Lessons from the Columbine School Shooting

Lots of high-tech gear, but that’s not what makes schools safe:

Some of the noticeable security measures remain, but experts say the country is exploring a new way to protect kids from in-school violence: administrators now want to foster school communities that essentially can protect themselves with or without the high-tech gear.

“The first and best line of defense is always a well-trained, highly alert staff and student body,” said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, an Ohio-based firm specializing in school security.

“The No. 1 way we find out about weapons in schools is not from a piece of equipment [such as a metal detector] but from a kid who comes forward and reports it to an adult that he or she trusts.”

Of course, there never was an epidemic of school shootings—it just seemed that way in the media. And kids are much safer in schools than outside of them.

Posted on April 29, 2009 at 5:57 AM55 Comments


cakmpls April 29, 2009 6:40 AM

I think that in talking about how safe kids “should” be in schools, people are talking about how safe they are in schools vs. some ideal, rather than how safe they are in schools vs. the real-life alternatives. (Seems to me we’ve discussed this particular phenomenon before.)

Martin April 29, 2009 6:40 AM

There’s some hope here. If the people responsible for school security can learn that there are better approaches than using high-tech gear against specific threats, then perhaps the people responsible for nationwide security can also learn this.

David Durant April 29, 2009 6:47 AM

Of course the best “defense” would be to create an social atmosphere in the school where disturbed outsiders like those at Columbine would be recognized and re-integrated rather than ostracized.

It pays to be nice to everyone if the alternative is tomorrow they come back with a gun.

Toy April 29, 2009 7:30 AM

“It pays to be nice to everyone if the alternative is tomorrow they come back with a gun.” Or if they do, have means of making that disturbed outsider cease and desist.

I carried a knife starting around 3rd grade through the entire rest of my life, until the invasive fools at the TSA made me not do so when flying. I never thought of the knife as anything other than a tool, until I was perhaps 22 or 23 years old. To me, a gun is no different than a golf club, a hammer, a knife, a car or many other potentially misused mechanical devices. The difference is the mindset of the person in control of the device. Focusing on the device is always going to result in failure to defend against the misuser. Having the means to thwart the misuser of the device will always succeed. As Robert Heinlein wrote, an armed society is a polite society.

Sevesteen April 29, 2009 7:35 AM

I wonder what the thoughts here are on the strict no-guns policy in schools. Active shootings happen very disproportionately where guns are not allowed, and many gun rights activists think they are specifically targeted by active shooters to maximize the time before there is effective opposition.

Would we be better off allowing people with concealed carry licenses to carry in schools?

Tim April 29, 2009 7:41 AM

“I carried a knife starting around 3rd grade through the entire rest of my life, until the invasive fools at the TSA made me not do so when flying.”

Well that’s kind of worrying.

rob April 29, 2009 7:50 AM

Referencing back to that UK article, pretty soon the schools are going to ban pencils and pens. After all, they are pointy things that could be used as a weapon. And paper – paper cuts hurt. It’s a little late, but 1984 is coming quickly to the UK.

Russell Coker April 29, 2009 7:57 AM

David: Psychopaths can not be re-integrated. The best that can be done is to convince them that the consequences of certain actions make them a bad idea. But a psychopath who wants to die is not going to be stopped. In the example of Columbine the psychopath’s accomplice could have been re-integrated.

Regarding the weapons that are permitted, allowing knives makes a lot more sense than allowing guns. If someone threatens you with a knife it’s quite practical to try to out-run them.

Of course the bottles of alcohol that are allowed on planes make much better weapons than the pocket-knives that are confiscated.

There are many possible ways of improvising weapons in a school environment that would be good against anything other than a gun.

Anyone who wants their children to be safe at school could start by living in a country that restricts access to guns.

