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Columbine Revisited

What we've learned in the five years after the tragedy

Columbine. The word once brought visions of a beautiful white and lavender flower. Now it is synonymous with tragedy and cold-blooded killing.

On April 20, 1999, at 11:19 a.m., exploding bombs signaled the start of a violent rampage on the Columbine High School campus that left in its wake: 12 students, one teacher and two killers dead; 24 students transported to hospitals, and 160 more treated for injuries on site. The aftermath is felt to this day, not only by grieving parents, friends and families, but also throughout the district, community and the entire country.

We asked:

Are schools any safer now than they were before the Columbine tragedy?

What are some of the lessons learned?

What still needs to be done?

Jane Hammond

Former superintendent, Jefferson County (Colo.) Public Schools

Are schools any safer now?

Yes, schools are safer. School districts are approaching safety and security in much more comprehensive ways, rather than the fragmented, reactive approaches of the past. Columbine's Student Senior Senate developed the following statement: "In the years to come we would like the history books to say that on April 20, 1999, Columbine High School united the world in creating a better place for the future." This vision is becoming a reality with the tragedy as catalyst for districts across the country, implementing safety plans that result in a learning environment where students feel welcomed, supported and safe.

What are the lessons learned?

Students often know when dangerous activities are being planned. We must create a respectful environment and processes where they are willing to tell us what they know. We cannot guarantee student safety, but we must do everything in our power to increase the chances that our children are safe.

District leaders often feel crisis driven, but a true crisis helps to put the day-to-day challenges in perspective.

What still needs to be done?

Schools are a microcosm of our larger society. To create the kind of civility that we want in our schools, [we] must model that civility for our children and live that civility with each other.

Gregory Thomas

Director, The Program for School Preparedness and Planning, National Center for Disaster Preparedness, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University

Are schools any safer now?

As we reflect upon the lessons learned from events like at Columbine, we should look at this and all of the documented school shootings as a "collective whole." To do otherwise would have us subscribe to the belief that there are no common threads in these types of incidents, when recent research speaks the contrary.

What are some of the lessons learned?

The lessons learned point to the need to develop school safety and crisis plans ... with the input of professionals from the law enforcement, emergency management and health care fields. Unfortunately, there have been a number of cases where the treatment and care for victims has been delayed because of conflicting protocols for the responding agencies. Before a disaster strikes, mutual aid agreements or letters/memorandums of understanding should be drafted that clearly delineate expectations and roles of emergency responders and education officials.

What still needs to be done?

There are productive actions that educators, law enforcement officials and others can pursue in the responses to targeted school violence. This is crucial to do, as we have learned the painful lesson of the importance of school administrators, parents and all responsible adults keeping their "ears to the ground" and paying attention to signals that children produce about their sometimes "troubled lives." For when these signals go unnoticed, the consequences are often too much for us to bear.

Mark Crawford

Executive director, Committee for Children

Are schools any safer now?

In one sense, yes. There is a greater awareness that the issue exists ... Committee for Children puts its energy into the longer view, [such as] what it takes to make schools safer, what is applicable to help children deal with anger management, conflict resolution. We feel strongly that we have to do something to change the culture of acceptance of bullying. Until we make a commitment to change and give the kids the skill sets they need, that has to be deliberate. Kids don't just learn that on their own.

What are the lessons learned?

One of the lessons learned is that the Columbines, the Springfields, the Padukas, are on one end of the spectrum of violence. ... One child was stabbed to death in school in Miami yesterday. ... Things are happening every day. Another thing we're learning is the degree to which children are living with a code of silence. We have to break that silence. I am amazed that kids knew something about was going to happen ... in Columbine, Springfield. Another thing we learned was the access to weapons, up to and including guns. We have to address that issue.

What still needs to be done?

We've recognized this is about giving kids skills--empathy, anger management. We all have a right to be angry. It's what we do about it that counts. And it's about impulse control.

Cynthia Stevenson

Superintendent, Jefferson County (Colo.) Public Schools

Are schools any safer now?

Schools are one of the safest places in any neighborhood in America. Since the Columbine tragedy, schools in JeffCo have detailed crisis plans, regular safety drills, and strong relationships with our law enforcement agencies. In addition, our policies and practices stress respectful school environments. Training in both crisis response and threat assessment takes place for staff members on a yearly basis. All staff, students and parents are expected to report any rumors, threats or information about anyone planning to hurt himself or herself or others. The most effective strategy for preventing any tragedy is that information is shared with a responsible adult.

What still needs to be done?

