School Safety and the Tragedy at Columbine High School

School Safety and the Tragedy at Columbine High School

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Unlike most of the country, I knew about Columbine High School on April 19, 1999. I knew that the Columbine Rebels had a good football team, I remembered how they beat Cherry Creek for the 1999 football championship. I knew what Columbine's building was like from when I was inside it in January for a debate tournament. I had friends that went to CHS. We had gone on a trip to Hawaii together to learn about biology. The rest of the country found out about Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. They didn't hear about their football team, the debate tournament they hosted, or my friends, though; they heard about two angry students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, that went on a killing rampage killing 12 other students, a teacher, and themselves. The nation, the media, the killers, my friends, and me all have their own view of what happened that day. Many people tried to understand how something so terrible could happen, while the killers thought that the killings were a wonderful thing, and still other students were trying to comprehend that this tragedy had actually happened so close to home.

At 11:19 in the morning of April 19, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold stood at the west entrance of Columbine High School preparing for the deadliest shooting in American school history. One of them yelled, "Go! Go!," and then the two pulled out their shotguns and began firing, killing two students almost immediately (Jefferson County 3). Harris and Klebold began moving through the school randomly shooting students, detonating pipe bombs, and yelling about how much fun they were having. While this was happening, Coach Dave Sanders and other heroes were frantically trying to get students out of harm's way. At 11:26, while running past the library warning students of the killers, Sanders was shot by one of the shooters. He made it into a science room where first aid was administered by students. He died several hours later in that same room. The worst killing took place in the library during a span of about eight minutes starting at 11:29. Ten students were killed and twelve others were wounded. After leaving the library, Harris and Klebold wandered around the school in movements that appeared to be "extremely random" (Jefferson County 18). They eventually returned to the library at about 12:08 and killed themselves. In 49 minutes, 14 students were left dead, one teacher was left dying, 23 people were injured, and an entire community's sense of safety and security was shattered.

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Usually lives that are lost are just numbers and names to journalists, but the media responded differently to Columbine because it was so tragic. Journalists tried to identify with the families and the students, but were unable to. How could they? It is impossible to imagine what it would be like to see your friends gunned down in front of you or to get a call saying that your daughter or son was missing. They often focused on little pieces of information to help bring everything into perspective. Showing a picture of Harris and Klebold, Time magazine wrote, "On April 17, they both went to the prom" (Gibbs 20). Along with everyone else, they worried about who they were going with, what to wear, and were to eat. Other than the fact that they were killers, Eric and Dylan were no different than normal teenagers. Eric fretted in his journal about how he was nervous about asking a girl to the prom. In the same journal, he wrote how he planned to destroy his school three days later. Prom pictures are an important part of high school social life, but at Columbine, "Prom pictures have become obituary shots" (Gibbs 36). To many students, prom is the most important event of the year, yet it became completely inconsequential at Columbine in the face of such a horrible tragedy.

Little details help us to remember that what happened at Columbine could have happened at any school, at our own schools. They remind us how similar our schools are to Columbine. One of the first things mentioned in Time's big special report was that, "It was Free Cookie Day in the cafeteria" (29). The media usually does not include small details like this in reports, but here they had to. To keep the Columbine killings from seeming like a distant tragedy that didn't really happen, little details were included in their coverage. The media also did a great job remembering each of the slain students as individuals instead of just as victims. "Townsend, one of the 15 to die was remembered... as having a smile so sweet she'd just light up the room" (Big Picture 24). The media remembered that the 15 bodies were not just corpses; they were once sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends, and neighbors.

Sports Illustrated published a well known article which spoke of Coach Dave Sanders. Rick Reilly wrote about how Sanders "saved the lives of more than 200 kids that day" and how he died while a student "kept constant pressure on the gaping gunshot wounds in Sander's shoulders, using t-shirts off other kids' backs" (Reilly 100). Instead of just writing like a police report, Reilly talked about Sander's life and what it meant to Columbine athletes and students. The article called Sanders "the giving one, the joking one, the one who sets up the camps, sacrifices his nights to keep the gym open" (100). Quotes about his life were given from his students, the way the students tried desperately to keep him alive was described, and his dying words were mentioned. Reilly, like the rest of the media, personalized the killings to show the public how real they actually were.

Instead of sympathizing with the lost lives, Eric Harris, one of the killers, saw the shooting as an awesome event, as something so good that it was worth giving up his life for. He was heard yelling "This is awesome!" and "This is what we always wanted to do!" (qtd. in Weller 1). Throughout his life, he had developed a hatred towards everyone and everything. Eventually his hatred boiled into a killing spree. Since it was a suicide mission, nobody was able to speak to Harris after the massacre. So, all that is known of his thoughts and feelings is what he left behind in his writing. The most famous of these writings was his journal. He did not hate any specific people, instead he hated everyone. In fact, Harris wrote in his journal, "You know what I hate? Racism. Anyone who hates Asians, Mexicans, or people of any race because they're different" (qtd. in Cullen 1). In Harris' mind, there was no better way to release all this hate than in destroying his school and its students. So, the killing spree was a good thing to him. It was a way to release the hate that was tormenting him from inside.

At the same time, the killings were a big failure to Harris. He dreamed of killing everyone indiscriminately, ending the world. He wrote, "If you recall your history the Nazis came up with a 'final solution' to the Jewish problem: kill them all. Well in case you haven't figured it out yet, I say 'Kill mankind.' No one should survive" (qtd. in Cullen 1). Harris realized that his plan of killing the world was impractical, so he eventually decided to be content with destroying everyone in his high school. Propane tank bombs were set to go off in the commons at 11:17, the time when the most students would be in there for lunch. According to the killers' plans, the bombs were supposed to kill 488 students in the commons (Weller 2). Harris and Klebold only had guns as a backup, to kill all the people that the bombs missed. Something malfunctioned with the bombs, so not nearly as many people were killed as was planned. Instead of wiping out hundreds of people as originally planned, the gunmen only killed 13. Because not as many people were killed as planned, the Columbine massacre that cost Eric Harris his life was a failure to him.

