My vacation week read this year was Dave Cullen’s excellent work entitled Columbine. It’s an indelible portrait of the killers, the victims, and the community that suffered one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century. This book was released nearly 10 years after the event, and is a riveting page turner which will help the reader understand better what happened at a suburban high school on April 20, 1999.
On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, entered their high school in Littleton, Colo., and shot and killed 12 students and one teacher. That event sparked a number of changes in how students experience school.
Cullen is considered a leading authority on the Columbine killers. In his book, he tries hard to get us inside the heads of Eric and Dylan, writing in an empathetic style that allows us to inhabit their twisted points of view. It’s a compelling study of not only their minds, but the reaction of the community, the country, the victims, and their families. You don’t come away understanding exactly why the event happened, but you do have a better sense of how. Throughout the book, you can feel the pain, and better understand the efforts at making schools safer that have occurred in the past 10 years.
As noted by USA Today, some of the most important post-Columbine reforms include:
- Better partnerships between law enforcement and schools. After Columbine, the federal government funded the placement of 7,000 police officers in schools, many in a more consultative and mentoring role, not just to deal with trouble. Today, schools across the country have “resource officers.” Many are part of teams that include teachers and mental health professionals.
- Encouraging students to report suspicions. A study by the U.S. Education Department and the Secret Service of 41 shooters, including the Columbine killers, found that most planned their rampages in advance, told other kids and were egged on by others. Now, many schools encourage students to report suspicions, including on anonymous tip lines. Tips have foiled several plots.
- Watching for red flags. A 2002 report found that most of the attackers it studied were depressed and had difficulty coping with “significant losses or personal failures.” Almost three-quarters felt “persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others.” These problems often went undetected. Most did fine academically, and only 37% had ever been suspended or expelled. This has led to more vigilance and adult interaction with students at many schools. USA TODAY profiled one — Lucy Addison Middle School in Roanoke, Va. — in which a typical teacher focuses on the “little things” such as body language, insults, a look in the eyes. More mental health professionals are in schools, and 38 states have anti-bullying laws.
- Better reaction plans. Columbine-style attackers generally want to kill as many as possible and themselves. There is a new recognition of a need to move in fast. It’s now the basis of emergency drills and practice — a change from Columbine, where police lacked basic information about school layout, took four hours to get into the school, and where more than 900 officers from 34 agencies were working on different radio frequencies.
As a parent and School Committee member, this book was compelling. It has lessons in it for parents, educators, law enforcement, and even citizens not directly connected with schools.