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We Are All Columbine

By Nancy Flanagan — February 23, 2010 3 min read
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Here’s an important book to put on your must-read list, today: Columbine by Dave Cullen.

An excruciating dissection of every parent, teacher and principal’s worst nightmares, the book is the culmination of 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, and leaves us with some uncertainties, speculations and theories about schools, violence, teenagers and the American culture.

After the news this afternoon that there have been more shootings in Littleton, why 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 that school is where our children will find lifelong friends, where they will participate in soccer, scouting and Lego League. We hope they will get ready for the future--attending the prom, struggling through trigonometry, applying for college. Terrible things happen in urban schools, or schools in deep poverty.

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 children’s 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 just 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 remains principal at Columbine, a decade later, believing he is 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 truly 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 moving interview is with a young woman who identifies herself as “Goth,” but says she understands why Mr. DeAngelis and 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. Those 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 this great experiment of free public education for everyone?

Understanding about what matters in education isn’t found in stories about the federal budget, re-upping ESEA, Michelle Rhee, or Teach for America. The most important things that happen in our schools often go unremarked or even unnoticed. Until disaster strikes.

One beautiful thread in the Columbine story 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.” And 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. In the corner, however, there is a small logo--a delicate columbine flower--with the legend “We are all Columbine.” And so it is.

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.

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