JD April 29, 2009 7:57 AM

The solution: Online public schools. They’re sprouting in many states already. The curriculum doesn’t involve sex, drugs bullying and teachers with bad attitudes.
It includes better material for teaching subjects with many variants from the best creative teachers around the country. It allows more adjustments to each individual student’s learning abilities without the subjective flaws of teachers evaluations.
Most importantly, the responsibility for monitoring and motivation rests 100% on the parents, where it belongs.

Anonymous April 29, 2009 8:12 AM

@David “where disturbed outsiders like those at Columbine ”

The Columbine shooters may have been alienated but they weren’t outsiders. They were popular with their classmates.

Lollardfish April 29, 2009 8:12 AM

I always felt very safe when teaching in a juvenile prison. There were few weapons, probably no guns, small classes, no overt gang colors/signs, and guards outside the classroom.

I can’t tell you how much learning happened, but I felt safe.

EdT. April 29, 2009 8:23 AM

“I always felt very safe when teaching in a juvenile prison.”

I hope you don’t mean to suggest that we should turn our schools into prisons?


David April 29, 2009 8:39 AM

@Toy: I carry a Swiss Army knife around with me, except when it’s forbidden. It’s useful for a lot of things, but not so much as a weapon. If I actually had to fight, I think I’d rather use my keys in my fist.

@Sevesteen: School shootings are statistically so rare that it doesn’t make any sense to change working procedures to make them even less likely. They’re lost in the noise of gun deaths, which I presume are also extremely traumatic for the survivors.

Teaching the school population to react intelligently in dangerous situations is a much better idea. There are a lot of threats that can’t be stopped by bullets, and I think it will instill a mindset that will serve the students well in later life.

Blake April 29, 2009 8:58 AM

Most of the comments, and the referenced article, seem to miss the point that peers don’t get a chance to tattle on the bad guy in an active shooter scenario. Yes, tattling works for the situation where someone brings a gun to school “for protection” or to get a specific person. But, the active shooter scenarios don’t offer a chance to tattle–the shooting starts right away. With the good guys disarmed by policy and law, the active shooters have free reign and don’t stop until the run out of ammo or they meet armed resistance.

Andy S April 29, 2009 9:08 AM

@JD: online public schools

I have a better proposal: online children: you manage them online.

P.S. you’re probably not a parent

Pete Austin April 29, 2009 9:38 AM

The gun you’re carrying completely fails to protect you against the influenza that I’m carrying.

Dave C April 29, 2009 10:11 AM

Why not reward a student who comes forward with information that another student at school has a weapon or plans on bringing in a weapon with a large dollar reward like $1000. $1000 is peanuts compared with the cost of a student or teacher being killed.

Vacinated Vince April 29, 2009 10:28 AM

@ Pete Austin,

Will the influenza you’re carrying protect you against an “active shooter”, whether at school, at the mall, at a restaurant, or in office building or at church? (Passive protection, by staying in bed at home doesn’t count, since you implied an interaction which your “biological weapon” could infect someone.)

David April 29, 2009 10:40 AM

They forgot about the low-tech tools that are keeping our kids safe:

  • Rubber Gloves
  • Searches of all personal items
  • Strip searches
  • Coming soon: Body Cavity Searches
  • Arrests for misbehavior, possession of contraband materials, etc.

Somehow I think we went from going to school to going to prison…..

AppSec April 29, 2009 10:49 AM

Two words:
Bubble Sheild.

Thank you Halo.

@Andy S:
I’m not a parent (yet), but I don’t see what is wrong with JDs statement. The parents should be monitoring and motivating their kids and not relying on others to do it. The parents should be key role models in their kid’s life.

Other aspects of society have made it extremely difficult for parents to be active in their kids lives (I know many who manage, and others who struggle paycheck to paycheck). Who knows what possibilities on line classrooms could bring.

paul April 29, 2009 10:52 AM

I can’t tell whether that quote reassures or frightens me. In an era where the supreme court seems poised to rule that it’s OK for school administrators to strip-search teenagers to look for ibuprofen, the idea of a “well-trained” student body and administrators ready to respond swiftly to any hint of a security threat doesn’t exactly inspire peace of mind.

