Echoes of Columbine
This documentary explores the issue of school shootings and what schools, parents, and law enforcement can do to help prevent these attacks.
Michele Gay, Co-Founder, Safe and Sound Schools: Hello. I'm Michele Gay, co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools. The video you’re about to watch addresses one of the most urgent crises facing our country today: the issue of school shootings. It’s affected too many communities, too many schools, and far too many families. For me, this issue is deeply personal; I lost my daughter Josephine Grace in the attack on Sandy Hook School. Joey was 7 years old when an armed intruder walked into her school. She was one of 20 children and six educators to die that day. But, unfortunately, my story is not unique. All across the country, we are asking the same questions: What can we do? How can we stop these attacks? The FBI has worked with law enforcement, educators, psychologists, and community members to help answer these questions. What they’ve found is that, though there’s no single profile of a typical shooter, there are patterns and behaviors that we can all see and act on before tragedy strikes. In the following video, you’ll hear about programs around the country that are helping parents, schools, and communities understand the threat and take preventative measures to help avert these attacks. Far too many of us live with the devastation of knowing that our children will never come home again. We are hoping that, together, we can be part of a solution that empowers all of us to act before tragedy strikes another community. Thank you.
Heather Egeland-Martin, Columbine Survivor; Co-Founder, The Rebels Project: I really enjoyed attending Columbine. I enjoyed school, I enjoyed my friends. Rebels for life. It felt safe. Things were good. Bleed blue and silver, all that.
Operator: Jefferson County 911.
Caller: Yes, I’m a teacher at Columbine High School. There is a student here with a gun.
Operator: Has anybody been injured, ma’am?
Caller: Yes! Yes. And the school’s in a panic. And I’m in the library. I’ve got students down. Under the table, kids! Heads under the table!
Caller: Smoke is coming in from out there and I’m a little … The gun is right outside the library door. Okay? We need police here.
Egeland-Martin: Gunfire is erupting, tears start streaming down my face.
Sean Graves: When the first bullet hit, it just took out a chunk of my shoulder.
Newscaster: Police say 14 people may be injured after shots, explosions, and a fire were reported at suburban Denver’s Columbine High School.
Graves: I could hear screaming and just gunshots, lots and lots of echoing gunshots.
Egeland-Martin: And we still didn’t know, like, really what was happening, just that gunfire kept going off, and it was “boom, boom, boom.”
Deputy Chief A.J. DeAndrea, Arvada Police Department: There’s a lot of blood in the environment. There’s like a metallic taste in the air. There’s some bodies under some of the tables.
Graves: Nobody was trained for this. Nobody prepared for it. Nobody knew to be ready for it.
DeAndrea: Back then, we believed, “This is a SWAT thing. Hold the perimeter. SWAT gets there, we’ll take care of it.” And man, did we have the wrong plan in place.
Narrator: Columbine. Forty-nine minutes. Thirteen dead. It was a high school attack that shook the country. Kids killing other kids.
President Bill Clinton: I think tonight we owe it to the people of Littleton and to the families involved in this tragedy to let them go through the grieving, and the rest of us have a responsibility to do everything we can to prevent anything like this from happening again.
Narrator: Two decades later, what have we learned? What do we know about confronting this kind of attack? And how do we keep it from happening again?
Today, Columbine continues to resonate with a new breed of shooter—inspiring a cult-like following of those who see Columbine as a kind of twisted blueprint to follow and surpass. Columbine is seen as the origin story for many of the attacks that followed. They call it the Columbine Effect.
Dr. John Nicoletti, Police Psychologist: The Columbine Effect is really a psychological footprint of what it does to people. This event occurs, and it becomes mystical to many people, to the point that they want to make a pilgrimage just to see Columbine High School or they want to become part of the Columbine mentality or they want to become a Columbine shooter.
Alvaro Castillo: We’re getting close to Columbine High School. I’ve always wanted to come here.
John McDonald, Executive Director, Security and Emergency Management, Jefferson County Schools, Colorado: They want to feel it. They want to touch it. They want to experience it. This is their Mecca, this is where they want to be, this is what they feel connected to.
Castillo: And you see over there? That’s the library. That’s where everything took place. Right there.
Egeland-Martin: While Columbine certainly wasn’t the first, it was one of the first that unfolded on national TV for hours.
