How Columbine changed American schools forever

Getty Images/Steve CorbisStudents run out of the Columbine High School as two gunmen went on a shooting spree killing 15, including themselves.
  • The 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School transformed the way American schools and law-enforcement agencies prepare for violent or deadly incidents.
  • Though school shootings are still relatively rare, fear that one could occur has sparked a number of preventative efforts – some that have saved lives, and others that may have gone too far.
  • Now, schools and law-enforcement agencies know what to do and what to expect when a gunman opens fire.
  • Yet some fear that advents like the now-ubiquitous active-shooter drill are harming more than they are helping.
  • Visit INSIDER.com for more stories.

Twenty years ago, two students clad in black trench coats and armed with sawed-off shotguns approached Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and opened fire on dozens of their classmates.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people and left more than 20 others injured that day. The shooting itself took just 16 minutes, and Harris and Klebold turned their weapons on themselves within the hour.

But in a devastating flurry of miscommunication and chaos among the law-enforcement agencies that responded, a wounded teacher slowly bled out in a classroom after waiting four hours for paramedics to arrive, as desperate students put up a sign in the window that read “1 bleeding to death.”

The shooting highlighted the lack of preparation and strategy needed to respond to a fast-moving massacre that was over in minutes, but left a trail of destruction and death.

During the Columbine shooting, an array of disparate law-enforcement agencies responded to the scene, communicating on more than a dozen different radio channels, unaware of one another’s plans, while a growing number of 911 calls jammed the lines, according to The Denver Post.

Read more: Americans look to Columbine to better understand school shootings – but myths about the shooters have persisted for years

Unfamiliar with the high school’s layout and unaware that the gunmen had already killed themselves, the SWAT teams painstakingly searched the school room by room, travelling east on the lower floor and west on the upper floor. Dave Sanders, the teacher who bled to death, was located in a room on the west end of the upper floor – one of the very last places first responders reached.

Columbine high schoolGetty Images/Chet StrangePolice patrol outside Columbine High School on April 17, 2019 in Littleton, Colorado, as all Denver-area schools were evacuated and classes cancelled after an active threat to the area made by Sol Pais.

Now, law enforcement goes in immediately to stop a shooting

In the wake of what was then the country’s deadliest high-school shooting, American schools and law-enforcement agencies have since transformed their response to a phenomenon now known as an “active shooting.”

Though school shootings are still rare, they have killed an estimated 143 people in the years since Columbine, according to The Washington Post. The fear that one could occur has prompted schools and law-enforcement agencies across the country to plan for the worst and strategize the most effective ways to prevent – and, if necessary, halt – active shootings.

Twenty years ago, authorities waited outside Columbine for SWAT teams to arrive, leaving Harris and Klebold to finish their spree and take their own lives. Tactical officers didn’t enter the building until 47 minutes after the first gunshots rang out. They didn’t declare the scene under control until five hours had lapsed.

Today, officers responding to an active shooting have a much simpler mandate: go in immediately, alone if need be, and stop the gunfire.

Most schools have a trained professional present to prevent and stop shootings

In a growing number of schools across America, armed guards known as school resource officers (SROs) are already inside the building – ideally working to prevent shootings in the first place by identifying troubled kids who might be planning something violent.

“I think that everyone who was in this business knew that the way that went down was going to have some serious ramifications for how we address this moving forward,” Mo Canady, the executive director for the National Association of School Resource Officers, told INSIDER.

During the Columbine shooting, the school actually employed an armed school resource officer. But he was on his way back from lunch at a nearby Subway when the first 911 calls came in, and ended up exchanging fire with Harris from 60 to 70 yards away.

Canady said SROs’ roles in responding to shootings was overhauled after Columbine, and officers now have much clearer protocols on what to do in the event of an active shooter.

“An SRO in the school building hears gunfire, becomes aware of where it’s coming from, and basically, in as tactically sound a way as possible, pursues the shooter with the intent of ending the shooting – bottom line,” Canady told INSIDER.

The protocols aren’t foolproof – mistakes or failures do still occur. Most notably, the school resource officer employed by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, became a pariah after he failed to enter the building during the February 14, 2018 shooting. Security video showed him waiting outside the school during the shooting for 4 minutes.

Parkland shootingJoe Raedle/GettyPeople are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting killed and injured 17 people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida.

But Canady said he’s seen a number of instances in which heroic school resource officers staved off potential shootings before they even happened, or halted an attack as it was occurring. Last May, for instance, two school resource officers in Santa Fe were widely praised after rushing into the school and confronting a shooter, likely saving lives.

Though Canady said the data’s unclear on exactly how many schools across the country do or do not employ school resource officers, his organisation recommends that each school employ longtime police veterans who have been trained to work in educational environments.

“This is the most unique assignment in law enforcement,” he said. “And so certainly we are of the strong belief that every single school in this country needs at least one carefully selected, specifically trained SRO.”

Active shooter drills are commonplace

Active shooter drillDigital First Media/The Press-Enterprise/Stan Lim via Getty ImagesA group playing the roles of victims caught in the middle of gunfire run out of a building during an active shooter training exercise at Bourns in Riverside on November 14, 2018.

Another post-Columbine advent has been the active shooter drill, which has become a ubiquitous part of American childhood. Now, students and teachers regularly practice procedures for how to handle such an incident, typically locking doors, shutting off lights, and sheltering in place until police arrive.

Read more: Active shooter drills could reshape how a generation of students views school

The drills have come under scrutiny recently for traumatising – and even injuring – students and staff. Last month, elementary school teachers in Indiana were shot “execution style” with pellet guns during a drill.

Canady said “balance” is the key to any active-shooter preparation, and a number of faulty, “knee-jerk reactions” occurred after Columbine that schools and law-enforcement agencies need to be mindful of. Some schools, for instance, tried to implement a “zero tolerance” approach to weapons in schools, triggering unfairly harsh punishments for students who mistakenly or innocuously violated the rules.

“It got school administrators in a situation where they had to take a specific action on every knife found, whether it was a dangerous knife, or it was a small boy scout knife that a kid on a campout over the weekend left in their backpack,” he said. “We didn’t have an opportunity to let each case stand on its own and bring fairness.”

The fear that you could be next

Statistically speaking, the odds of a child experiencing a school shooting in his or her lifetime is extraordinarily low. But incidents like Columbine, and the series of successive mass shootings that followed, have for years propelled an ongoing fear among students and parents.

Though researchers say it’s nearly impossible to tell whether active-shooter drills are actually effective at saving lives or lowering risk, concerns that the drills are psychologically harming children have been growing.

Gallup, which has measured parents’ concerns about school safety since 1998, has found that fear for “physical safety” often spikes right after a major school shooting.

The day after the Columbine massacre, 55% of parents said they feared for their children’s safety at school. After the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, 33% of parents expressed fear. After the Parkland and Santa Fe shootings, 35% did, up from 24% the previous year.

Beyond that, 20% of parents in 2018 said their children themselves had expressed concerns about feeling unsafe at school.

That fear follows children throughout their teenage years,according to the Pew Research Center. In 2018, 57% of teens said they were worried about a shooting at their school, and one in four said they were “very worried.”

After the Sante Fe high school shooting, one student at the school named Paige Curry put this fear into haunting words:

“It’s been happening everywhere,” she said. “I always felt like eventually, it was going to happen here, too.”

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