I am going to reframe this question. I think the important question is how can schools continue to improve? Two critical elements are the focus for school improvement. The first and most important is the academic achievement of all students. That achievement is our core mission and all students regardless of gender, race, socio-economic status or disability must be successful in our schools.

The second critical element is the culture of the school. Every student and staff member must feel welcome and honored in the culture. Every child must feel connected to the adults in the school and believe they are valued. The culture must support a sense of community in which diversity is honored, academic achievement is expected, and respectful behavior is the norm. The key is the connection between students and adults. When relationships are strong, when students feel valued by staff and peers, when all students are expected to meet high academic standards, when adults create a caring community, then schools are safe and energetic communities.

Kate Battan

Lead investigator of the Columbine shooting investigation. She also managed a task force of more than 80 investigators from various state, local and Federal law enforcement agencies

Are schools any safer now?

A lot has changed in schools across the nation including implementation of panic alarms, video surveillance, mandatory identification cards, tip boxes and zero-tolerance policies. However, if we think these measures will stop another Columbine we are fooling ourselves. Schools in general are safe and in many ways have become safer but the aberration of a school shooter who has absolute resolve to bring violence to school can never be completely prevented.

What are some of the lessons learned?

Here in Colorado, legislation changed regarding the exchange of information between schools and law enforcement so that we can better identify potentially violent juveniles. Critical incident response, from the first responders to SWAT team tactics, has changed across the nation and many law enforcement agencies have upgraded their radio capabilities to improve communication among regional agencies.

What still needs to be done?

High school can be very difficult and emotional with all the exclusiveness of the varying social structures. We need to hold students accountable for their actions, but we should also be giving them better tools to work with such as programs in conflict management, problem solving, decision making and diversity education.

Paul Houston

Executive Director, American Association of School Administrators

Are schools any safer now?

In terms of the threat that Columbine presented, I'd say, overall, we are safer. Once the unthinkable happened, schools re-examined their school safety policies and procedures on a fairly massive scale. Columbine elevated schools' awareness and preparatory levels, but answering this question is akin to answering the question: Is America safer today than it was before September 11, 200l? Schools cannot rule out the possibility of individual acts of terror, but overall, schools have worked hard to institute policies and procedures to prevent senseless acts of violence such as Columbine from ever happening again.

What are the lessons learned?

To paraphrase Jim Collins, when you confront brutal facts, you must anticipate things you'd rather not anticipate. Schools had to confront the fact that they needed to institute policies and procedures on how to deal with these types of situations. I hope one of the lessons learned is that schools need to focus on the importance of instituting preventative measures. I commend school leaders who have put resources into forging stronger connections between caring adults and students, addressing the problems of bullying, etc., versus putting more money into metal detectors.

What still needs to be done?

I'm not convinced that schools have fully confronted the possibility of terrorism-related incidents. They've responded proactively to direct school-related threats, but I don't know how prepared schools are to respond to an act of terrorism.

I'm also concerned at what I perceive to be an over-reliance on the external safeguards that guard against school violence, such as metal detectors, rather than tackling the human side of the issue. I urge schools and school administrators to make significant investments in developing deeper, stronger relationships with the children they serve, and parents and the community. We all need to recognize that our children are living in a "toxic culture," and as educators, we need to take responsibility for alleviating its impact.

Edward Kennedy

U.S. Senator, D-Mass., ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee

Are schools any safer now?

I think they are, but we can't be complacent. The Columbine tragedy opened the nation's eyes to the importance of school safety and the prevention of violence in schools, and we've made some worthwhile progress.

The Safe and Drug Free Schools program, included in the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, is now supporting steps to keep students and schools safe in every state. It provides additional training for school district safety teams in many states. In others, it supports schools in hiring persons trained to monitor school environments and work directly with students on drug prevention and violence prevention. In the past two years in Massachusetts, we've achieved significant reductions in threats, fights, injuries and weapons in schools.

What are some lessons learned?

We've learned much more about the problem and how to meet it. Seventy percent of children who bring guns to school do so to protect themselves, not because they intend to harm other students. Metal detectors and other precautions may seem strange in schools, but they actually help students feel safer. When students know the person in charge of safety, they can ask for advice and help. Prevention programs do a great deal to stop violence and harassment before it starts.

What still needs to be done?

A major challenge is to reduce bullying in schools. Seventy-five percent of students who use a gun in school were victims of bullying or harassment in their school before their crimes.

We can also do a better job of tracking and reporting the frequency of school violence. The No Child Left Behind Act requires all states to identify persistently dangerous schools, based on state criteria. But only 21 states actually track the most likely indicators of school violence. With better data, schools can more effectively identify threats and reduce violence.

Interviews by Angela Pascopella, features editor.