LITTLETON, Colo. -- The events of 9/11 altered forever the way the American public approached air travel. Some two years earlier, the shootings at Columbine High School similarly changed the American approach to education.
Beginning April 20, 1999, at 11:19 at Columbine High School, things also changed forever. Issues of school safety and security for students, parents, teachers, administrators and law enforcement were fundamentally altered in just under an hour. History lists 34 victims, 13 dead and 21 injured. In reality, the entire public school system of the United States was, to an extent, victimized by the actions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
Assuredly there were public school shootings prior to Columbine, and there have been several since. But unless you were directly connected to the incident in some fashion, you likely don’t remember the location, school or perpetrator. Even among professional educators, this tends to be the case. Columbine was different.
One of the worst acts of violence in a public school in the U.S. could have been ever so much worse. What ended up as a school shooting was planned as a major explosives attack with dozens of devices followed by shootings. The failure of the explosive devices kept the numbers of injured and dead in the dozens and not the hundreds.
The incident at Columbine challenged our perceptions of school violence on so many levels. On the most basic level, Columbine High School looked like any of several thousand suburban high schools across the United States. The comfortable, for many, stereotype of the economically depressed, inner-city urban, ethnic school as the focus of school violence no longer applied. The potential for shootings at any school anywhere had come home with a vengeance.
In the weeks and months following the incident at Columbine, as more and more information became available, schools and law enforcement began to revamp their procedures to meet the new reality. The late ’50s and early ’60s Cold War culture gave schools the “duck and cover” drill. The new reality gave schools the term “lockdown,” and the attendant procedure became as common as the monthly fire drill.
Faculty and staff training have become critical in increasing student safety. Tac*one, a school security and training firm, says, “It is no secret that the actions of school faculty during a critical incident will save more lives than responding law enforcement officers. Statistically once the shooting starts a life is taken every 15 seconds. It is imperative school faculty act quickly when implementing their response.”
Schools all over the United States began to budget for increased training, the upgrade of their physical security infrastructure and the addition of security personnel, diverting badly needed funding from other educational needs.
Officer.com, a law enforcement publication, reports the following law enforcement tactical change from the past: “By now, the majority of law enforcement departments in the United States train for the Active School Shooter scenario. The law enforcement community has realized that this scenario is the Patrol Officer's responsibility. The burden can no longer be passed to a Specialized Weapons and Tactics Unit. Patrol officers must engage the threat with force on force response.”
The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office reports this change in tactics in its training materials:
“Traditional Deployment to an Active Shooter Event
"Upon Patrol Deputies arrival at the scene …
"Secure the Perimeter.
"Gather Information/Help Victims.
"Wait for S.E.B. to arrive. Unfortunately in situations such as Columbine this precedent failed.
"Rapid Deployment to an Active Shooter Event
"New Tactic used by Law Enforcement.
"Upon Patrol Officers arrival at the scene.
"Enter the area / building as fast as possible.
"Sole objective is to neutralize the hostile threat with the least amount of force possible.
"Turn scene over to Special Weapons Team when they arrive.”
Parents and students were impacted as well. The addition of security measures like single point entry, video surveillance, electronic access control, metal detectors, visitor management and tracking systems and increased law enforcement and security personnel presence has given our schools a bit of the appearance of an armed camp.
Convenience and security are often polar opposites. The more convenient a school or classroom is, the less secure it will be. The unfortunate truth is we don’t educate our kids in Mayberry anymore. Convenience and the warm, open environment of the schools of the past were victims that spring morning in Colorado.
Prudence dictates that schools take these measures to help assure student and staff safety, just as prudence dictates that airports and the government take measures to assure the safety of the flying public. In either case, the efforts are safer but far less comfortable.
Guy Bliesner is a longtime educator, having taught and coached tennis and swimming. He is school safety and security administrator for the Bonneville School District in Idaho Falls, Idaho.