School Climate & Safety

How Columbine Shaped 25 Years of School Safety

By Evie Blad — April 17, 2024 14 min read
Candles burn at a makeshift memorial near Columbine High School on April 27, 1999, for each of the of the 13 people killed during a shooting spree at the Littleton, Colo., school.
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School shootings had happened before the fateful 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. But it quickly became clear that the tragic event, in which 12 students and one teacher died, thrust the country into a new era, forever changing millions of American students’ sense of safety.

Twenty-five years later, experts say many of the fundamentals of school safety date back to that transformative moment in Littleton, Colo., even as they’ve proven difficult for schools to embody: Recognizing threats, intervening when students are at risk of violence, preparing students for emergencies, and relying on a speedy police response.

Today, Columbine tops the list of K-12 school shootings that have become high-profile touchpoints in school violence debates, even as the scale of shooting has been eclipsed by attacks with more fatalities in Newtown, Conn., Parkland, Fla., and Uvalde, Texas.

Countless mass shooters have modeled their attacks on Columbine shootings, including some who weren’t even born when they took place. Lockdown drills, a rare practice before 1999, are now a routine part of school for American students.

Schools have invested billions of dollars in technology like metal detectors and surveillance cameras—even as school safety experts say policymakers often bypass the core lesson that emerged in the earliest investigations following Columbine, which focused on human behavior, not merely “hardening schools.”

It was such a unique tragedy, so unexpected and just completely unimaginable that something like that could happen.

Grieving families and survivors of more recent shootings live with the surreal feeling of seeing their schools’ names on a list alongside Columbine.

“It was such a unique tragedy, so unexpected and just completely unimaginable that something like that could happen,” said Nicole Hockley, who helped found the Sandy Hook Promise violence prevention organization after her son Dylan died in the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

“No one ever thought anything like that would happen again,” Hockley said. “But now, school shootings have become more frequent, and they are more woven into our everyday tapestry.”

There is no predictive profile of a school shooter

Incidents like the 1997 shooting at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., and the 1998 shooting at Westside Middle School outside of Jonesboro, Ark., had already fueled Americans’ fear for student safety, but coverage of the Columbine tragedy crystalized it.

On April 20, 1999, two seniors acting on a carefully constructed plan fatally shot 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves. The attack fell far short of the gunmen’s vision when homemade bombs they brought to the Littleton campus failed to explode. But to a terrified public, it was akin to an act of terrorism.

“People remember where they were when it happened, like 9/11,” said Jillian Peterson, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University who studies the warning signs of violence. “It put school shootings into our public consciousness.”

With that attention came a proliferation of myths, said Dave Cullen, a journalist and author of the 2009 book Columbine, including that the killers were bullied teens, part of the goth subculture, and members of an outcast group called “the Trench Coat Mafia.”

In reality, that moniker belonged to an innocent group of teens that the gunmen were not part of, investigations found. The attackers were socially accepted, and their journals did not mention bullying.

This aerial shows the news media compound near Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 21, 1999. Media from around the world poured into the area after 15 people were killed during a shooting spree inside the school.

The myths had legs: Policymakers seeking solutions after Columbine sought to identify a profile of would-be violent perpetrators, homing in on factors like their taste in music and video games or their mental health histories.

But in a seminal report, a 2001 U.S. Secret Service analysis of targeted school attacks found no predictive profile of offenders. The analysis, echoed in successive research, found that school attackers are frequently males with a sense of personal grievance or a perception of bullying and suicidal ideation. But none of those traits are rare enough to form a predictive checklist, the report concluded. Many students who struggle with bullying, social isolation, and depression will never have a violent instinct, but they still need support, it said.

“I think [Columbine] created this kind of mythology of these school shooting monsters we can lock out,” Peterson said. “The reality is, these are students that we see every day.”

Federal investigators did identify commonalities among attackers that remain core to school violence prevention. Contrary to popular misconceptions, perpetrators of mass violence don’t “just snap” or act impulsively, they found.

“Instead,” said an FBI report published in 2000, “the path toward violence is an evolutionary one, with signposts along the way.”

Learning to recognize those warning signs or “leaks” in which students communicate violent intentions beforehand, and intervening early, would make schools and communities safer, they concluded.

The Columbine shooters’ exhibited many of those signs through online posts detailing violent intentions, journals, an English essay about a shooting, and queries about weapons to peers. But there was no system for piecing all of the warning signs together.

A growing focus on violence prevention

Such systems have now been built—at least in theory.

The earliest state and federal reviews of the shooting recommended schools create threat assessment teams to review reports of concern that a student might harm themselves or others, report imminent threats to law enforcement, and offer interventions like counseling for others. By the 2021-22 school year, 65 percent of public schools said they had such a team in place, though experts say those teams vary widely in training and procedures.

In 2004, Colorado created Safe2Tell, the first statewide school violence tipline in the country, which allowed students to report concerns about violence or suicide. By 2020, 66 percent of public schools reported the use of a structured, anonymous reporting system, federal data show.