John Van Dreal, Director of Safety and Risk Management Services, Salem-Keizer School District, Oregon: They view that as the beginning of the Beta Revolution, where the rejected or the isolated males take revenge on the alpha males and the alpha females. Those two young men stood on the stage at the center of the social solar system for youth and screamed and yelled their rage through violence, and did so in a manner that got worldwide attention.
Narrator: Columbine has inspired over 80 copycat attacks. Hundreds of lives have been lost. Countless more have been injured. And its impact keeps on growing.
Dr. Dewey Cornell, Forensic Clinical Psychologist, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia: Even though young people today weren’t born at the time of Columbine, Columbine is still alive.
Lester Holt: Breaking news: A school shooting with reports of multiple fatalities, this time in Santa Fe, Texas.
Jim Cavanaugh, Retired ATF Agent: Probably this shooter was operating off the Columbine boilerplate, you know. There’s so many little commonalities: the trench coat, you know, bringing the explosives.
Van Dreal: Columbine gives them a template, and it also gives them a challenge to exceed the damage done at Columbine.
Cornell: We had a terrible shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007.
Reporter: At least 30 people believed to be killed on the campus of Virginia Tech University.
Cornell: And that young man had written an essay expressing admiration for the Columbine shootings.
Narrator: For all the online notoriety, much of the information about Columbine turns out to be wrong. The shooters were not outcasts. They were not victims.
McDonald: There are so many websites out there dedicated to the Columbine tragedy that they find this misinformation and they begin believing what they read. Most of them believe that what happened here was a result of bullying.
Frank DeAngelis, Former Principal, Columbine High School: These kids were not bullied. They never once mentioned bullying. We need to change that story that's out there and quit glorifying them.
Narrator: Since 2000, there have been over 50 active shooter incidents targeting schools. Nearly a quarter of them resulting in mass killings. But creating a profile of the average school shooter isn’t easy. In fact, it may not be possible at all.
Cornell: You can describe a kid who’s depressed and alienated and narcissistic and plays violent video games and he’s a victim of bullying and maybe he wears black trench coats. The problem is, every high school is going to have kids fitting these profiles. The FBI’s profiling units concluded that profiling wouldn't work for school shooting.
Narrator: While profiling doesn’t work, a series of studies over the past 20 years found that many school shooters do share common characteristics.
Nicoletti: One of the first steps is always a perceived injustice on the part of the attacker.
Andre Simons, Supervisory Special Agent, FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit: An injustice collector is somebody who has held onto and nurtured grievances, usually over a long period of time. We all experience humiliations and setbacks. For active shooters, it’s like a bruise that never heals.
Nicoletti: A feeling of being victimized. Things like being kicked off the debate team, girls not wanting to have sex with you. The perceived injustice may seem really bizarre. So what we tell folks is, “If it’s real to them, it better be real to you.”
Van Dreal: Revenge is a driving force in school violence because it's borne from humiliation and loss of control. Ultimately the desire is to regain control.
Narrator: Often, school shooters are looking for their 15 minutes of fame—media attention that will give them recognition, no matter how grim.
Cornell: We continue to have young people who are very troubled, alienated, withdrawn, who are looking for some way to make a statement about their frustration. And unfortunately when they turn to the media, they see many examples that give them ideas.
Reporter: Shortly before 9 this morning, police responded to reports of a shooting at Sal Castro Middle School. Police detained a 12-year-old girl and recovered a weapon.
Simons: Somebody who is feeling marginalized and who’s maybe contemplating an act of violence is recognizing that that shooter is getting infamy and notoriety, which is really appealing to them.
Narrator: Most school shooters—like all active shooters—don’t have a background in crime or a criminal history of violent behavior. But they do have challenges.
Simons: Twenty-five percent of the attackers had a mental health diagnosis prior to the attack. But there was evidence of mental issues in about 61 percent of the attackers. So while they didn’t have an official diagnosis, they may have been struggling with mental health issues.
Narrator: Mental health issues by themselves aren’t predictive of anything. But they may factor in. Anxiety, depression, and hopelessness may all amplify a potential shooter’s grievances.
Simons: Shooters on average experience about three or four stressors in their life leading up to the attack.
Detective Charles Dempsey, Los Angeles Police Department: Instability in the home life. Domestic violence. Family violence. Financial issues. There’s tons of motivators.
Simons: Suicidal risk can oftentimes play a part. About 90 percent had some evidence of suicidal ideation prior to the attack.
