WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
On April 20, 1999, two senior students named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 students and 1 teacher at Columbine High School, committing suicide after they had finished their spree. 21 people were injured by gunshots, and 3 others were injured while trying to escape.
Though many other school shootings have taken place since, to the point that people are often desensitized to them, this was one of the first high school shootings, and was the deadliest at its time.
The perpetrators also placed several homemade bombs, which would have been enough to seriously injure or even kill all of the people in the areas they were placed, but they failed to detonate, along with bombs placed in their cars and in other places around the area. They wanted to cause the most deaths in U.S. history, exceeding the death toll of the Oklahoma City bombing, which took place 4 years before almost to the day.
The Immediate Action Rapid Deployment tactic for active shooter situations was introduced as a result, and zero tolerance policies were enacted in schools. Gun control laws were widely talked about, but also, cliques and bullying were focused on extensively. Additionally, the "moral panic" over goths, social outcasts, antidepressants, Internet usage and violent video games and movies was widespread as people tried to make sense of the massacre.
THE PERPETRATORS AND THEIR MOTIVES (2)
Eric Harris was born in Kansas, and because his father was in the Air Force, their family relocated frequently. They moved to Littleton, Colorado in 1993. He started at Columbine High School in 1995 as a freshman, had lots of friends and played soccer during his freshman and sophomore year. Though by all accounts fairly popular, after the girl he liked and went to homecoming with, Tiffany Typher, became uninterested in him, he staged a fake suicide to scare her. She told him to get psychological help, which was honestly excellent advice.
Dylan Klebold lived in Colorado all of his life, and were raised in a traditional Lutheran household. They also observed Jewish rituals and traditions in keeping with his grandfather's Jewish heritage. Though he seemed sheltered and shy, he was intelligent. He played sports as a kid, and he had friends throughout his schooling.
The 2 were very different, though. They did have their intelligence in common and were both good with computers, but from a personality standpoint, they really couldn't be more different.
Harris was nice and friendly, popular with female students and got along well with teachers. He was charismatic, but in reality, it was more manipulative than anything, as he bragged about his ability to deceive other people. But by his junior year, he grew a temper and was constantly angry. He also wrote in a journal about his dislike for all sorts of groups of people based on race, sex, sexual orientation and social status. Conversely, Klebold was "painfully shy" and would become fidgety when others so much as talked to him. Though he also had some angry outbursts, it didn't seem like a surprising personality shift like it did for Harris.
Not much is known about their friendship, but they met during 7th grade. They became close, hanging out and playing video games regularly, becoming "inseparable" by their junior year. Rumors were started that they were gay, but it is unclear if they knew about the rumor. Klebold's mother thinks that Harris's rage and general dislike for society mixed with her son's self esteem and depression caused them to feed off of one another.
The boys wrote a lot about how they planned to carry out the massacre, but they didn't write much about why. They wanted to leave a lasting impression on the world with their act of violence... but why?
One speculation is that the 2 were bullied. Harris's last journal entry said, "I hate you people for leaving me out of so many fun things". He said that he asked to hang out with lots of people and they said no to the "weird-looking Eric KID". In the tapes they recorded, Klebold said, "You've been giving us shit for years. You're fucking gonna pay for all the shit."
Teachers and parents did describe the bullying at Columbine High School as "rampant", and it was reported that the boys were constantly picked on, even having a "cup of fecal matter" thrown at them. Allegedly, they were squirted with ketchup packets and called "faggots", and the teachers did nothing.
Though bullying (and general disdain for human life) was the likeliest reason for the massacre, the media jumped onto their "gothic" look, believing there was more at play. The killers were believed to be a member of a clique called the "Trench Coat Mafia", a group of outcasts who wore swastikas on their clothes, priding themselves in being different from the jocks who bullied them. But further investigation proved that they were only friends with one member, and most had left the school by the time of the massacre.
The killers were also fans of Marilyn Manson, who was blamed by the media for the shooting. Violent video games, movies and "goth" subculture also took some blame, but ultimately, besides causing parents and schools to panic about kids who dressed in black and listened to darker music or played video games, it didn't prove to have anything to do with the massacre. Unstable children, mental illness and access to guns were the real problems.
