The 20th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting is on April 20th, 2019 and we’ve learned a lot about school safety since that tragic day. School safety leaders have put a focus on enhancing emergency protocols and procedures, recognizing red flags, working with local public safety leaders to create more cohesive school emergency plans, and implementing new emergency response tools that provide interoperability.
On April 20, 1999, two teenage gunmen walked into Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado. Four of the five deadliest attacks in the US have occurred since then, three of them in the past three years. At the time, it was the 5th worst mass shooting in the history of the United States. Now, it is no longer even in the top ten.
Lockdown drills were not conceived yet, at the time there was no need for them. There was a media race to understand exactly what happened and why, resulting in false information being spread. The world has changed dramatically in the 20 years since Columbine, especially school safety. We cannot change the past, but we can use what we now know to prepare for the future.
Mental Health and Warning Signs
The Columbine shooters displayed warning signs. Eager to identify a motive, there were many news stories right after Columbine identifying the shooters as outcasts and brutally bullied. Looking back, we now know that wasn’t an act of vengeance, and psychiatrists diagnosed the teenage boys with depression and psychopathy.
Earlier in the same school year before the incident, the teenage shooters turned in a video for a school project called ‘Hitmen for Hire’, where they acted out shooting and killing students in the hallway of their school. They also both displayed themes of gruesome violence in their creative writing projects for school. A teacher praised the writing for attention to detail. What seemed like a joke at the time is now chilling and seen as a red flag.
The teenage gunmen played many games online. They had various websites that hosted gaming files. On their gaming sites, they would post about their hatred for the people of their neighborhood and the world in general. When the pair began experimenting with creating bombs, they posted results of the explosions on the websites. Propane bombs that failed to detonate were found the in the cafeteria after the shooting, planted by the duo.
One of the shooter’s mother’s, Sue Klebold, has dedicated much of her time since the shooting to raising awareness for mental health issues. In 2016, she published her memoir A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of a Tragedy, which describes that she did not identify the depression her son suffered in his teenage years.
The two weren't seeking vengeance against any particular group, but instead sought to be domestic terrorists. They boasted on video about inflicting “the most deaths in U.S. history.” Signs of their psychological issues and intentions were out in the open on in school and on the internet.
Anonymous tips have become a big preventative tool. The Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education studied every American school shooting from 1974 to 2000—37 separate attacks. They found that 81% of shooters had explicitly revealed their intentions. Most told two people. Students need to feel empowered to report a class mate, or even friend, if they some something threatening, 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 students to let adults make that determination.
Changes in Protocol
The police surrounding Columbine High had failed to consider the possibility that the gunmen had no demands. Police waited outside for demands that never came. No one had been allowed to enter the school, including first responders. Kids were dying while police were planning.
Officers remained outside throughout the entire shooting spree, which lasted an hour. SWAT teams waited for more than an hour after the gunmen had killed themselves before finally entering the building. There was a major delay in police going into the incident because they treated it like a negotiation, similar to a bank robbery or hostage situation. The approach was to diffuse the situation. Law enforcement now knows to treat school shootings like a terrorist attack.
Now there is more emphasis on clear lines of responsibility. Communication has become more and more important. Protocols call for the first officer on site to enter the situation, instead of standing outside to plan. Communication is used to figure out how to get into a building, not whether or not a first responder should.
Every 30 seconds a school shooter spends roaming, another person dies. The goal now is to reduce response times as much as possible. Unfortunately, there is a lot more data on school shootings available now, but we are able to learn from past incidents to help prevent future ones. In school shooting scenarios, teachers are the first, first responders. They are the ones that need to rapidly notify 9-1-1, inform them of the incident, and then react quickly to protect their students. There are hard measures that are recommended for teachers to do immediately, before police arrive, like barricading the door and gathering students to a safe corner in the classroom. We have enough data to know that waiting costs lives.
The lessons learned from Columbine led the US Justice Department and other federal agencies to partially fund an active shooter program known as Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training, or ALERRT. Since its creation in 2002, more than 105,000 law enforcement officers have been trained through the ALERRT program.
We have also learned the importance of quickly establishing incident command. 9-1-1 is the initial starting point for comprehensive response because they have a unique insight of everything going on and can deploy resources. During Columbine, the role of incident command wasn’t assumed until 11:45am, which was 25 minutes after the first 911 call was received.