Narrator: Beyond individual psychological stressors, another catalyst lies out on the Internet. Almost all attackers find inspiration in the attacks that came before. Each one is more likely to trigger others. Potential shooters don’y just get interested in previous attacks—they’re fascinated. They study them in detail, collecting books, articles, video clips. But even for someone with these characteristics, the path to violence is most often a long trajectory. Over 77 percent of all active shooters—including school shooters—spend days, weeks, even months getting ready.
Karie Gibson, Supervisory Special Agent, FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit: School attacks are not sudden or impulsive. They don’t just snap. They consider, plan, and prepare. It’s very methodical, and it takes time for them to plan their attack.
Narrator: And in that time, they often reveal their violent intentions.
Gibson: We call them pre-attack behavior indicators.
Cornell: There were statements that they made, things that they did, that suggested a threat.
Holt: We are getting word of another possible mass shooting—this one at a community college in southwest Oregon. Umpqua Community College.
This has been another mass shooting in the United States with a large number of people either dead or wounded.
Gibson: The perpetrator struggled with anger, struggled with frustration. He had been hospitalized on several events because of wanting to harm others.
Jeffrey Schiltz, Special Agent, FBI Portland: The mother talked about an incident when he pointed a loaded shotgun at her.
Gibson: He’s upset with life. And it goes into more this feeling that there needs to be violence to resolve his grievance.
Narrator: On the day of the attack, the perpetrator handed a classmate a thumb drive containing his manifesto and instructed him to deliver it to law enforcement.
Gibson: We see throughout that manifesto the sense of entitlement and anger for him not having things in his life that he feels that he should have.
Schiltz: He also talked about how he is a loner, how he’s a virgin, doesn't have a job—sort of the mindset of that the world is against him.
Gibson: He does his research and planning just like all of the others that we see do. He did talk about Columbine. And he really starts to see himself in those other shooters.
Narrator: What are those pre-attack behavior indicators? They start with behavior changes—increases in impulsiveness, recklessness, and aggression.
Simons: If suddenly you see a dramatic change in behavior in someone’s social media posture, and a real decline in their functioning, as well as maybe an obsession with past attacks and inappropriate or escalated interest in weapons, those are all red flags, potentially.
Nicoletti: In order to engage an attack, what we find is there have to be two variables there: a desensitization and a dehumanization. So the desensitization gives a person courage to engage in the attack behavior. The dehumanization moves the individual from a person who has family and feelings to a slab of meat or an object.
Simons: In the weeks and the months leading up to the attack, there’s a sense of downward spiral in their life, that they may be disengaged from schoolwork, from classes, or from their employment. That sense of the downward spiral is oftentimes very noticeable to others, including peers, teachers, employers, and coworkers.
Narrator: Another key warning sign is known as “leakage”—an intentional or unintentional signal that they are on the pathway to violence.
Nicoletti: Leakage is really a broadcast where the individual is telling you kind of what they’re about to do.
Elliot Rodger: Tomorrow is the day of retribution. The day in which I will have my revenge against humanity.
Nicoletti: They’ll broadcast by making comments. They’ll broadcast by different writings. They’ll broadcast by classroom assignments. They’ll broadcast by telling their friends. In the virtual world of the social media, they’ll broadcast by posting things on, you know, YouTube or their Facebook or websites, Instagram.
Deputy Chief Horace Frank, Counterterrorism & Special Operations Bureau, Los Angeles Police Department: A lot of these threatening remarks turned out to be not criminal in nature. But at some point, these individuals evolve. They cross that line.
Narrator: In about a third of the cases, the school shooter actually drafts a manifesto to lay out their motives. Often they portray themselves as a god or some kind of heroic avenger. The analysts call these “legacy tokens.”
Gibson: Legacy tokens are the offender’s way of claiming responsibility for the attack as well as, in their words, telling us why they wanted to do this attack.
Seung-Hui Cho: You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option. The decision was yours. Now you have blood on your hands that will never wash off.
Rodger: You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me. But I will punish you all for it.
Van Dreal: The Santa Barbara shooting, a very misogynistic manifesto was provided before he attempted to kill the college girls in their sorority. So I think we’ve seen an increase in manifestos and theatrics.
Narrator: In case after case, the warning signs are present. And there is time to detect them.
Simons: One of the most common myths about school shooters is that they can’t be stopped, whereas the opposite is true.
John Wyman, Unit Chief, FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit: School shootings can be stopped. They are preventable. There are observable and detectable warning signs and indicators that will provide opportunities for intervention and identification of potential school shooters.