“We learned so much from Columbine, about warning signs and about ways to intervene and take action to prevent these tragedies from happening,” Hockley said.

Demonstrators gather on the Colorado State Capitol grounds in Denver, Colo., on May 1, 1999, to protest against the National Rifle Association's annual meeting, which is being held in the city. The convention was planned long before the recent shootings at nearby Columbine High School, and the association has scaled the event down in the wake of the tragedy.

In 2018, Sandy Hook Promise launched the Say Something anonymous reporting system, a national tipline that allows students to submit reports about troubling behavior through a website, telephone hotline, or mobile app. Operators have since fielded nearly 250,000 anonymous reports, the organization said, categorizing tips and sharing them with school administrators and law enforcement if they deemed an imminent response was necessary.

As just a small slice of what pours into the tipline, researchers who analyzed four years of Say Something tips from North Carolina students found that nearly 10 percent of reports related to firearms. Of those, 38 percent were plans for possible school attacks, they wrote in a January study.

Threat assessment has become an established part of school safety policy, but schools still struggle to get it right. Civil rights advocates have raised concerns that the strategy has led to profiling of students, including students with disabilities and overly punitive digital surveillance that leads students to be disciplined for innocuous behaviors like posting song lyrics on social media. School leaders say they lack the resources to effectively support students who are identified through the threat assessment process.

And even trained experts can differ on what they view as a credible threat.

Peterson and her fellow researchers at The Violence Project, a nonpartisan research center, found such variations via survey research. In one case, more than 6 in 10 law enforcement officials deemed a teacher finding a stick figure drawing of a shooting in the trash as a low threat; a little over 10 percent gave it a score suggesting a major threat.

Students may also be less likely to report concerns if they believe their classmate will be disciplined rather than helped, or if they don’t believe adults will handle their concerns properly, Peterson said.

“Kids need to know that they can trust the adults [they report to] and that it’ll be responded to effectively,” she said.

And when adults aren’t aligned, the consequences can be fatal. In November 2021, a 15-year-old student shot and killed four peers at an Oxford, Mich., high school after educators flagged repeated warning signs. On the morning of the attack, they called his parents to school for an emergency meeting after he drew a gun and a bullet on a math worksheet and wrote, “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me. Blood everywhere. My life is useless.”

His parents, who refused to take their son home that day, were later convicted of involuntary manslaughter for their indifference and for failing to secure a firearm used in the attack.

Columbine shootings led to the expansion of lockdown drills

One of the biggest and most debated shifts in school safety policy since 1999 was foreshadowed in an inauspicious place: A footnote in a 2001 report by a Colorado governor’s commission.

Teacher Dave Sanders, who was later killed by the gunmen, and two custodians had rushed through the building to alert students to what was taking place and urge them to take cover. Their actions “no doubt saved many lives, because the two killers never entered any locked room,” the report said.

Drills to ensure staff and students are prepared to take cover flowed from that panel’s recommendations, and by the 2003-04 school year, when the federal government began collecting data on the subject, 47 percent of schools said they drilled students in a written school safety plan. Nearly all schools reported conducting lockdown drills by 2021-22, according to the most recent federal data.

A boy looks through the fence at the Columbine High School tennis courts in Littleton, Colo., on April 24, 1999. Thirteen roses were placed on the fence in remembrance of the 13 people killed by two gun wielding students at the school on April 20, 1999.

As in Columbine, a locked classroom door remains one of the strongest safety measures in the event of a shooting, said Jaclyn Schildkraut, the executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at the Rockefeller Institute of Government.

But the expansion of drills has birthed unproven and sometimes harmful practices, like lifelike simulations meant to scare students into taking the exercises more seriously, or “run, hide, fight” exercises that teach students to throw objects like staplers at shooters to distract them, she said.

“We have a lot of people doing these things without knowing how they are working and what impact they’re having,” Schildkraut said. “But all of it has really been lumped under this umbrella of ‘active shooter drills.’”

Schildkraut advocates for simple lockdown procedures that teach students to quietly and calmly remain in a locked classroom with the lights turned off.

A focus on human factors of safety

Dramatic and unproven drill procedures are hardly the only unsupported practice that has sprung up. Vendors use fear to market saferooms, gun-scanning technology, and bulletproof backpacks, among other things, to school officials terrified of potential harm to their students—and their own potential liability.

But the investigations of school shootings often point to human factors, like a lack of safety procedures, open doors and gates, and law-enforcement failures.

Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina died in the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., cites many of those factors when he explains what went wrong that day.

Montalto, the president of Stand With Parkland, an organization led by victims’ families to advocate for school safety solutions, has given tours of the building where the shooting took place to members of Congress, Vice President Kamala Harris, and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

A large banner welcomes Columbine High School students as they arrive for classes at Chatfield High School in Littleton, Colo., on May 3, 1999. It was the first day back to school for the Columbine High School students since the April 20 shooting rampage that left 14 students and one teacher dead. Chatfield High School will be shared by students from both schools for the remainder of the school year.

