School Climate & Safety

Lessons Sifted From Tragedy at Columbine

By Debra Viadero — April 07, 2009 8 min read
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A decade after Eric D. Harris and Dylan B. Klebold fatally gunned down 13 people and wounded 23 others at Columbine High School, researchers are still sifting for answers to questions raised by the elaborate and notorious attack.

Books and studies being published to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the April 20, 1999, massacre at the Jefferson County, Colo., school probe what drove the suburban teenagers to kill 12 schoolmates and a teacher, before turning their guns on themselves. The authors of this small spate of publications look for parallels between those slayings and the dozens of other school shootings that occurred before and since, and search for ways to prevent such tragedies from happening again.

While the studies differ, what many researchers seem to agree on is that there is no single profile of a school shooter.

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“You can’t assume that a school shooter is going to look like a kid in a trench coat, who has no friends, and is skulking down the halls silently,” said Peter Langman, a psychologist who studied 10 school gunmen, including the Columbine youths, for a new book, Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters, published last month by Palgrave Macmillan.

“These are diverse kids with diverse personalities,” Mr. Langman continued. “If you get stuck thinking that there’s a certain kind of kid that we can identify, then we’re going to be missing kids who are potential dangers.”

Take Mr. Harris and Mr. Klebold. While many experts labeled Mr. Harris, who was 18 at the time of the attack, as a psychopath with a grandiose vision of himself, paranoid delusions, and a sadistic need to have power over others, his partner in the shootings, Mr. Klebold, has been more of an enigma.

Friends described Mr. Klebold, then 17, as quiet, shy, and peace-loving. But the contents of his personal journals and other papers were not made public until 2006, a delay that kept researchers from putting all the pieces of the puzzle together.

Mr. Langman’s examination of those writings suggests that Mr. Klebold showed signs of psychosis, a mental disorder in which the personality is disorganized and out of touch with reality. On paper, his thinking was disordered; he fantasized about being a god, described strange ideas and preoccupations, considered suicide, and expressed depression, hopelessness, and rage.

Seeing Demons

Of the 10 school gunmen whom Mr. Langman studied, four others also had psychotic tendencies. According to his book, Kipland P. “Kip” Kinkel, the 15-year-old who shot 27 people at his Springfield, Ore., high school in 1998, heard voices and believed China was going to invade the United States.

Michael Carneal, who shot and killed three girls outside his West Paducah, Ky., middle school in 1997, was afraid to sleep in his room alone, believing that demons or a man with a chainsaw would hurt him.

Likewise, Andrew J. Wurst, who, at age 14, shot two teachers and two students at a middle school dinner dance in Edinboro, Pa., in 1998, and Seung Hui Cho, the student gunman who killed 32 people two years ago at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., showed signs of schizophrenia, Mr. Langman says.

Those mental disorders suggest a different psychological profile from the cases of Evan Ramsey, Mitchell S. Johnson, and Jeffrey J. Weise, three other teenagers who took part in separate school shootings in 1997, 1998, and 2005, respectively.

Mr. Langman, who is the clinical director of KidsPeace, an Orefield, Pa.-based charity that provides mental-health services for children and teenagers in 11 states and the District of Columbia, characterizes those three gunmen as raging products of childhood trauma.

All three had been emotionally and physically abused, he writes. Two had suffered sexual abuse. And all three lead stressful lives as teenagers, moving often, for instance, and coping with substance-abusing parents, the book says.

Powers of Prevention

Psychologist Peter Langman, the author of the new book Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters, draws 10 lessons for parents and educators from his studies of school shootings across the United States.

1. Think carefully about children’s demands for privacy. Parents should know their children, who their friends are, where they go, and what Web sites they visit, even as children become increasingly private in their teenage years.

2. Do not lie to protect your child. According to Mr. Langman, the father of “Kip” Kinkel, the 15-year-old who shot 27 people at his Springfield, Ore., school in 1998, had assured police before the shooting that his son had no guns at home.

3. Follow through with due process, no matter who is involved. This lesson applies to school administrators, who, in the Kinkel case, may have ignored some rules because both of the young man’s parents were teachers, according to Mr. Langman’s review.

4. If the school is concerned about your child, pay attention. Mr. Langman said the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the two students responsible for the 1999 attack at Columbine High School, had been alerted by a teacher before the attack that he had written a story about a student who brutally murdered his peers. They accepted their son’s explanation that the paper was “just a story,” Mr. Langman said.

5. Eliminate easy access to guns. Most school shooters get their guns from their homes, from their grandparents’ homes, or from friends or neighbors.

6. Assume threats are serious until proven otherwise. In 2007, eight years after the Columbine massacre, classmates disregarded threats made by Asa Coon, a Cleveland 14-year-old whose shooting spree at Success Tech Academy left five people injured.

7. Anyone can stop a school shooting. In two cases, store clerks—one of whom worked in a gun shop, and the other at a photo store—sounded the alerts that thwarted planned school shootings.

8. Recognize possible rehearsals for attacks. These can take the form of drawings, animation, a video, or a short story.

9. Punishment is not prevention. Suspending or expelling potential school shooters just makes them angry and gives them more unsupervised time to plan their attacks, according to Mr. Langman.

