History Lesson

The Four Most Important Lessons of Columbine

How “leakage” and the “active shooter protocol” have prevented other tragedies.

This is one of several pieces related to Dave Cullen’s Columbine, published this week. Click here for an excerpt about Eric Harris’ planning for the attack and here for an excerpt about the wounding of a teacher during the assault. You can watch video of attackers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and you can read Cullen’s seminal 2004 Slate essay about Harris and Klebold: “At Last We Know Why the Columbine Killers Did It.”

How did Columbine change America?

In the years after the tragedy, Americans feared copycat crimes, that children would carry out deadly school attacks.

In the 10 years since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold struck, numerous teenagers have plotted to blow up their high schools, and several have proceeded to the action stage. But none has succeeded. Others have sought to kill with automatic weapons, both in and outside of schools. Some succeeded, but most of them, too, have been thwarted.

Part of the reason why there has not been another Columbine is that the police, school administrators, parents, and children learned the four most important lessons of Columbine (in some cases, a little too well).

The first lesson is really one that we have unlearned, which is that there actually isn’t a distinct psychological profile of the school killer. Pre-Columbine, teachers, parents, journalists, and the general public were pretty clear on where we thought the danger lay: loners and outcasts, troubled misfits who could not figure out how to fit in. Harris and Klebold were mistakenly tagged with all those characteristics in the first hours after their attack. Every characterization of them was wrong, both in their case and for shooters generally. The FBI conducted a ground-breaking study to help teachers assess threats in their classrooms. Oddballs were not the problem, the FBI concluded. Oddballs did not fit the profile, because there was no profile.In a surprisingly empathetic report, the bureau urged school administrators to quit focusing on the misfits. These were not our killers, and weren’t they having enough trouble already?

The Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education studied every American school shooting from 1974 to 2000—37 separate attacks—and reached the same conclusion. Shooters came from all ethnic, economic, and social classes. Most had no history of violence and came from solid, two-parent homes.

They had a few things in common. All were male. Ninety-eight percent had suffered a recent loss or failure. It could be as minor as blowing a test or getting dumped, yet they perceived it as serious. But they didn’t lash out in a fit of passion: That notion is another insidious myth. Ninety-three percent planned their attacks in advance.

This leads us to the second, and perhaps most important, lesson learned from Columbine: what the FBI calls “leakage.” Gunfire in the classroom is the final stage of a long-simmering attack. The Secret Service found that 81 percent of shooters had explicitly revealed their intentions. Most told two people. Some told more. Kids are bad at secrets. The grander the plot, the more likely to sprout leaks.

The dramatic change post-Columbine is now we believe the leaks. Many potentially deadly plots have been foiled since Columbine because of leakage. In 2001, a pair of Colorado middle-schoolers procured a Columbine-like arsenal: TEC-9, shotgun, rifles, and propane bombs. They recruited gunmen to cover more exits. One of them told at least seven people that he planned to “redo Columbine.” He bragged to four girls that they would be the first to die. The girls went straight to the police. Since Columbine, kids take threats seriously.

We have taken the principle of leakage to excess. The belief that any unkind word may signal mortal danger caused school districts to impose zero-tolerance policies. All threats, physical and verbal, are taken seriously and treated severely.

The taking seriously part is fine. We do need to investigate every “joke,” just in case. But we also need to respond reasonably. We should not execute a search warrant every time a little kid points his finger and goes, “Bang.” And while the teenager who says he’s going to blow up his school should have his house searched, if the search turns up empty—no explosives, no ingredients, no Anarchist Cookbook, no diagrams, and no manifesto—the worst thing administrators can do is expel him. If we want our kids safe, we need to resist the urge to make an example of someone who spoke stupidly but had no plan. Punishing him harshly sets exactly the wrong example to the crucial audience: friends of the next “joker.” That’s because kids remain the best early warning system. We’re counting on kids to turn in a friend, even when they’re sure he’s innocent, just to be safe. They need to know that if they report a “joke” and it turns out to be a joke, there are no consequences except brief embarrassment. If they’re wrong and it’s not a joke, they’ll save lives. We need to convince them to let adults make that determination. We can only do that by giving the jokester a pass if it’s just a joke.

Harris and Klebold conducting mock attack and weapons training.

The third key lesson of Columbine: We need to prepare students and teachers better for an emergency. Harris and Klebold caught their high school unprepared. We’re less naive now. Most kids and their teachers are now drilled on lockdowns and evacuations. Police departments have up-to-date floor plans and alarm codes. (At Columbine, SWAT teams were hampered by ear-splitting sirens and searched for the library on the wrong end of the school building, unaware a new wing had recently been added.)

And the final practical lesson of Columbine is a revolution in police response tactics. Cops followed the old book at Columbine: surround the building, set up a perimeter, contain the damage. That approach has been replaced by the “active shooter protocol.” Optimally, it calls for a four-person team to advance in a diamond-shaped wedge. (If there isn’t time to gather four officers, a single officer should charge in alone.) They’re trained to move toward the sound of gunfire and neutralize the shooter. Their goal is to stop him at all costs. They will walk past a dying child if they have to, just to prevent the shooter from killing more. The active protocol has proved successful at numerous shootings during the past decade. At Virginia Tech alone, it probably saved dozens of lives.