Stijn April 29, 2009 10:56 AM


“With the good guys disarmed by policy and law, the active shooters have free reign and don’t stop until the run out of ammo or they meet armed resistance.”

Will good guys always be good guys? How often do good guys go crazy? In a culture of fear and mistrust good guys will occassionally (how often?) shoot people because of a false alarm. It is a trade-off, and the heavier weaponry people carry (i.e. the less physical effort required to assault someone), the heavier the consequences. I wonder what the stats are or would be on ‘lives rescued by brave fire-arms carrying citizens’ versus ‘lives lost because good citizen had an off-day’. I come from a very different culture and am glad to live in a country with no debate on the right to carry arms. I can see this is different from the USA, I see the historical/cultural reasons for it, and I believe it has dire implications.

Fred P April 29, 2009 11:48 AM

@Dave C-

Yeah, but it’s a lot to a kid. Just imagine the possibilities of planting a weapon in another kid’s locker, then contacting the principal…


I occasionally carried a knife in school, too. I dont’ recall ever consider using it as a weapon (frankly, it wouldn’t have been a good one – the blade didn’t lock and it was pretty short). I mostly used it for whittling and cutting rope/twine.

@AppSec –

There are two major reasons to use schools (assuming that you know much of the material yourself): 1) Socialization. They aren’t going to get face-to face socialization in an online school. 2) Time. Unless you’re very rich and unemployed, you may not have time to monitor and or teach them during the school day.

AppSec April 29, 2009 12:16 PM

Socialization – There are many otherways to accomplish this. There can still be “after school programs”, “study groups”, this thing called recreational leagues/camps.. Heck, it might be easier to get the education across by withholding the socialization aspect in school because some of the issues with socialization in and of itself.

You maybe surpirsed to find out who shares common interests without having the pressure of being the “cool” kid.

Time: There are ways around that and you don’t have to be rich to have it. There can still be places for kids to go to access the “on-line” classes without having to go to school.

Pat Cahalan April 29, 2009 12:19 PM

@ AppSec

The parents should be key role models in their kid’s life.

I agree. What if they’re not, though?

I’m all about using personal responsibility as a root principle, but unfortunately this is not something that we can make universal… in any reasonably complex society there will always be crappy parents*. If your societal design begins with assuming everyone has personal responsibility as a motivating factor, I think you’re sort of screwed 🙂

  • I offer this axiom without direct proof, relying upon the historical record of human society as sufficient evidence.

Davi Ottenheimer April 29, 2009 12:26 PM

“the country is exploring a new way to protect kids from in-school violence”

something seems odd about describing a well-trained, highly alert staff and student body as a new way to protect against violence. i remember programs like this for rape and bullying from many years ago.

Name April 29, 2009 12:28 PM

rob wrote: “Referencing back to that UK article, pretty soon the schools are going to ban pencils and pens. After all, they are pointy things that could be used as a weapon.”

A long time ago when I was in middle school, someone stabbed one of my classmates in the neck with a pencil. A few years before that incident, when I was in elementary school, a fellow student turned a fire extinguisher on his gym class.

MarkH April 29, 2009 12:30 PM

@Toy: “an armed society is a polite society”

I’m a big fan of Heinlein, consider him one of the greats of science fiction. But after all, it’s fiction. His writings are full of the glorification of war and violence, including the slaughter of civilians, a death ray that kills only Chinese, etc. etc.

If an armed society is a polite society, then you should experience much more polite behavior in South Central Los Angeles than, say, Tokyo, or Copenhagen. If you do some travel and note the relationship between density of personal weapons and politeness, please post the results here!

starviego April 29, 2009 1:03 PM

You are still being lied to. Big time. If you want to find out what really happened at Columbine I suggest you read what the eyewitnesses had to say:

[Link removed; see below. –Moderator]

Zaphod April 29, 2009 1:39 PM

@Tim “Well that’s kind of worrying.”

Care to elaborate upon your facile comment?


