I remember that dark day in 1999 when two teenagers in Littleton, CO carried out what would become the seminal event in school shooting history. I was in my fifth year of teaching middle school language arts. The Columbine shooting came on the heels of the Jonesboro, AR and Paducah, KY events, thus cementing it in the collective memories of teachers who were in the classroom at the time.
To say the least, we were scared out of our wits.
First, let’s acknowledge and remember those whose lives were cut short that day:
We started that April morning at my school like every other. Announcements were made, lessons were taught, kids went to lunch and recess. It was during our lunch that the news started to travel around the building that there had been another school shooting, this time in Colorado. Teachers talked in whispers without really knowing why. Were we afraid of upsetting students? Were we afraid that we might set someone off? Why…?
The evening news feed was filled with images of students running from the building and police officers in tactical gear working the scene. It was as if we were tuning in to some apocalyptic dystopian feature film. Surely this was the stuff of fiction. Certainly this wasn’t our new school reality.
And yet, there it was. In all of its macabre glory on the national news. Students shot dead on the grass outside. A bloody and disoriented kid falling from a window on the second floor. Weeping parents and classmates at a nearby gathering spot. It was all so… other worldly.
The Days After
Going back to school on April 21st was no small affair. My middle school students had questions. I tried to give them answers, but I had none. Why would two students at that school kill their classmates and teacher? I didn’t know. I didn’t pretend to know.
Teachers gathered in clusters and had their own conversations about the event. We are only human. We were afraid, and our educational intellect couldn’t make sense of what happened. But after seeing three school shootings in less than 18 months, we wanted to know what to look for to make sure we weren’t the next ones fearing for our lives at school.
I remember our administration brought in a guest speaker on safety. I only remember two things about that meeting. First, he was there to sell us products that would do absolutely nothing to keep us safe from a mass shooter in our building. Second, and most profound, in the middle of talking to us about dealing with a shooter, he suddenly whipped out a cap pistol and fired two shots in the air.
Possibly the stupidest thing to do in the presence of a bunch of teachers who were already on edge.
Still, some people bought his pepper spray and window stickers in a desperate act to do something… anything… to be safer today than they were yesterday.
A DIY Approach to Shooter Identification
In the absence of any substantive information about how to identify a potential mass shooter, we took it upon ourselves to figure it out. The Columbine shooters were, according to the news stories, loners who listened to Marilyn Manson, wore trench coats, experienced bullying, and had routine brushes with the law.
Most of those traits have since been dismissed as not relating to their rampage. But the media was talking about it, and it’s all we had to go with, so go with it we did.
We sat informally and talked about the kids in our classes who fit the profile. Each of us had at least one kid who we thought could possible be the “one to watch.” It was completely unfair to students, of course, that we were making these assessments about them based on next to no information. But in our minds, we had to do something (which is an all too frequent form of reasoning when doing the wrong thing. “Well, at least we were doing something!”)
We watched those kids a little more closely for the rest of the year. Of course, nothing happened, but we at least had some sense of control over our circumstances, even if that control was completely contrived and offered little more than a false sense of security.
Now, some 23 years after Columbine, there is a lot that we know about what motivates mass shooters. I recommend that you read all three of Dr. Peter Langman’s books on the subject of school shooters: School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators; Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters; and Warning Signs: Identifying School Shooters Before They Strike (links to each are at the bottom of this article).
After decades of research in the field, Dr. Langman has separated school shooters into three categories: the psychotic, the psychopathic, and the traumatized. The Columbine shooters fit into the psychotic and psychopathic categories with each shooter blurring the line between the two a little.
The mastermind of the event was clearly psychopathic in that he displayed little regard for the feelings of others. He exhibited extreme narcissism and contempt for the entirety of the human race. He was a master of impression management – showing a high degree of courtesy and politeness in concert with the ability to appear contrite and apologetic when he made mistakes. All the while, he was a boiling mass of hate below the surface.
His partner in this event was more psychotic than psychopathic. He heard voices and struggled to gain a clear grasp of reality. He was frequently affected with suicidal thoughts. Following his friend into their rampage was a form of identity struggle – he gained meaning and fulfillment by being a part of this grand plan to rid humanity of their pitiful lives, including his own.
Neither were bullied, at least not in any meaningful sense. They were fairly popular in their own circle and not loners in the typical sense. Their trench coats (dusters, actually, but that’s a minor point) and musical preferences were not necessarily indicative of their intent to kill their classmates. The more concerning issues, had anyone known about them, were the movies they watched (Natural Born Killers, the name by which they called their rampage) and the recordings they made (dubbed The Basement Tapes).
In his book, Warning Signs, Langman speaks about the presence of leakage – hints of what is to come that the killers reveal prior to their rampage. Both Columbine shooters produced considerable leakage, from in-class dramatic portrayals of their coming rampage to written narratives that described both their state of mind toward humanity and their intent to harm others. Conversations with friends, who realized what some of the shooters’ odd comments now meant, took on a new meaning once the event was over. Hindsight is always 20/20.
Success in Failure
In reality, the Columbine attack was a grand failure, at least by the standards of those who perpetrated it. Their original plan was to detonate bombs next to columns in the cafeteria during lunch, which would have brought the library on the second floor crashing down. They meticulously planned to carry out this attack during the busiest part of the day for the cafeteria, ensuring maximum carnage.
Meanwhile, they would take up overwatch positions to create intersecting lines of fire on the doorway where terrified survivors of the explosions would exit the building. They were mentally tallying deaths in the hundreds.
Fortunately, the explosions never happened, and they spent their time wandering hallways and the library looking for people to shoot. Sadly, their rampage that day cost 12 students and one teacher their lives.
The last and most unfortunate outcome of this rampage is the fact that many school shooters since Columbine have used it as a roadmap for their own attacks. These recent shooters researched the perpetrators of Columbine, deified the attackers, paid homage to them in a variety of ways, and hoped to reach the Columbine shooters’ level of international notoriety.
As a result, hundreds more students and teachers have lost their lives to shooters inspired by the Columbine duo.
Every educator – from the newest teacher to the most senior superintendent – needs to read Langman’s work. Starting with the aforementioned Warning Signs is highly recommended. It is the shortest of his three books but presents the best actionable information.
If you are a teacher, get training. That training can look different, depending on your personality, experience, age, and preference. Some teachers are taking lessons on shooting. Others on hand-to-hand combat. Still others are learning how to identify and report students who seem to be on a trajectory towards self harm and/or perpetrating a mass shooting. To find free training near you, look to the National Train a Teacher Day site.
Administrators, in addition to the reading and training suggested above, I recommend having an external audit of your building performed. Let a fresh set of eyes look over your facility and make recommendations for creating a safer learning and working environment at your school. These audits cover everything from fire safety to weather events and mass shootings.
The links to the books below are affiliate links. No extra charge is incurred by the purchaser, but your purchase does help keep the lights on here at Defcon.