics, police response, and the legal system. While progress has been made in some areas, there is still much work to be done. Moving forward, it is inevitable that we will face more incidents of school violence (shootings, stabbings, bombings, and more). It is essential for us to come together as a nation and global community and implement effective and lasting solutions to address these challenges. We must learn from all of these lessons. We owe it to Rachel, Daniel, Cassie, Steve, Corey, Kelly, Matt, Daniel, Dave, Isaiah, John, Kyle, and Lauren — and all children and adults who have been the victims of school killings.

Brooks Bret Bret E. Brooks is the chief operating officer and training consultant for Gray Ram Tactical, LLC. An active law enforcement officer in Missouri, he is an internationally recognized speaker, author and instructor of violence prevention, mitigation and response strategies to over 100,000 professionals on six continents. Brooks returns to the STN EXPO Reno this summer to present on incident response for student transporters and developing mutually beneficial relationships with law enforcement. 

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