Ward S. Denker April 29, 2009 1:48 PM

“Anyone who wants their children to be safe at school could start by living in a country that restricts access to guns.”

Russell Coker,

Did you read the article linked to by Mark in London at the top? Restricting access to guns solves nothing – violence can be committed by any number of objects. England and Canada have restricted access to guns. Criminals still have them, and when they can’t get their hands on them they’ve turned to knifings instead. Both countries have experienced a significant uptick in the number of knifings that have occurred since their firearm restrictions went in place (and their governments and media are trying their damnedest to keep mum about that).

The constant there is violence, not the tool being used to commit it. If I were still a student, I’d be much more concerned about a student roaming the halls cutting throats than shooting people. You can hear gunshots a long way away and leave the building. If a killer approaches from behind, covers your mouth and cuts your throat, you can’t scream and warn others.

Ever watch Hotel Rwanda, or know anything about the Rwandan genocide? Many of the murderers were armed only with machetes and the populace was not armed at all.

Limnologist April 29, 2009 2:05 PM


Eyewitness testimony is surprisingly fallible. The fact that Kliebold and Harris took their trenchcoats off during their attack could easily have inflated the number of perceived attackers. Physical evidence of more attackers was not found, nor were attackers seen on video feeds.

Sevesteen April 29, 2009 2:21 PM

I don’t disagree on the rarity of school shootings. If we must “do something” because of sensationalist reporting, I’d like logic to be used, and I don’t think history and logic support a ban on licensed carry. About 25% of active shooters are stopped by an armed civilian.

People with carry licenses historically have extremely good records–6-8 times less violent crime than non-license holders, and somewhat better than police. We don’t object to police present in schools, even though some are imperfect–why not allow a group with an even better record?

Jess April 29, 2009 2:31 PM

@Pat C: “…unfortunately this is not something that we can make universal… in any reasonably complex society there will always be crappy parents*. If your societal design begins with assuming everyone has personal responsibility as a motivating factor, I think you’re sort of screwed”

No one has suggested such a ridiculous assumption. Why must all children go to the same school/receive the same education? What a totalizing, ignorant notion! In fact, that isn’t the case even now. As long as there are parents who can afford expensive private education, their children will receive it. Why not investigate more options for the rest of us?

Certainly, online secondary education would be vulnerable to all sorts of malfeasance, much like its antecedents home-schooling and online college education are now. As in those cases, no one will be harmed by this but the parents and students who cause it. The same cannot be said of the terrible public schooling on offer in the USA today; those who disrupt learning are not those who suffer most from the disruption. Employing the personal responsibility that is natural to most people is the only fashion in which any successful social system has ever operated, short of absolute despotism. Please save your “universal” top-down totalitarianism for the imbeciles who need it.

billswift April 29, 2009 4:42 PM

The virtue of being armed is far older than Heinlein’s quote. Machiavelli wrote, “Among other evils it brings, being disarmed causes one to be despised.”

Moderator April 29, 2009 10:51 PM

I wonder just how different this thread would be if Bruce had posted about “Aquilegia High School,” so that people using Google to find targets for their leaflet bombs hadn’t found us.

Hall Monitor, you should be ashamed of yourself for using the anniversary of a mass murder as an excuse to spam for your blog. I’ve redacted your link so you don’t tarnish your site’s reputation. And I’ve added your domain to our block list, so you can’t embarrass yourself in the same way again. No need to thank me; I’m happy to help.

Starviego, that might almost have passed for human conversation if you hadn’t posted the exact same comment, verbatim, two days ago on a different thread. Passing the Turing test: you’re doing it wrong.

Everyone — be careful of letting the thread get derailed by drive-by comments. We may not have seen the last of the astroturfers yet.

Moderator April 29, 2009 10:54 PM

This discussion of online schools is getting a bit heated, and the connection to security is receding quickly in the rearview mirror. Unless someone has more to say about online education as a security measure, please let it drop. Thank you.

