Education Opinion

Remembering Columbine. Still.

By Nancy Flanagan — April 21, 2011 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Twelve years ago, we were all reeling from the revelation that two sick kids had destroyed--or tried to destroy--their high school and classmates in Littleton, Colorado. Twelve years is a long time--an entire school career, in fact; versions of this story which suggests that high school kids today don’t remember the tragedy that was Columbine appeared everywhere yesterday. Along with stories about another failed bomb attempt.

Why annually revisit one of the most ghastly school shooting incidents in history?
Because taking schools for granted is our habit. We expect our schools to change very little and to provide a great deal. We believe school is where our children will find lifelong friends, participate in soccer, scouting and Lego League. We hope they will ready themselves for the future--attending the prom, struggling through trigonometry, applying for college.

Terrible things happen in urban schools, or schools in deep poverty. Right?

An excruciating dissection of every parent, teacher and principal’s worst nightmares, Columbine ( Dave Cullen) represents 10 years’ worth of comprehensive research and interviews done mostly on-site in Colorado. Cullen debunks a lot of what most people believe or assume happened at Columbine High School, on April 20, 1999, leaving us with some uncertainty and speculation about schools, violence, teenagers and the American culture.

Columbine High School looks like a lot of suburban high schools--about 1700 students, not much ethnic diversity or poverty, parents who generally have a handle on their kids’ education. How could disaster strike there? What were they doing wrong?

Not much, as it turns out. One of the most striking themes in Columbine is that school personnel behaved admirably. Not only slain teacher Dave Sanders, who literally laid his life down in the library of Columbine High. Teachers worried about the killers’ conduct and writing, met with their parents and guidance counselors--showing concern and willingness to act when the boys showed signs of instability.

The principal, Frank DeAngelis, demonstrated consistently intelligent and courageous leadership, grit and humanity--so much that he remained principal at Columbine, a decade later, believing he was still needed to help students have confidence in getting an education there.

The story of how the school community rallied to serve kids and their families for years after this unimaginable tragedy is genuinely inspiring.

So what did happen at Columbine? Cullen thoroughly discredits the myth that the killers were alienated by jocks or part of a “Trench Coat Mafia” cult. Nor were the boys from broken families or dysfunctional, abusive homes. One young woman--who identifies herself as “Goth"--says she understood why her teachers always got along better with student athletes and scholars. It’s just the way school has always functioned: the more you buy into the program, the more you get out of it.

In the end, the fact that catastrophic violence happened at Columbine High seems almost random. Afterward, local law enforcement officials tried to conceal the fact that parents in the community repeatedly reported one of the boys for dangerously sadistic behavior. Parent complaints were suppressed, for years, as were records of secret meetings and dismantled websites. Churches in Jefferson County used the incident to build their attendance numbers, or to demonize certain groups of young people. And the media immediately begin to shape the narrative for maximum impact--as if a disaster of such proportion needed a new, compelling backstory.

It’s the media that I’m interested in. Story-telling shapes the way the public thinks about schools. I’ve read any number of stories about schools that focus on urgent minutiae while overlooking the foundational questions: What is school for--what do we hope to accomplish with public education?

The most important things that happen in our schools often go unremarked or even unnoticed. Until disaster strikes. I think it’s worth marking occasions of terror--and stories of hope.

One beautiful thread in the Columbine tapestry is Patrick Ireland, a junior at the time of the shootings, known as the “boy in the window.” Shot through the brain, he pulled himself to a second floor library window where he was rescued. Ireland was valedictorian of Columbine’s class of 2000. In his commencement address, he noted that Columbine had “made the country aware of the unexpected level of hate and rage that had been hidden in high schools.” Then he said this:

When I fell out the window, I knew somebody would catch me. That's what I need to tell you: that I knew the loving world was there all the time.

The Columbine High School website today is the usual crowded jumble of schedules, events, and information. A small logo--a delicate columbine flower with the legend We are all Columbine that was on the website for years--is gone now.

Not sure if that’s a good thing.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.