My friends from high school and I will always remember exactly what we were doing on April 20, 1999. My school, Standley Lake High School, was in the same county as Columbine. Most students at my school had friends who attended Columbine from school sports and other events. As a result, when we heard news of the tragedy, it was personal to us. We feared for our friends' safety. I interviewed one of my friends, Shaun, and he told me that, "Since I am from Jefferson County and knew kids at Columbine, the tragedy was real. It wasn't like other tragedies I had seen on TV, because to me those had only been on TV. Columbine was real" (Davies 1). Shaun knew a girl from middle school that was one of the 56 people in the library when the killings took place there. She saw peers shot down right in front of her. Instead of just hearing about the murders from a reporter, Shaun heard about them from a friend. That completely changes the way that he perceived the tragedy.

Shaun also worried about his friend's safety. He said to me, "When I heard that 12 students and 1 teacher had died, I was worried that one of those 12 names would be somebody I knew" (1). As the rest of the nation thought about what it would be like to have something that terrible happen in their area, it actually was happening close to us. We all heard stories about April 20 from the people who were actually there. Fortunately for Shaun, nobody that he knew was killed or injured. But he still had to face the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not they were alive that day. To Shaun, the killings were not just news, but they were very personal.

My friend Matt was also attending my school the day of the shootings. Whenever a tragic event happens, it freezes in our head memories of exactly what we were doing at that time. He remembers exactly what he was doing: "I was in my last class of the day, Math with Mr. Riepma. He came in a little flustered for some reason, then told us that he heard kids talking about Columbine being taken hostage" (Stoltz 1). Matt then went home and immediately turned on the television to watch the tragedy unfold. The effect that it had on him was dramatic. "I just had no idea that it could hit this close to home. I remember playing basketball games there, now it is seems so trivial who won or who lost" (Stoltz 1). He remembers the feelings that he got when he saw the news and he thought of how he had played basketball games at Columbine. Being in the building where something like this happened made it seem so much more real. It had such a dramatic effect on Matt that he can still clearly remember exactly what he was doing and what his emotions were on a day over two and a half years ago.

Like Shaun and Matt, I have a personal connection to Columbine. Some students from my school, including me, went with students from Columbine to Hawaii for two weeks to study Marine Biology. I met many friends there who witnessed the murders and had mental images of people being shot down in front of them. I remember a kid telling me how his Math book was completely destroyed by the water from the fire sprinklers. When he went back into the commons for the first time after the shootings, he found duct tape where he had left his math book. He then remembered that he had duct tape along the binding of his book because it was coming apart. Because the book had been sitting in water for so long, the paper and cover had dissolved leaving the duct tape behind. This was such a powerful story to me - not because it was dramatic or awe-inspiring, but because it was so personal. It was such a minute detail, yet it was so chilling to think about. I have often thought of that math book sitting in the commons while people were being shot and while bombs were going off.

The killings and where they took place seem even more real to me because I was inside the school in January for a debate tournament, just months before the shootings took place. I spent most of the day sitting in the commons where bombs later exploded. I had a speech judged in the library where students were slaughtered. When I heard news anchors talking about where the killings took place, I had pictures in my head of those rooms. For months, when I was trying to go to sleep at night, I saw the commons where I was sitting with my friends and then saw people running and screaming. Because I had a link to what the place where the killings took place, they seemed different to me. This was not just a tragedy someplace far away, this was happening someplace that I had just been. Distant people were not the targets, classmates of my friends were.

The events that took place on April 20 also had a different meaning for me. It made me question for the first time in my life whether or not it was safe to be at school. I always came up with reasons for not going to school like, "I don't feel good," or "I didn't do my homework," but never before did I question whether or not I should go to school because I thought I might be injured or killed. There were rumors floating around about a list of schools that were to be destroyed like Columbine. Our school was supposedly right after Columbine on that list. Pranksters called in bomb threats to our school on many occasions. While we were sitting in English class we would hear the principal issuing a statement saying that our school was threatened by an anonymous letter, but that we would continue our day as normal. It was impossible to continue as normal. What if the letter wasn't a joke? After all, it could happen. It just had happened to a school like ours.

Everybody has different views of the killings that took place at Columbine High School. Some saw it as a distant tragedy, some experienced it as a wonderful event but not big enough, and some felt it hit very close to home and very personally. Regardless of who we were, however, the Columbine tragedy had a huge impact on our lives. It forever changed the way that we think about school safety and hatred. It ended 15 lives that can never be regained.

Works Cited

"Big Picture: Colorado, The." Life. May 1999: 24-25.

Cullen, Dave. "Kill mankind. No one should survive." 23 Sep. 1999. 22 Oct. 2001.

Davies, Shaun. Personal interview. 15 Oct. 2001.

Gibbs, Nancy. "Special Report: The Littleton Massacre." Time. 3 May 1999: 20-37.

Jefferson County Colorado Sheriff. "The Columbine High School Shootings: Narrative Time Line of Events." 22 Oct. 2001.

Reilly, Rick. "The Big Hero of Littleton." Sports Illustrated. 3 May 1999: 100.

Stoltz, Matt. "Re: Columbine Questions." E-mail to the author. 15 Oct. 2001.

Weller, Robert. "Columbine massacre report released." The Daily Camera. 16 May 2000. 16 Oct. 2001.
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