Friday, April 29, 2011

12 years later: what we've learned since Columbine

Cross-posted at the Washington Examiner....

Twelve years ago, on the quiet spring morning of April 20, 1999, in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, a vicious shooting attack unfolded on students and faculty at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

Hitting the airwaves for all to see, it unnerved parents nationwide as two students, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, went on a shooting rampage that would kill twelve students and one teacher, injure 21, and end with the suicides of the two killers.

More than a decade later, as the facts have been sorted through and time has given perspective on the shooting, more has been learned after the first frantic days and weeks of Columbine.

In 2009, on the tenth year anniversary of the tragedy, reporter Greg Toppo at USA Today had an in-depth article about the shooting, noting corrections to discrepancies that were reported at the time of the event. He wrote:
They [Harris and Klebold] weren't goths or loners.

The two teenagers who killed 13 people and themselves at suburban Denver's Columbine High School 10 years ago next week weren't in the "Trenchcoat Mafia," disaffected video gamers who wore cowboy dusters. The killings ignited a national debate over bullying, but the record now shows Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold hadn't been bullied — in fact, they had bragged in diaries about picking on freshmen and "fags."
The "bullying" factor was played up in the days after the rampage by mainstream media looking to make victims of the two who caused so much mayhem. However, years later and after much evaluation from reading the diaries and blogs, and talking with acquaintances of Harris and Klebold, it became clear the act was not random and the killers were not victims.

USA Today noted that psychologist Peter Langman, author of, "Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters," wrote in his book, "These are not ordinary kids who were bullied into retaliation. These are not ordinary kids who played too many video games. These are not ordinary kids who just wanted to be famous. These are simply not ordinary kids. They are kids with serious psychological problems."

On that April morning, using weapons with names like Intratec TEC-DC9, Hi-Point 995 Carbine, Savage 67H pump-action shotgun, and Stevens 311D double barreled sawed-off shotgun, Harris and Klebold opened fire around 11:19 on defenseless fellow students. Eyewitness reports said the two laughed and taunted their victims, often belittling and tormenting them before shooting.

Their first victim was Rachel Scott, 17, who was killed as she ate lunch outside on a grassy area, dying from gunshots to the head, torso, and leg. A companion, Richard Castaldo, 17, was shot in the arm, chest, back, and abdomen but survived.

Entering the school, the teenage gunmen gunned down fellow student Daniel Rohrbough, 15, killing him with a shot to the chest. Sean Graves, 15, was shot in the back, foot, and abdomen while Lance Kirklin, 16, was shot in the leg, neck, and jaw.

The carnage continued. Michael Johnson, 15, was shot in the face, arm, and leg. Mark Taylor, 6, was shot in the chest, arms, and leg. Anne-Marie Hochhalter, 17, had gunshots to the arm, chest, abdomen, back, and left leg while Brian Anderson, 16, was injured by flying glass and teacher Patti Nielson, 35, was injured by shrapnel.

They shot Stephanie Munson, 16, in the ankle, and killed teacher Dave Sanders, 47, after shooting him in the neck and back and leaving him to bleed to death.

As the killers moved throughout the school, they left death and destruction behind, setting off homemade bombs and randomly shooting at furniture and walls in the building. They killed Kyle Velasquez, 16, shooting him in the back and head while Patrick Ireland, 17, survived gunshots to the arm, leg, head, and foot as well as Daniel Steepleton, 17, who was shot in the thigh and Makai Hall, 18, shot in the knee.

Other students killed were Steven Curnow, 14, shot in the neck; Cassie Bernalll, 17, shot in the head; Isaiah Shoels, 18, and Matthew Kechter, 16, both shot in the chest; Lauren Townsend, 18, shot in the head, chest, and lower body; and John Tomlin, 16, killed by gunshot wounds to the head and neck.

More wounded victims included Kacey-Ruegsegger, 17, who was shot in the hand, arm, and shoulder; Lisa Kreuta, 18, shot in the shoudler, hand, arms, and thigh; Valeen Schnurr, 18, injured with wounds to the chest, arms, and abdomen; Mark Kintgen, 17, shot in the head and shoulder; and Nicole Nowlen, 16, shot in the abdomen.

Winding down their rampage, Harris and Klebold injured Jeanna Park, 18, by shooting her in the knee, shoulder, and foot, and went after Jennifer Doyle, 17, who was injured by gunshots to the hand, leg, and shoulder, and Austin Eubanks, 17, shot in the head and knee.

The last three students killed were Kelly Fleming, 16, who took a gunshot to the back; Daniel Mauser, 15, shot point-blank in the face; and Corey DePooter, 17, who was blasted in the chest and neck.

The deaths, injuries, and destruction were not as much damage as Harris and Klebold had hoped to cause but their time was running out as police closed in on the building and horrified Americans watched events unfold on live television. Sometime around 12:08 pm, after approximately 50 minutes of random terrorism, the two committed suicide in the library. Eric Harris killed himself with a single gunshot in the mouth. Dylan Kelbold shot himself in the head.

The surviving students are mostly now in their mid- to late-20s and have moved on with their lives although not necessarily without emotional and physical scars from that day.

However, the optimistic words from Patrick Ireland, now 29, stand out. "I choose," he said, "to be a victor rather than a victim." Now married and working in the financial services field, he is probably best remembered as the student who tumbled out the second-story library window into the arms of SWAT team members, a scene that was watched by millions.

One lesson learned after Columbine is that, even with heightened awareness and the use of metal detectors and psychological evaluations, we cannot prevent another tragedy.

Almost eight years later to the day, on April 16, 2007, a disturbed student at Virginia Tech shot and killed 32 and injured dozens more on that bucolic campus in western Virginia before turning the gun on himself. It remains the worst campus shooting in U.S. history.

However,  school officials remain vigilant, hoping to avoid future campus tragedies and ever on the lookout for the next shooter who may decide to take his irrational anger out, not only on himself, but others around him.

Meanwhile, many mark this sad day as a date they will never forget and a day of remembrance of those who were killed and injured while in the confines of what should have been a safe haven ... their school.

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