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National School Walkout Day, 19 years after Columbine

National School Walkout Day, 19 years after Columbine

Today is the “National School Walkout” day, where kids across the country are leaving their classrooms to make a statement about the gun violence that has plagued American schools. Some folks initially rolled their eyes at the chosen date of 4/20, assuming it was a not-so-sly reference by mischievous teens to the universal number code for possession of marijuana. But that is not why it was chosen; it was because April 20th is the anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

Columbine — it is a “where were you” moment, one of those events that people old enough to remember can tell you where they were and what they were doing when it happened. To many people’s memory it was a watershed event, the ushering in of the era of the modern day school shooting. Many think of the sad phenomenon of school massacres as having begun with Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’ bloody, deadly rampage through their high school.

It didn’t, really. Surprisingly, there are incidents of mass murder in public schools in the United States dating back to the 1800s. The most deadly mass murder to occur in a school in United States’ history was at the Bath School House in Bath Township, Michigan in 1927, when local farmer Andrew Kehoe used bombs to kill 45 people, most of them children aged 7 to 12. However, the modern rash of multiple-victim incidents perpetrated by students themselves began in the late 1990s- but prior to the April 20, 1999 event at Columbine.

The first of these was in 1996, in Moses Lake, Washington, when 14 year old Barry Loukaitis killed two classmates and a teacher with his father’s gun.

There were two more in 1997. In Pearl, Mississippi 16 year old Luke Woodham killed his mother, then two students at his high school. In Paducah, Kentucky, 14 year old Michael Carneal fired on a morning prayer circle outside of his school, killing 3 and injuring 5.

In 1998 in Jonesboro Arkansas, middle schoolers Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson, ages 11 and 13 respectively, opened fire on their school yard. They killed 5 and injured 10.

In Springfield, Oregon, also in 1998, Kipland Kinkel killed his parents, then went to school, shot 2 of his classmates to death and injured 25 more.

By the time Columbine happened, the term “school shooter” had already burrowed into the American lexicon. It became a sort of zeitgeist of evil looming in our society, recurring often enough to instill a dull fear in the back of the mind of parents everywhere. Columbine was not the beginning, though it represented something different in its sheer scale. But it was more than just an increased body count that was new; Columbine also coincided with the beginnings of the ubiquitous 24 hour news cycle. CNN was on the scene early, breaking the news before the killers even shot themselves. Their live broadcast from the scene, its images of bodies on the sidewalk, scared kids streaming out of the building with their hands up, and crying, horrified faces of students and parents, gave viewers a sense of reality of something that until then, they could “only imagine”.

The reporting was thorough, continuous, and in depth. For weeks, the murderers’ names and faces, information about their families, and theories about their motivations dominated the media. Some of the survivors made the rounds on talk shows, describing what they saw that day and what they knew about the killers. We have now seen this scenario play out again and again, as the public struggles to figure out why this keeps happening and how to fix it.

There have been many other school shootings between that 1996 incident at Moses Lake and the recent event in Parkland, Florida. Counting only high school shootings  for which a student was responsible and in which there were multiple victims, there have been no less than 12. That excludes Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and other colleges, incidents of targeted, one-on-one violence, and undoubtedly others that did not make national news for one reason or another. Since Parkland, there has been at least one more.

The February shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland was reminiscent of Columbine in setting, fatality count, and initial media coverage. The victims’ names and faces, and more so, sadly, those of the killer, have become familiar in American households. While tales of heroism arose from both tragedies, so did controversies. After Columbine, we villainized Marilyn Manson; after Parkland, we villainized (or, for some, re-emphasized the villainy of)  the NRA. In both cases, people desperate to understand the inexplicable theorized that bullying of the perpetrator was the real culprit.

There are legitimate reasons why not everyone agrees with the protests that are happening around the country today, but it is hard to disagree that school massacres have become an unwanted but undeniable part of our lives. As we wait to see not if, but when, the next one will occur, take a moment today to reflect on the lives we have lost. From the bombing of Bath School in 1927 to the shooting at Great Mills High in Maryland- which occurred a few weeks after Parkland- America has lost well over 100 souls to school violence (including the victims at Sandy Hook.) We need not take a side in the protests to remember them all, and the potential that died with them.