Narrator: In the aftermath of a shooting, many schools respond by enacting a policy of zero tolerance.
Newscaster: A 7-year-old Maryland boy was suspended from school after biting his Pop Tart into the shape of a gun.
Cornell: After Columbine, zero tolerance became no tolerance for, you know, finger pointing and plastic utensils and water pistols. All around the country we’ve seen kids who have been kicked out of school for pointing their finger and going, “pow, pow.” But there's no evidence that that works. There’s zero evidence for zero tolerance.
Narrator: Preventing a school shooting requires a more tailored approach.
Loren Cannon, Special Agent in Charge, FBI Portland: We’ve really been focusing increasingly on the idea of threat assessment—discerning the threat early and mitigating it before an event.
Cornell: I evaluated a young man who committed the school shooting in Paducah, Kentucky. Under the stress of bullying, he became depressed and withdrawn. And then he actually went to school and told some of his friends, “Don’t be in the lobby Monday morning.” The sad thing is, over a dozen kids were warned about the threat; none of them went to an adult. I realized there were so many places that this event could have been stopped. And that’s when I heard the term “threat assessment,” and it clicked.
Simons: A threat assessment is attempting to answer the question of, “Is this person on a pathway towards violence?”
Narrator: Preventing a school shooting starts with creating a threat assessment team—a multi-disciplinary group of educators, counselors, and law enforcement all working together.
Nicoletti: Each individual will bring a different perspective to the team and provide different databases. You’re able to see the big picture.
Cornell: Our threat assessment team members, they’re problem solvers. So if we can figure out how to solve that young person’s problem, there’s no need for them to resort to violence.
Narrator: For threat assessment teams, the challenge boils down to answering several important questions.
Cornell: What is their behavior? Are they on a pathway toward violence? Have they acquired weapons? Tried to recruit an accomplice? Have they engaged in some planning or preparation to carry out a violent act?
Narrator: To answer those questions, researchers have developed several basic threat assessment models. The Salem-Keizer model is a snapshot built around 20 questions, which identifies risk factors that increase the possibility a student will act out violently.
Van Dreal: The protocol drives a team to determine where there are levels of risk that need to be addressed to prevention, and that can be done very quickly with this system.
Narrator: The Virginia Student Threat Assessment Model focuses on whether the threat is transient or substantive.
Cornell: A transient threat, they can resolve. They don’t have to spend a whole lot of resources on it that they don’t have. And substantive threats, they’re going to take protective action, they’re going to develop a plan, they’re going to work with this young person to resolve the problem. A very small percentage of substantive threats, less than 10 percent, are very serious. Threat to kill, stab, shoot, commit what would be, you know, an aggravated assault or a felonious assault.
Dempsey: Anytime an individual demonstrates a proclivity or a desire to act out, no matter what the motivating factor is, we need to intercede, make contact, limit access to weapons.
Nicoletti: We’ll hear schools say, “Well, let’s keep an eye on this person.” Can’t do that. Pretty much the approach we take is if they’re on your radar, you better have a countermeasure.
McDonald: If you rise to the level of significant concern in our environment, then we monitor you, we put safety plans in place. You may not be able to come back to the school you were at. You may have to get searched every day you come into the school.
Nicoletti: Law enforcement sometimes says, “Well, we can’t do anything unless the person commits a crime,” when in fact there are some things law enforcement can do. One of the effective things is what’s called a “knock and talk,” where you just send a school resource officer and law enforcement person to talk to the individual, because when you do that, that lets a person know you’re on our radar, and we’re gonna be monitoring you.
Narrator: With the threat assessment team in place, hotlines and apps are great sources for tips on potential threats.
McDonald: In Colorado, we have Safe2Tell. Following Parkland, we had 169 reports of planned school attacks in a two-week period in this district.
Terri Davie, Deputy Superintendent, Oregon State Police: Safe Oregon is a program that was developed where students, parents, faculty, can reach out via text messaging, mobile app, telephone calls, emails to a call center, and report any type of behavior.
Chuck Lennon, Social Worker, Los Angeles Department of Mental Health: Here in LA County, the Department of Mental Health has a 24/7 800 helpline.
Frank: You can do it anonymously. If you’re scared to go to the school principal or a police officer or SRO, get on the app, report it.
Gibson: We really need to encourage them to come forward whenever they see a change in behavior. For us, the change in behavior is significant.
