The news this week of an active shooter who reportedly sought to gain access to a Northern California elementary school, only to be thwarted from a larger disaster because school officials locked down the campus, is a testment to the generation of the “active shooter.”
As it happens, a documentary series on the Showtime pay-TV channel about infamous mass shootings airs its only K-12 school-related episode this Friday at 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific (check local listings).
“Active Shooter: America Under Fire” has focused on such now infamous incidents as Charleston, S.C., (the 2015 church shooting); Oak Creek, Wis., (the 2012 Sikh temple shooting); Orlando, Fla., (the 2016 Pulse nightclub attack); and Santa Monica, Calif., (the 2013 shootings that ended on a community college campus).
I didn’t watch all the episodes, but I wondered just how sensitive and useful they were for drawing lessons. I did screen this week’s episode about the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in the Jefferson County school district, which left 12 students and one teacher dead, in addition to the perpetrators.
Just since the Showtime series premiered in late September, we’ve had Las Vegas, the Texas church shooting, and this week’s Northern California incident that touched a school.
So these lessons are always useful. There have been other documentary reports about Columbine, from Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” to the 2016 ABC News “Nightline” interview with Sue Klebold, the mother of shooter Dylan Klebold.
The Columbine episode of “Active Shooter” is so well done, I recommend it for school personnel, law enforcement, journalists, and others. (The series left out the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and the 2012 shooting of young students and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.)
“This was the start of something,” journalist Dave Cullen, the author of a Columbine book, says in reference to that event. “It wasn’t the first school shooting, but it’s what ratcheted it up to something horrible, and which inspired the others.”
One of Cullen’s main points is that the storyline in the aftermath of the event that Klebold and Eric Harris were depressed outcasts and Trenchcoat Mafia members who targeted jocks and minority group members was largely not true.
There is a concise “tick-tock” of what went down inside Columbine High. Then-Columbine High Principal Frank DeAngelis participates, as does Kate Battan, the lead investigator for the Jefferson County Sheriffi’s Department, who brings an authoritative voice to the story.
And, appropriately, there is a focus on some of the victims: Teacher Dave Sanders, who bled to death after being shot and waiting hours for medical attention; Daniel Mauser, one of the students shot dead in the high school library; Patrick Ireland, a student who was shot in the brain, but survived; and Sean Graves, who was shot in the legs early on but survived. Graves was able to get out of his wheelchair and walk across the stage to get his diploma when he graduated.
Another touching moment involves Tom Mauser, the father of Daniel, who eventually got his son’s personal effects, most of which he didn’t want (bloody clothing). But he found that he fit his son’s shoes perfectly, and he wears them when he speaks about Columbine.
The one-hour documentary does not explore every legal and tactical question that arose in the wake of Columbine (that would take hours), but is on the mark for what it does present.
The filmmakers (there’s a long list of executive producers and producers) visit a contemporary classroom, where the Jefferson County Schools security chief asks an assembly of students how many have had lockdown drills. Nearly every hand goes up.
“You can’t say it can’t happen here, because ‘can’t happen here’ is happening somewhere in the country every week,” John McDonald, the security chief says.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.