Photo by Mobilus In Mobili National School Walkout Day, 19 years after Columbine

Senior Editor

Em was one of those argumentative children who was sarcastically encouraged to become a lawyer, so she did. She is a proud life-long West Virginian, and, paradoxically, a liberal. In addition to writing about society, politics and culture, she enjoys cooking, podcasts, reading, and pretending to be a runner. She will correct your grammar. You can find her on Twitter.

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32 thoughts on “National School Walkout Day, 19 years after Columbine

  1. Em – Thank you so much for writing about this, and especially for writing about it in the contextualized way that you did.

    I actually don’t remember where I was or what I was doing when I heard about Columbine (9/11 is the only day I remember that way, and a few vague wisps from the loss of the Challenger), but I do remember the weeks of dread and stress I felt following, the feeling that something had shifted (even though I was well aware of the history, that school shootings had happened many times before).

    I appreciate how you’ve put some of those feelings on the page so clearly, and reading about the nuances that you perceive as well.


  2. The reporting was thorough, continuous, and in depth. For weeks, the murderers’ names and faces, information about their families, and theories about their motivations dominated the media. Some of the survivors made the rounds on talk shows, describing what they saw that day and what they knew about the killers. We have now seen this scenario play out again and again, as the public struggles to figure out why this keeps happening and how to fix it.

    The last part in bold is answered by the first part.

    The solution on “how to fix it” is to prevent the first bold.


  3. This:

    The reporting was thorough, continuous, and in depth.

    is both right and wrong. There was a lot of reporting on the issue. However, much of it was false, and I suspect it was journalists plagiarizing other journalists. Dave Cullen wrote a book titled Columbine in 2009 and in it, he debunked many of the popular stories. (I haven’t read the book, but I’ve heard/read interviews with him and the details stuck with me; it’s on my reading list.) The killers weren’t unpopular kids–they both had friends, attended parties, etc. They didn’t listen to Marilyn Manson. One of them was a sociopath and that was the cause.


    • I’ve read it. Much of the popular narrative isn’t accurate. They had friends, there was a ‘trench coat mafia’ but Harris and Klebold weren’t part of it. Their rampage was supposed to be done primarily with bombs, not the firearms they brought (the intent for those seems to have been to defend themselves while they laid the bombs then suicide, possibly by cop). Harris was a military kid who had a kind of tough, isolated upbringing and became truly sociopathic. Klebold was a normal suburbanite but had some serious depression problems and latched on to Harris.

      I can never decide if I think that the presence of SSRIs in the systems of these shooters is a cause or if people with the disposition to do it just end up on pharmaceuticals. I do like the ‘some asshole’ idea. The media had made too many of these people famous. The Columbine killers themselves were inspired in part by Timothy McVeigh.


      • As you rightly point out Harris was a sociopath, and while it is valid to examine that, a lot of these things come down to a very uncomfortable place: we are trying to fit logic and reason onto something that will probably never fit into those forms. The outliers like Harris are just not going to be very applicable to the general population. Lessons to be learned, but few rules that can be universally applied.


      • As someone who’s been on SSRI’s, I’m not crazy about this comment. That sentiment isn’t intended to stigmatize people seeking help with mental issues, I’m sure, but I think it can have that effect. SSRI’s may be overprescribed, but the available evidence indicates that they’re beneficial for some people – people who are in a mental state that makes them reluctant to seek out help or follow through with it.

        SSRI’s are serious. Different ones and different doses affect people differently, as does discontinuing them. You should talk to a competent and involved doctor before taking them.


        • Just to clarify it wasn’t my intent to stigmatize anyone. I think it’s possible they’re a contributing factor in some cases. I know it’s rare but it has been documented that they can have some very weird side effects, particularly on adolescents. Doesn’t mean they have no utility for anyone or that I think everyone on them is or should be treated as dangerous.

          Because the events themselves are so rare trying to tease out causation is really tough. It’s also totally possible that these come out in almost all of the toxicology reports because so many people take them to begin with or because they’re the go to for doctors when someone comes to them reporting depression.