Cornell: We’ve had threat assessment cases where it was the parent who came forward and said, “I’m concerned about something my child said or did, or something I saw in his bedroom.” But the parents aren’t willing to do that if they think it's going to bring a hammer down on their child. They have to know that the school has a threat assessment approach, that that approach is problem-solving oriented, and that we try to intervene before there's a criminal act.
Frank: In most of these cases, the families or parents have no idea what the kids were doing.
Lennon: Maybe they’ve never gone online and looked what their young person has posted. Is there anything in their diaries at home? Is there anything in their bedroom?
Frank: The key is working with the families, get communicating to them that the goal isn’t necessarily to take the kid, arrest them, and incarcerate them and throw away the key, but rather to find the kind of help for that kid that would benefit them in the long term. And I think most parents are more than willing to do that.
Gibson: It’s better to say something and have it not be anything than to have to live with the fact that you had a piece of the puzzle and then you were unable to share it with somebody.
Narrator: Every tip should be taken seriously so that nothing falls through the cracks.
Frank: Clearly when we look at Parkland, there were cues that were missed, and we need to do a better job of identifying those cues when they get reported to us.
McDonald: If it’s important enough for them to call us and tell us about the issues that are concerning them, it’s important enough for us to respond.
Cornell: Every threat is a kid waving a red flag saying, “I’ve got a problem I can’t solve.”
Narrator: But these problems can often be solved with help from a threat assessment team, by crafting an intervention plan—an individualized blueprint that steers the student away from violence.
Simons: Some of the best strategies are actually providing assistance—sometimes counseling, sometimes alternative learning programs, and sometimes arrest and prosecution.
Cornell: We hope that every state will encourage schools to have threat assessment. And when schools realize how helpful it can be, they’ll want to have a threat assessment team in their school.
Narrator: Threat assessment models can be applied at the university level as well. But it is more challenging.
Simons: Colleges by their nature tend to be more porous, have open boundaries, and are inviting in members from the community. Unfortunately, what that allows is for an outsider attacker to penetrate into a college facility and be able to attack.
Narrator: But even in colleges, research has shown that there is usually a link between the attacker and the campus.
Simons: We found that overwhelmingly, 91 percent of the attackers had some type of affiliation to the college campus.
Dempsey: After the Newtown shooting, we had a student at Cal State LA, who posted on social media, “Newtown was nothing.” When we worked with the university, we found out that the individual was indeed seeking services there. And, lo and behold, he lived in East Hollywood with his family. And his father had a closet full of guns. We went to the house, determined the firearms were not properly secured, we removed the firearms, informed the family—the family had no idea that their son, in college, was making these postings.
Narrator: Research shows again and again, threat assessment and intervention do work.
McDonald: We’re preventing school attacks around this country all the time, and I think it’s one of the little-known successes.
Cornell: In Virginia, we’ve had cases where young people have been apprehended with a weapon at the door of the school. There are thousands of threats, and 99 percent of them aren’t carried out. And so that’s really the best evidence that what we’re doing is effective.
Narrator: Even with this success, communities must be prepared in the event of an attack.
DeAndrea: In law enforcement, you know, you’ll train on active shooter once a year for eight hours. And then to think, you know, 10 months from now, when it’s your day, that we’re going to perform, it’s insane.
McDonald: We’re seeing too many communities around the country that still don't believe that these school shootings are going to happen. So it’s time to step up. Protect your community. Protect your kids.
Cornell: People sometimes ask me, “Should the police and school people work together?” And my answer is they have to. We don’t want school folks to underreact to serious cases where law enforcement intervention is needed, and we don’t want law enforcement to overreact to cases that are not serious.
McDonald: I’d say this to cops: If you don’t have good relationships with your educators, fix it. Schools: If you don’t have good relationships with your cops, fix it. Fix it right now before it’s too late.
Narrator: After two decades, the echoes of Columbine still resonate with what we have lost, and what we have learned.
Simons: We have learned quite a bit about active shooters and how we can prevent these attacks from happening. What it involves is a partnership between bystanders, peers, teachers, family members, as well as law enforcement and mental health, all working together as a team to prevent these things from happening.
Gibson: Can I tell you that today on this date and time that a school attack is going to occur? No—I can't predict that it’s gonna happen. But I can prevent it. All we really need is one person who comes forward.
Narrator: It’s rare to get a chance to actually save lives. But this is one of those times. We may never prevent every attack. But in hometowns all across the country, we can make a difference.
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