Eadwacer April 29, 2009 10:55 PM

According to the article, HS killings dropped from 33 that year to 13 the next school year. But 13 deaths (15 if you count the killers) of the 33 were due to Columbine. That means the real rate went from 20 or less down to 13. Not quite as big a drop.

Ed April 29, 2009 11:30 PM

As someone who has carried a knife throughout school for self defence (later on it moved to being more of a tool as people sorted themselves out), I would much rather that then guns, I dealt with someone with a knife by locking them out of a room (myself in if you prefer) there is no similar counter to guns.

Alienation is no sign of anything, I would rather the occasional massacre then having a constant witchhunt for the alienated youths and locking them infront of a councillor for days on end, fundamentally psychopaths occur, and are hard to stop or predict, and have generally high self esteem heading towards narcissism and are good at manipulating people and appearing good. You should be watching out for the people who can always look good out of things, not the depressed kids.

@fred P
You can always find something to plant from gunpowder to chemicals to drugs to cheating materials to hacking tools to porn etc, another wont make it any easier to frame people.

Yes there are all sorts of improv weapons used and possible but they are rarely as effective as purpose built ones, gangs don’t pull their stabbings with pencils for a reason (imagine that situation with a decent knife compared to a pencil).

Parents rarely have a huge amount of power to protect their children, or to stop their children doing damage if the children are smart and manipulative about it (which they can/will be) they hold some responsibility, but after about age 10 children do start to make their own decisions about things and even ones with the best upbringings can start to do nasty things.

Their will be bad things happening in schools that is the nature of youth, teach your children and children you know to defend themselves, run (ideally) and not to rely on parents or teachers if things go bad.

Russell Coker April 30, 2009 2:06 AM

Online schooling is being touted as a new idea for protecting children. “Home schooling” (essentially the same thing but invented before the Internet) has been used for the same reasons for a long time. Home schooling appears to be most popular among families with minority religious beliefs, those with gifted or disabled children, or those who have other factors to make their children at greater than average risk of bullying. The opposition to home schooling seems to be based around fears of a lack of socialisation and a government desire to keep children to a standard education process.

Online schooling would offer the protection of home schooling but with better standardisation of the education (not that having all children taught at the same rate is really a good thing, but it’s what society expects and it’s easier for parents to go with that). Home schooling is also apparently very time consuming for parents (as has been mentioned in the comments), online schooling would reduce the amount of direct parent time as well as allowing children to be taught subjects that their parents don’t know well.

The occasions in which I have needed to use weapons to defend myself fall into two categories, one is when carrying a laptop on late-night trains, the other is high-school.

MysticKnightoftheSea April 30, 2009 2:50 AM

At the risk of starting the bonfire once more: I said the day of (and the day before Jesse Ventura said the same thing): arm the teachers.

I say this as a former teacher.

They are the most protective of their charges, and the most likely to be aware of a change of routine. And, the first troops on the ground, as it were.

I had a list of comments for several of the above, but in the spirit of the moderator’s request, I let them go.

Stijn April 30, 2009 4:07 AM


“People with carry licenses historically have extremely good records–6-8 times less violent crime than non-license holders, and somewhat better than police.”

Non-license holders includes, say, mobsters? I am not being sarcastic, but I am very curious to the exact comparison and methods used. Non-license holders, police, and license holders all work/act in very different circumstances. ‘Violent crime’ needs to be defined; there is a chicken and egg problem as the current gun situation affects any numbers involved. Finally, I would be really worried about law abiding star citizens with depressed teenage rebellious children, to name just one case. With guns, a mistake is easily fatal. When fighting guns with more guns, more mistakes will be made.

MysticKnightoftheSea April 30, 2009 6:27 AM

@ Stijn
Google “Kleck” and “guncite.com” and you should get many of your questions answered.

Look for data concerning Florida’s concealed carry permit not-so-recently enacted, as an example.

I’ll leave it at that for now.