          • In my (very amateur) research on elementary, middle, and high school shooters, I’ve gathered information on 20 individual perpetrators, as much as I could find. I know of 5 that were confirmed to have been taking some sort of prescribed medication for mental illness at the time of their incidents and 3 who had taken them previously, if not at the time of their crimes (this includes no only SSRIs but antipsychotics. History of mental illness without history of medication was reported in a few others.
            There are other commonalities among school shooters that are more prevalent than medication.


  4. The Cullen book was excellent. It was a perfect storm of evil when those two boys connected. Harris was a scary person and I believe he had the makings of a serial killer, had he not done what he did.


  5. I definitely remember where I was when I heard the news. I was in a TA office meeting with a student, who had told me about some sort of shooting. Somewhere along the line that afternoon day, either from him or from another person, I learned that the shooting was at Columbine High School. I didn’t know the extent of the damage, but I was nervous because my niece, who lived in Littleton, was a high school student, and I called my mom to ask her about if she knew anything. I don’t know if she had even heard of the shooting yet, but she was able to tell me my niece went to Arapaho and not Columbine.

    That night and the next few days, it was a hard thing to absorb. I went to school in DPS, but my part of Denver wasn’t too far from Littleton and most (or at least many) people at my had had friends at Columbine. Of course, my high school years had been 6 years before the shooting, so there was a degree of separation, but it was still a hard thing to learn about.


    • I remember VA Tech better than I remember Columbine. I was just past my Ph.D. defense and gearing up for my first “real” (aka:scary) job when Columbine happened.

      I remember watching some of the coverage (evening news) on the little tv in my parents’ “guest room” (which I used as sort of a sitting room: I lived with them in grad school) and being kind of confused and horrified, bit it didn’t hit me in the gut like VA Tech did.

      I was sitting in my office on campus when VA Tech happened. It was scary and surreal and one of my colleagues lost a cousin in the shooting.

      And as to what someone else said: I wholeheartedly support the “Some Asshole” initiative. It might not stop everything altogether but I suspect a certain percentage of these jerks have some twisted sense of “getting famous.”


  6. I was a college sophomore. I went to my boyfriend’s house mid-afternoon after classes and he was watching it on CNN. I was riveted until the wee hours of the morning. Since then I’ve been an amateur researcher of school shootings. Columbine was not the first but it was something different.


      • I’ll be curious. That confusion is often used as a disqualifer of a gun control advocate. But this is a gun owner. If mixing those up makes someone ignorant of firearm basics, surely he should have his weapon taken away… right?


        • I personally don’t get hung up on such things, unless it is in the greater context of someone espousing expertise that makes such a mistake. I’m sure myself and plenty of others who know better have the same slip. There is a point in saying you should have a basic knowledge of firearms to discuss nuts and bolts policy of them, but disqualifying/dismissing solely on terminology is too far.


          • I have a bigger issue with the use of guns as props, like Feely did here, or as fetishized by Tomi L. and her ilk. I think it only hurts the image of responsible gun ownership.

            Tidbit about Columbine- they had a couple of shot guns and some pistols. No “assault weapons”. Of course, they intended the bombs to cause more carnage than they did, but it’s at least anecdotally an argument against ARs and the like being the problem to solve.


            • RE: the prop thing: I don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who take those pics and post them on social media expressly to garner attention. You are not advancing anything other than drawing attention to yourself.
              The Columbine tidbit about not being is interesting. People forget, Eisenhower was president when the AR-15 was invented, and it has been exclusively sold to the civilian market since 1964. It didn’t magically or suddenly become more deadly. The issue is more than just the weapon.


              • It didn’t magically or suddenly become more deadly. The issue is more than just the weapon.

                It’s the copycat effect. We’ve had multiple successful school shooters use that gun, so future shooters will emulate previous ones and do the same thing.

                Thing is it’s less a magic feather than it is force of belief, and I expect it’d be instantly replaced if banned… and it’s not the rate limiting factor here. The successful shooters are able to reload multiple times because they don’t need to deal with police interference (for whatever reason). Making them reload more won’t make a difference if the police are an hour away from doing anything useful.


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