On April 20, 1999, student Brooks Brown was smoking a cigarette outside on his lunch break. Brown stopped being friends with Harris earlier that year when he had thrown a chunk of ice at his windshield, but prior to the shooting, the 2 had reconciled. It was past 11, and Brown saw Harris approaching. Brown scolded Harris for being late, knowing Harris valued his school work and punctuality. Harris said, "Brooks, I like you now. Get out of here. Go home." (1)
By that time, though, Klebold had arrived in a different car. They left 2 gym bags with 20-pound propane bombs inside of the cafeteria. The plan was for the bombs to detonate, and they would camp out by their cars. When students ran out of the school, they would shoot, stab and throw other bombs at the survivors. When first responders came, their cars would blow up, killing them. (1)
But their bombs didn't detonate. They needed a new plan. They decided they would go into the school with their guns and shoot their classmates and teachers. Harris killed 8 people and Klebold killed 5. Their names, and some details about them, are below. (1)
They killed 2 students outside, and a teacher who was trying to alert students to the situation. Then, they locked up the library where they killed their next 10 victims. Of the 56 hostages in the library, 34 were left unharmed, though investigators determined they had enough ammunition to kill all of them. (1)
Survivors remember the absolute terror they felt, locked inside the library, hiding as their classmates shot their other classmates. Evan Todd, a survivor, remembers, "they yelled certain things and then they started walking around firing at random, and asking people questions and basically shooting execution style." He remembers them laughing, making jokes, having a good time as they took the lives of their classmates. (3)
Another survivor from the library, Amanda Stair, crawled under a computer table, making herself as small as possible once she heard the gunshots. One of the killers yelled for everyone to get up, "or we're going to blow your fucking heads off!" Stair said that they "taunted and mocked victims, quizzed them about whether they believed in God, shot kids at point-blank range and told them to quit their bitching." (4)
Finally, they left the library, returning 23 minutes later, both committing suicide. (1)
THE VICTIMS (5)
Rachel Scott, 17 was the first of the students to be killed. She was a devout Christian who had been bullied throughout high school for her faith. Her friend who she was eating lunch with when the shooters came said that Harris asked her "do you still believe in God" and she said "you know I do". Then, he told her "go be with him" and shot her in the head. She had written diaries about her bullying and they have helped many victims of bullying. Her friend, Richard Castaldo, was shot 8 times and left permanently paralyzed.
Daniel Rohrbough, 15 was heading to a park for lunch when the gunmen came to the school, shooting him in the chest, abdomen and leg. He died on the sidewalk where his body remained for almost 24 hours. His mom said that she typically didn't see him in the morning, but that morning, they talked at breakfast and she gave him a hug and kiss before he went to school.
Dave Sanders, 47 was a teacher, dad and grandfather who helped get around 100 students away from the danger after he heard gunfire in the cafeteria and rushed to warn students. As he tried to secure the school, he ran into the shooters and was shot as he tried to escape. His last words, to teachers who kept him alive for 3 hours, were "tell my family I love them".
Kyle Velasquez, 16 was the first student killed in the hostage situation in the library. As a baby, he suffered a stroke and would live with his parents for his whole life due to his disabilities. He had only been going to Columbine for 3 months, and had only just started staying at school through lunch. Had the shootings occurred a few weeks earlier, he would have been at home. He was described as a "big teddy bear" by students.
Steven Curnow, 14, was the youngest of the victims. He planned to be a Navy top gun pilot, and was obsessed with Star Wars, anxiously awaiting the release of the new film on May 19. At his funeral, his mom said they shared a special moment a few weeks prior where he said "Mom, I bet there aren't many guys who can discuss things with their moms like we do".
Cassie Bernall, 17 had hit a rough patch as a teen, getting into drugs and alcohol and even experiencing both suicidal and homicidal thoughts. After a church retreat, they said they "got our daughter back", and she was a completely new person. She started over at a new school, Columbine. While hiding under a table, Harris said "Peek-a-boo" before bending down and shooting Cassie, killing her instantly.
Isaiah Shoels, 18 was an aspiring comedian who had overcome a heart defect, playing football and wrestling in high school. They spotted him hiding and flanked the table on either side, chanting racist remarks against the popular athlete. When they failed to pull him out from under the table, Harris shot him.
Matthew Kechter, 16 was sitting with Isaiah and hid with him when the killers came over. He was a football star, a regular gym-goer and an A student. His mother said that he was a wonderful role model for his young brother.
Lauren Townsend, 18 was shot more times than any other victim, for reasons that are unknown. Lauren got straight A's, volunteered at the local animal shelter, and was the captain of the school volleyball team that her mom coached. She hid with her close friend, who survived, and told her everything would be okay.
John Tomlin, 17, welcomed fellow student Nicole Nowlen into his hiding place, holding her hand to comfort his scared friend as they heard the shooters ravage the library. Nicole was shot in the stomach, but survived. John was shot point blank in the head.