Many law enforcement agencies arrived from numerous jurisdictions – city, county, state, and federal agencies. 46 separate agencies responded to news of the shooting, making it a communications very cumbersome. Many of the primary response agencies in the area operated on different radio frequencies. With such varying systems being used, not only were agencies prevented from communicating directly with each other, but groups with similar functions also could not communicate via radio. No common command channel could be established because of the varying technology. However, the number of radios in use during the incident would have created an immediate bottleneck if all agencies were attempting to use a single channel.
20 years later, new solutions are able to help bridge this communication gap. Interoperability is the ability of systems or software to exchange and make use of information, which is essential for information sharing with first responders during an emergency. A combined system should enable instantaneous communications and data sharing during emergency situations. This solution enables radio interoperability with the onsite radio system, regardless of type.
The rush of local and national media overwhelmed the scene and introduced new problems. Reporters gave conflicting stories of the events occurring inside Columbine. The public was shocked, horrified and desperate for answers. Misinformation quickly spread. Myths about the shooters' motives developed early on in the reporting, and still persist today.
"Most of the initial reporting was wrong," wrote Dave Cullen, a journalist who spent 10 years researching and writing a book about Columbine. "We were so anxious to answer that burning question for you that we jumped to conclusions on tiny fragments of evidence in the first days, even hours."
New Solutions Since Columbine
It is possible to limit and contain damage from troubled young people with guns. Because of government funding for schools, dozens and dozens of solutions have popped up over the last 20 years. But not all solutions are created equally.
Metal Detectors - If someone is determined to enter to school grounds with a gun, they will find a way in. Not only do metal detectors often break, people with contraband know not to go through those entrances. They can also make schools feel more like detention centers and less like places of learning and mutual respect for students.
Hardwire buttons - Some schools have tried installing physical buttons in their buildings, or give a physical button to select staff members. The idea is that they can be pushed during an incident and the button will alert 9-1-1. In reality, this adds an unnecessary layer that delays response times because these buttons have nothing to do with 9-1-1. When pushed, the alarm company that owns it gets notified, and then they call the police. More steps are not helpful to anyone involved.
These buttons are also limited to the area they are in or who owns one. Extra time is taken if a staff member isn’t in the same location as a physical button when an incident occurs. Hardwire buttons aren’t helpful in parking lots or sport fields. A physical button’s effectiveness is extremely limited to its installation location or who it’s given to. It can’t be everywhere, leaving school grounds and staff vulnerable and unprotected.
FirstNet - There was so much traffic on the police radio that Neil Gardner, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputy, could not tell dispatch he was on scene. In 2012, FirstNet was established to deploy, operate, maintain, and improve the first high-speed, nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety.
School Resource Officers - The United States Department of Justice defines SROs as “sworn law enforcement officers responsible for safety and crime prevention in schools.” This role has has grown substantially and has become more common in schools over the past 20 years. There was a School Resource Officer present at Columbine High School on the day of the shooting. However, responsibilities and rules for the position are now more clearly defined.
Panic Button App - Another growing tool in the school safety arsenal is a mobile panic button app system that any teacher or school staff member can download onto their mobile phones. When integrated with other public safety systems and with a direct connection to 9-1-1, the panic button system becomes a powerful tool to help keep the school community safe. The Rave Panic Button App has the ability to integrate with many additional systems such as MutuaLink, access control, and video systems.
Our Overall Takeway of the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine School Shooting
"It changed everything," said James Gagliano, a retired member of the FBI's elite hostage rescue team. "Prior to Columbine, nobody understood what the term 'active shooter' meant."
The April 1999 massacre has shaped the way first responders and civilians respond and react to active shooter incidents. The evolution of protocols and procedures, nature of incidents and school safety solutions has grown drastically.
As Americans still look to Columbine to try and prevent future school shootings, it's important to learn from what happened. "If you don't understand history, you are doomed to repeat it," Kirsten Kreiling, president of the Columbine Memorial Foundation, told CNN.
The Columbine shooters caught their high school unprepared. We’re less naive now, and school security has improved markedly since the Columbine shooting. While we’ll probably never fully understand why these incidents happen, we can prepare our schools better to respond to emergencies and leverage the public safety community to keep students safe.