10. Know the limits of physical security. “If you expect to die in an attack,” writes Mr. Langman, “it does not matter if you set off an alarm at the metal detector.”

SOURCE: Peter Langman, Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters, published by Palgrave Macmillan, New York City, 2009.

In addition, Mr. Weise and Mr. Ramsey both had fathers who had been involved in armed standoffs with police years before their sons went on shooting rampages.

Contrary to news-media portrayals at the time of the various shootings, though, Mr. Langman and some other experts maintain that most school gunmen do not primarily act in retaliation for constant bullying that they have endured at their schools.

While all the gunmen had experienced some teasing, most of those examined had friends. Some were even considered somewhat popular, although they perceived themselves to be on the fringes of school society. Others were harassers themselves or had invited conflict through their provocative behaviors.

“There was a handful of kids a year ahead of Harris and Klebold who were serious troublemakers,” Mr. Langman said, “but it’s hard to understand their attack as revenge from harassment.” That’s because the bullies had been gone a year by the time the massacre at Columbine occurred. Also, Mr. Harris and Mr. Klebold wanted to blow up the entire school, including their own friends, Mr. Langman noted.

“It was really a terrorist attack,” he said, “and they wanted to go down in history for causing the most deaths in U.S. history.”

A Public Stage

Katherine S. Newman, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, concurred with Mr. Langman’s view of Columbine as a terrorist attack.

“The reason why schools are the target of rampage shooters in small towns is that the school is the only real public institution that touches the whole community,” she said. “I think the reason why we don’t see rampage shootings in urban schools is because, sadly, in urban settings, schools are not that important.”

Ms. Newman, who co-wrote Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, a 2004 book that looked at shootings from 1974 to 2002, takes a broader view of the events, however. She identifies psychosocial problems as one of five “necessary but not sufficient” conditions that give rise to school shootings.

“It’s the intersection of all these things,” she said. “If psychiatric problems were the whole story, then we’d have millions of these cases.”

According to Ms. Newman, the other four predisposing factors are:

• The shooter sees himself as extremely marginal in the social worlds that matter to him.

• He has cultural scripts that suggest an armed attack may be a way to solve problems and elevate his status from that of a loser to a notorious antihero.

• Parents, schools, mental-health services, and other “surveillance systems” have failed to identify the troubled teenagers.

• Guns and other weapons are easily obtained.

In an article published this month in the journal American Behavioral Scientist, Ms. Newman and co-author Cybelle Fox of the University of California, Berkeley, update their work by examining four shootings after 2002. They found the same five conditions in each of the four incidents they examined in depth.

Ms. Newman sees the more recent spate of shootings on college campuses as slightly different than the precollegiate incidents.

“Some of the conditions at colleges and universities are more exacerbating,” she said. “The students were older, more seriously sick, and they’re cut free of the peer groups that they were trying to integrate with.” As a result, she continued, “all the warning behaviors start to disappear.”

Recognizing ‘Leakage’

Indeed, studies and post-mortems over the past decade suggest that potential school shooters at the K-12 level nearly always telegraph their intentions—a tendency that federal law-enforcement experts call “leakage.”

In the case of Jeffrey Weise, the Red Lake, Minn., 16-year-old who murdered two people at his grandfather’s home and eight others at his high school in 2005, Ms. Newman writes that as many as 39 students had some knowledge of the plans.

While national data on foiled school shooting attempts are not kept, experts believe that the main reason that precollegiate school shootings dropped off after the peak years for rampage-style attacks of 1997 to 1999 was that students began to take seriously the threats classmates made and reported them to adults.

In many cases, experts have found, the tipster was a teenage girl. Among all the non-gang-related school shootings that have taken place since 1974, in comparison, only one shooter was female.

“Girls are more likely to retain the kinds of social connections that could cause them to value the people who get hurt,” said Ms. Newman. “They’re not expected to be masculine and aloof.”

Because student reports of threats seem to be such an effective deterrent, experts contend that programs aimed at creating an environment in which students feel comfortable enough to confide their fears and concerns to adults may be the best means of preventing future shooting rampages in schools.

By the same token, experts warn, educators have to avoid overreacting to red flags, so as not to discourage students from coming forward.

Yet a new study by a researcher at American University suggests most schools took a different tack in their efforts to protect students in the post-Columbine years.

In her study in American Behavioral Scientist, Lynn A. Addington, an associate professor of justice, law, and society, reports that the percentage of 12- to 18-year-olds who said their schools employed security guards or police rose from 59 percent in 1999 to 69 percent in 2001 and 74 percent in 2003.

She also found that more schools began to lock their doors, require visitors to sign in, install security cameras, and conduct random searches for weapons, even though there’s no research to show whether those measures work.

“If we’re devoting a certain percentage of our resources to school-security and school-safety measures,” she said, “it’s important to know whether they’re effective or that they don’t make some problems worse.”

The good news, Mr. Langman said, is that school shootings remain rare.

Of the thousands of seriously troubled children and teenagers that he evaluates each year through KidsPeace, only one, on average, poses a serious risk as a potential school shooter, he said.

“What gives me some hope is that I’ve seen kids who were in crisis and were thinking of going on rampages turn themselves around,” he said. “People can pass through a crisis and come out OK on the other side.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 2009 edition of Education Week as Lessons Sifted From Tragedy at Columbine


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