Kelly Fleming, 16 had only started at Columbine 3 months before the shooting. She was into her usual habit of writing poetry in the library when the killers entered. She tried to hide under a table with a group of girls, but because so many were crammed into the space, she was visible. Harris came up behind her and shot her.
Daniel Mauser, 15, was known to be concerned with America's gun laws, asking his dad information about the Brady Bill loopholes only 2 weeks before his death. He hid under a table and pushed a chair in front of Harris to try to stop him, but Harris said "nice glasses" and shot Daniel in the face. The gun used to kill him as bought through one of the loopholes in the Brady Bill he had just asked about.
Corey DePooter, 17 was an "all-American kid" who valued his school work and was always able to make people smile during touch times, just generally the type of person people liked to be around. His close friend watched as Klebold aimed the gun at Corey, and pulled the trigger.
Beyond the students who tragically died in the massacre, many other people died in related incidents. The mother of Anne Marie Hochhalter, a student who had been shot and paralyzed, committed suicide 6 months after the shootings, though direct relation to the event is unclear. A student who witnessed his teacher get shot, and who lost his best friend, committed suicide, as well, about a year after the attacks. And in 2019, a survivor, Austin Eubanks, died from his opioid addition that he overcame after being heavily medicated from his shooting injury. (1)
REACTIONS AND LEGACY (1)
Sue Klebold, Dylan's mother, initially denied Dylan's involvement, believing he had been tricked by Harris. But once she saw their journals and tapes, she admitted he was equally responsible. She spoke about the incident publicly for the first time in 2009, saying she was haunted by the horror Dylan caused. When she realized her son was one of the shooters, she said, "while every other mother in Littleton was praying that her child was safe, I had to pray that mine would die before he hurt anyone else."
In 2019, she wrote a bestselling novel about her experiences before and after the massacre, and did a TED talk in 2017 about being the mother of a Columbine shooter. She is a passionate activist for mental health awareness.
In the aftermath, the U.S. was terrified. Security measures, such as see-through backpacks, metal detectors, school uniforms and security guards were implemented, as well as zero tolerance policies for weapons and threatening behavior, as well as anti-bullying policies. Lawsuits were filed from the deceased victims family, against the police for not getting to teacher Dave Sanders' age in time, and against the families of the killers. Police tactics were revisited, with the goal of stopping the shooter at all costs instead of focusing on setting up a perimeter.
Memorials were created, both impromptu and official in the years after the shooting. The topic of gun control was visited often, though not much was able to change. Copycat killings also sparked after Columbine, which essentially became a euphemism for "school shooting".
Despite the massive media frenzy over Columbine, its place as one of the most well-known school shootings in national history, and the changes that were implemented after, the rate of school shootings in the U.S. is still bananas and mentally ill, dangerous kids are still getting their hands on dangerous weapons to kill their classmates.
The 2 killers are a lot like other murderers and serial killers I write about on here. The day the boys were sprayed with ketchup, tormented and teased by classmates while the teachers stood by and did nothing, forcing them to wear ketchup-stained clothes the rest of the day, Klebold told his mother it was "the worst day of his life". I feel bad for kids who are bullied. I wish someone could have stopped that from happening to them, that someone would have seen what was going on and stepped in. I feel sorry for them... Up until they chose to murder a bunch of innocent people. That's where the sympathy stops.
There is no shortage of people my heart breaks for. The victims, young high school students with their whole lives ahead of them, many anticipating graduation in the next few weeks. Their families who saw them for the last time that morning. Their friends who saw them die next to them. The students who survived with severe injuries, paralyzing them, addicting them to pain medications and requiring long, painful recoveries. The students with mental wounds that may never be repaired. The parents of the shooters, who had to mourn the loss of their child while understanding the absolutely unforgivable actions they committed. Every single person touched by this tragedy, my heart goes out to.
I've written about other shootings this month, so I won't soap box my thoughts on gun control again, but I can't imagine when Columbine happened that people though mass shootings would become so common that you can't even remember them, or find yourself scrolling past the breaking news for another one because it happens so often. The lives in the U.S. lost at the hands of guns in schools is far too many.
Columbine was the first school shooting I've ever heard about, and because of that, it has always held a weird place in my heart. I never knew anything like this could happen, and in a way, was the shatterer of my innocence growing up, knowing kids could do this to other kids.
It has been 21 years since the Columbine massacre, and though school shootings have become more commonplace, this is one that will likely always surge some sort of reaction from most of the U.S. And with 21 years between now and that terrible day, I hope those involved have been able to find some semblance of peace.