Brian April 30, 2009 12:57 PM

The Aftermath of Gun-Free School Zones
created by the 1990 Crime Control Act

1776-1990 – 214 years = 7 incidents
1990-2007 – 17 years = 78 incidents

Repeal this terrible law. Do it for the children.

Moderator April 30, 2009 2:08 PM

Oh look, another airborne leaflet. Google shows that Brian’s been cut-and-pasting that one for at least a year now.

Sevesteen April 30, 2009 5:23 PM

@ Stijn:

Several states have laws requiring them to keep track of crime by specific category, broken down by those with licenses and everyone else–including mobsters, teachers, police, etc. In other states, they keep track of revocations for cause, and data can be inferred, although details on specifics aren’t available.

The state with the easiest details to figure out from a state source (rather than relying on pro-gun interpretations) is Texas: http://www.txdps.state.tx.us/administration/crime_records/chl/convrates.htm has .pdf files by year, showing the percentage of CHL holders convicted of each crime. For reference, about 1.2% of Texans have a license, and they are responsible for about 0.25% of the convictions (depending on the year–numbers that low fluctuate a good bit)

(I’m not a drive-by from a Google search–Bruce is in my RSS reader, and I was hoping to get opinions from a security perspective rather than political)

cdmiller May 1, 2009 12:16 PM

So in 1999 there were 15,522 murders out of our 272 Million population in the U.S., according to the FBI. According to the article, 33 murders in schools for the 1989-1999 school year, with a more typical year in the 13 – 15 range. The hysteria is such we have the Secret Service doing studies, SWAT teams training, kids doing drills, intrusive searches going on for weapons and drugs, and numerous calls for more erosions of our civil liberties. The conspiracy theorist in me thinks this is more conditioning, just like the TSA security lines. Otherwise this concentration of resources is simply ineptitude. To play on a favourite quote: “any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice”.

John Byrnes May 1, 2009 12:51 PM

[I’ve removed this comment, which according to Google has been cut-and-pasted to comment threads on various blogs 367 times so far. John Byrnes, on the off chance that you actually want to communicate with people on this blog, start doing it like a person, not a leaflet bomb. — Moderator]

Russell Coker May 2, 2009 6:28 PM

John Byrnes: Pasting sections from a couple of your blog posts to promote your blog and your book doesn’t make for a quality comment.

As to the issue of aggression management in schools, I think it should start with the teachers. My high school experience was that about half the violence in school was either encouraged or actively ignored by teachers. If the few teachers who encouraged violence and the 20+ teachers who were too incompetent to discourage it were removed from the school then it would have been much more civilised. It is apparently not difficult to administer a basic test for psychopathic tendencies. I can’t think of any reason for not administering such a test to everyone who applies for a teaching job.

Keep in mind the fact that school bullies tend to be unsuccessful both at school and later in life. John’s idea of assessing the behaviour of students seems to be in part blaming the victim. Some kids who in a better environment might not be violent are tweaked by the teachers until something exciting happens. Then the teacher deals out some punishment and waits for it to happen again.

Tracy May 5, 2009 9:36 AM

I just read about the “last ditch effort” method being discussed in Georgetown MA. They are going to teach the idea of throwing books, glue bottles, chairs etc AT THE GUNMAN. I guess in a fight or die situation, anything goes, but come on!
Lock down drills are becoming commonplace in all schools now, what’s that saying to our kids?

Toy May 6, 2009 1:19 PM

“Lock down drills are becoming commonplace in all schools now, what’s that saying to our kids?”
“Security Theater”, to quote someone we all know…..

Preparation for the highly unlikely, remote minimal chance etc.

Mallory September 29, 2009 12:39 PM

This was a big even that happend in this time peirod, parents are worried about their children but they have to know that theirs alot more secerety in school’s know and school’s are very more stricked. Im a student at lindbergh high school in st.louis missori and their is many kidnappings and things that happen here, but parents and pricables are on it, its okay to be worried because if children are depressed or angry or anything that causes disomfort theirs help. (:

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