Columbine -- 10 Years Later, Lessons Learned

Columbine 10 Years Later: Lessons Learned

Ten years ago, the name of a suburban-Denver high school, Columbine, became synonymous with school shootings.

Even at the time it was not the most deadly of campus shootings, yet this event seared itself into our collective consciences as we struggled to understand how and why two teenagers were able to kill 15 people (including themselves) and injure another 24 students and teachers.

As we reach the tenth anniversary of that day, now is a good time to review what we have learned to help prevent future school shootings.

Late on the morning of April 20, 1999, the students – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold  – armed with guns and pipe bombs headed for the school’s main building.  On their way in, they killed and wounded several students. Once inside, they spent nearly an hour shooting in hallways, classrooms, the library and cafeteria. Unaware of the number of gunmen or their location, sheriff’s department officers remained outside throughout the entire event.

Columbine had video surveillance cameras throughout its campus.  But only after the shootings could law enforcement piece together what happened by reviewing tape from the system’s videocassette recorders.

Technology has matured since 1999.  Fortunately, today’s digital video systems can be accessed via the Internet to provide a real time view.  That information may have made it possible for the officers at Columbine to know how many shooters were involved and their locations.  Knowing that, officers could have entered the building sooner, isolated the shooters and begun removing the wounded.

•    Today, no school should be without a digital video surveillance system.  Digital cameras provide extra “eyes” and remote-monitoring capabilities are a tremendous security advantage.

Some of Columbine’s wounded and frightened victims remained in the building three hours after the shooters committed suicide.  An emergency notification system, available today, could have provided those trapped with silent text message updates via their cell phones.  Students and teachers still ambulatory could have been advised when it was safe to leave.  Also, such a system could update worried parents about where to gather for briefings from authorities.

•    Today, no school should be without an emergency notification system.  The cost of this computer-based technology is very modest and can be used for many other purposes such as reminders of parent-teacher conferences.

All school rooms should be locked when not in use. Columbine’s cafeteria was wide open, when Harris and Klebold planted defective bombs earlier in the morning. A card reader would have allowed only authorized employees entry to the cafeteria until it was time for the school’s first lunch group.

•    Today, no school should be without an access control system. It can protect entry to critical areas such as offices and labs.  The likely reduction in theft and vandalism alone may more than pay for the system.

Unfortunately, Columbine’s emergency plan was not able to handle the crisis.  A school resource officer was not assigned to Columbine.  If so, an armed and trained law enforcement professional would have been inside the school as the shootings began.  Also, a well drafted and practiced emergency plan can provide structure and help save lives during a crisis.

•    Today, no school should be without a detailed and practiced emergency plan.  Also, all schools should request that their local law enforcement department assign a school resource office to each campus.

From what I know, Columbine was probably as well secured as most schools in 1999.  Administrators did not think such an event could happen there.  But it did, just as fatal school shootings have since occurred in more than 30 other communities.

•    Today, no school can take the attitude that “it can’t happen here.”  It can. And do not accept the argument that there is no room within tight budgets for adequate security.  There are many government grants available at both the state and federal levels.

We can never guarantee an end to school shootings.  But by taking advantage of readily available technology, working closely with local law enforcement and preparing and practicing crisis plans with rescuers, it is possible to limit and contain damage.

Students and teachers need to feel safe while on campus.  It is the job of the entire community to do our best to create a genuine feeling of safety.

 -- Patrick Fiel, ADT Public Safety Advisor