When 12 students and one teacher were killed in Littleton, Colo., 20 years ago, it became what at the time was the worst high school shooting in U.S. history. It also marked when American society was first handed a script for a new form of violence in schools.
In 20 — or nearly half — of those 46 school shootings, the perpetrator purposely used Columbine as a model.
Several school shooters in our study were fascinated with Columbine and researched the massacre before their own. This includes the Parkland shooter, a 14-year-old who aspired to be “the youngest mass murderer,” and a 15-year-old who shot at his teacher after she refused to praise Marilyn Manson, the rock singer erroneously blamed for inspiring the Columbine killers.
The timing of the April 17 threat to Colorado schools is no coincidence. Prior perpetrators chose the anniversary of Columbine to commit their shootings, including one month and two years after. A different shooter talked of how he was going to “pull a Columbine.” Others discussed Columbine with classmates, even joked about it.
The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter idolized the Columbine killers and curated a Tumblr account paying homage, alongside a graphic collage of Columbine victims. A North Carolina shooter was so obsessed with Columbine that he took a vacation there with his mother and fantasized about “finishing off” any wounded survivors.
Perpetrators dressed in trench coats like the Columbine shooters, including those responsible for the 2018 Santa Fe shooting, where 10 people died, and a 2004 nonfatal shooting in New York. Indeed, the trench coat has appeared in subsequent school shootings because Columbine gave it meaning beyond any intrinsic use.
Before Columbine, there was no script for how school shooters should behave, dress, and speak. Columbine created “common knowledge,” the foundation of coordination in the absence of a standardized playbook. Timing was everything. The massacre was one of the first to take place after the advent of 24-hour cable news and during the “year of the net.” This was the dawn of the digital age of perfect remembering, where words and deeds live online forever. Columbine became the pilot for future episodes of fame-seeking violence.
School shooters are almost always current students of their schools. They are students who are in crisis, students who have experienced trauma, and students who are actively suicidal prior to the shooting and expect to die in the act. Such children have always existed. But for 20 years they’ve had a new script to follow.
And we, the public, have contributed to the production and direction of this script. Again and again and again. Through our obsession with true crime and films, books, memes, and entire websites devoted to Columbine. By releasing CCTV footage of the shooting to the public. By running our children through regular lockdowns and active-shooter drills starting in preschool through 12th grade. By sending them to school through secure entrances with clear backpacks and bulletproof binders. Society and culture have reared a Columbine generation, modeling that this is just part of childhood in America.
After 20 years, it’s time to rewrite the script being rehearsed with young people.
It starts with no names, no photos, and no notoriety for mass shooters in media coverage — which is why we don’t indulge here. The next step is a paradigm shift from homeroom security to holistic violence prevention in schools — mental health, supportive environments, strong relationships, and crisis intervention and de-escalation. Teachers should feel as comfortable asking a student about suicide as they feel going into lockdown; empowered to spend as much time teaching empathy and resilience as they do now training to run, hide, fight.