“There’s no other way to describe when you’re involved in something like this other than shock,” Montalto said of the moment he learned of the tragedy. He wasn’t a parent when the Columbine shooting happened, and he never expected the same thing to affect his family. “I could barely take a breath.”

Schools need layers of prevention measures and safety protocols in addition to physical security features, he said. While the Parkland gunman did not enter classrooms, he was able to shoot through doorway windows. Though schools were supposed to leave open areas in corners for students to get out of view, many of those spaces were blocked with desks and filing cabinets, Montalto said.

The AR-15 rifle the shooter used was so powerful that dust and fragments of ceiling tiles filled the air, setting off smoke detectors and prompting students on the third floor of the building to try to evacuate before they knew what was happening. While school procedures called for a single point of entry that could easily be monitored, the gunman, a former student, was able to enter the campus through the parking lot gates, which had been opened early to prepare for the end of the school day.

Gina had been studying in a hallway when she was shot with two other classmates.

Stand With Parkland has since successfully pushed for changes to state and federal law, including the creation of a “red-flag law” in Florida that allows courts to suspend an individual’s access to weapons if they are deemed a threat, and a federal clearinghouse for school safety recommendations and reports.

Fourteen students and three teachers died in Parkland, which eclipsed Columbine as the deadliest high school shooting in the country’s history. Less fatal attacks don’t receive the same level of media attention. Because of the notoriety of the tragedy, Montalto feels compelled to speak out.

“It gives me a chance to talk about my daughter,” he said.

Columbine changed how law enforcement responds to shootings

Parkland shares another commonality with Columbine: questions about the law-enforcement response. In Parkland, a school-based sheriff’s deputy faced widespread criticism after security footage showed him waiting outside of the building during the attack, violating protocols that changed after the Columbine attack that called for police to quickly confront active shooters.

In 1999, police in Littleton formed a perimeter around the school, following procedures that called for them to tend to the wounded and gradually evacuate the building rather than quickly locating the gunmen. That gave the attackers 47 minutes to carry out their assault before they killed themselves.

After that, law enforcement agencies around the country trained officers to organize a central command and prioritize finding the shooter to limit fatalities. However, an inadequate law enforcement response has been cited following post-Columbine shootings, despite widespread attention to the new procedures.

In this April 20, 1999, file photo, members of a police SWAT team march to Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., as they prepare to do a final search of the school after two gunmen opened fire on campus. The shooting shocked the country as it played out on TV news shows from coast to coast.

In January, a federal review of the May 2022 shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, cited a “cascade of failures” in the law enforcement response. Among other blunders, officers treated the Uvalde shooting like a barricade situation, giving the gunman 77 minutes to attack before they entered the conjoined classrooms where the shootings took place.

“Every second counts, and the priority of law enforcement must be to immediately enter the room and stop the shooter with whatever tools and weapons they have with them,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said as he released the report.

Columbine survivors leave a legacy

Just as Columbine provided insights for preventing shootings, its survivors continue to offer lessons about piecing life together after an unthinkable act of violence.

Principal Frank DeAngelis, who retired in 2014, offers his support to principals around the country after shootings at their schools, providing a listening ear and guidance on recovery. He joined fellow principals who’ve led schools that experienced shootings to release a recovery guide in 2022.

The shooting affected the daily rhythms of his school, he said. In the years following, the cafeteria couldn’t serve Chinese food because the smell reminded students of the meal they ate the day of the attack.

From left, Dawn Anna Beck, mother of one of the victims of the massacre at Columbine High School, is joined by the school's principal, Frank DeAngelis, and former President Bill Clinton, in standing during the singing of the National Anthem before a groundbreaking ceremony for a memorial to the victims of the school massacre on June 16, 2006, in Littleton, Colo.

“I made a comment two days after [the Columbine shooting] that I had just joined a club in which no one wants to be a member,” DeAngelis said in 2022.

The students themselves have helped walk a new generation of survivors through a lifetime of grief. After the Parkland shooting, Columbine survivors formed an informal penpal network to help Stoneman Douglas students process and anticipate the next steps of their recovery.

A simple “where are you from?” conversation with a stranger can quickly take survivors back to the day of an attack, Jami Amo, who was a freshman at Columbine during the shootings, told Education Week in 2018. Among her most difficult experiences: Volunteering at her son’s school on the day of a routine lockdown drill.

“We know that the real challenge is a year from now, five years from now when people aren’t talking about it,” Amo said. “We want to help them. We will always be 19 years ahead of them.”

Former student Heather Martin, who survived the Columbine shooting by hiding in a cramped office with dozens of others, helped found The Rebels Project, an organization that supports survivors of mass shootings.

“We didn’t want someone to go through what many of us went through for years after Columbine: Isolation, embarrassment, not being able to talk through it with people who understand,” Martin, now a teacher herself, said in 2019.

Survivors of subsequent attacks also hope to turn their grief into action, centering their efforts on safety fundamentals that date back 25 years.

“There’s a lot of pressure to ‘do something,’ rather than finding the best solutions,” Hockley said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2024 edition of Education Week as How Columbine Shaped 25 Years of School Safety

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