published Thursday, May 7th, 2009

Cleaveland: Columbine: Learning from tragedy

Episodes of deadly violence seem almost commonplace in recent weeks. Each tragedy stimulates brief media coverage before the next shooting or stabbing supplants it. Any epidemic, including violence, must prompt us to comprehend it in hopes that we can reduce the chance for the next outbreak.

On April 20, the 10th anniversary of the horrific school shooting, “Columbine” was published. This investigative report by Dave Cullen is heartbreaking, meticulously researched and necessary reading for parents, grandparents, first-responders, teachers and school administrators.

One of the two assassins, Eric Harris, was a psychopath, a person with no conscience and a desire to inflict suffering. He planned the attack on his high school for more than a year. His partner, Dylan Klebold, suffered from persistent depression, which took him on several occasions to the brink of suicide. He became essentially a robot controlled by his evil classmate.

These are some of the lessons to be gained from Columbine.

n Home and family: Teenagers are too young to be cut loose from parental involvement. The Columbine killers each had routines seemingly isolated from the rules and responsibilities of their middle-class families. They were able to conceal weapons and bomb-making equipment in their rooms. They were able to sneak out repeatedly for midnight escapades of vandalism.

Much of the time, from their midteens onward, their families did not seem aware of where their sons were and what they might be doing. Harris had complete freedom of the Internet to post frightening messages and threats. He was a detached boarder, not a member of a family.

n Teenage society: This cannot function as a closed system, independent from any rules of the larger society. Friends and associates of the Columbine shooters knew of their threats, illegal gun purchases and manufacture of pipe bombs. Friends arranged purchases of the weapons that would be used in the murders. No one sounded an alarm. A sense of responsibility to all of society must be taught repeatedly in homes, schools and houses of worship.

n School safety: An armed officer of the law must be a part of each middle and high school staff. We must take the same precautionary steps to prevent school violence that we take for airports and courthouses. Detailed disaster plans and communication networks must be in place and repeatedly rehearsed. Students and faculty in one part of the Columbine building had no idea what was transpiring in another. Students barricaded in classrooms gained sketchy information from live, televised reports.

n Interagency communication: A clearinghouse must be established where all data relating to juvenile offenders is reviewed. Police, school officials and officers of the court each had information on the activities of the shooters that, if shared, possibly could have prevented the calamity at Columbine. Complaints from a family whose son was repeatedly threatened by Harris were dismissed. A search warrant for Harris’ room was filed away. A juvenile diversion program in which the shooters were enrolled for an earlier felony was isolated from other arms of the legal system.

n Disaster planning: Detailed, rehearsed plans for all eventualities in public safety must be in place. Hundreds of law-enforcement officers and medics raced to Columbine High School. No one entered the building until the shooting and bombings were over. A wounded teacher went unattended for three hours before he died. A precise command structure must be in place before a disaster so that competing agencies with overlapping authority do not neutralize each other.

n Independent post-event assessment: The official report of the events at Columbine was not made public until a year had passed. Files disappeared. Key investigators were not permitted to speak on the record. Rumors and myth gained the status of facts. By the time the reports were released, the attention of society had moved on.

n Gun control: One automatic weapon was bought illegally. Another was purchased at a gun show by a girlfriend. Shotguns were easily procured, their barrels sawed off, before being demonstrated to friends. Is there ever a need for a teenager to purchase combat weapons in any venue? Strict limits and major penalties must be on the books and enforced.

I urge you to read and to think about this book.

E-mail Clif Cleaveland at

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MountainJoe said...

School safety: Even if an armed officer of the law is part of each middle and high school staff (something the taxpayers in most districts cannot afford), he or she cannot be everywhere in the school at once. Many schools occupy physically large campuses and have 1500-2000 or more students. They also might be invaded by multiple attackers (e.g. the two at Columbine).

The only rational solution is to allow the principal and other responsible faculty/staff members to arm themselves as well. If allowed to arm themselves legally, these adults could make themselves known to the SRO and coordinate together in case of an attack. If they have to keep their weapons in their cars - or worse, at home - they will be extremely unlikely to be able to help when they are most needed.

May 7, 2009 at 7:37 a.m.
Arlan_Lindner said...

In reflecting on the Columbine massacre - you have another spiritual wake-up call! Your neighbor-hood & community simply must not ignore tell-tale moral & spiritual signs before they erupt in violence! Every large group probably has someone who’s especially dysfunctional! Don’t suppose, for one moment, that any community has no one so dysfunctional that violence couldn’t happen here, Not In My Back Yard/ NIMBY! Each community needs to be caring, compassionate & cooperative as a team in implementing some special pre-emptive program, & be encouraged & safeguarded by it! While reacting with crises management may become necessary, that alone would be too little, too late! And surely, that’s no substitute for responding early & proactively in the following appropriate manner: I. Recognize those patterns of irresponsible attitudes…uncontrolled anxiety, frustration, despair, hostility, overwhelmed feelings & poor relational choices that have inadequate character or counsel (whether in yourself or among your acquaintances & friends)! II. Account for your own integrity & maturity by being self-regulating & overcoming, thereby eliminating & replacing your negative tendencies! Learn how to cope, overcome & endure challenges! And work more wisely, smart, creatively resourceful, & innovative! III. Make sense of it all, while deriving good & ennobling character: Choose rejuvenation & a fuller life by applying the Creator-Savior’s solution! You’re an unfinished work ‘til you penitently trust & yield to him, appropriate his sacrificial life & death, & develop as much of his character/ integrity as your lifetime allows! As the Creator & Sustainer of all, & esp. all life, he can allow harm, yet use even that toward the eventual good of those who love him! He can recompense any sacrifice! And even if life is taken, he can restore & resurrect that life later! But don’t settle for the criminal consequences, as the mob did in Christ’s day, by preferring the criminal Barabbas over the Messiah Deliverer! A. Become more complete, exemplary & fulfilled in your positive attitudes & behavior, & encourage others to improve theirs also! B. Become more secure & purposefully committed, respecting one another’s strengths, & caring for one another’s needs/ vulnerability! Heed opportunities to be your brother or sister’s guardian/ keeper (perhaps, even their intervening deliverer)! C. Overcome & endure the challenge of feeling overwhelmed or helpless by building better relationships, lasting character & preparing for, yet praying to be delivered from, severe testing & trials, such as a firing squad or fiery ordeal! D. Take courage to get beyond your ease & comfort to share & serve, creatively reaching out! Even those who are quite ordinary can do the exceptional & extraordinary

May 8, 2009 at 1:05 p.m.
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