Lessons of Columbine not all learned yet
Many lessons from the worst school shooting in U.S. history still haven’t fully trickled down to schools and law enforcement, attorneys generals from around the Mountain West learned Tuesday.The state attorneys were in Vail for the Conference of Western Attorneys General, a group that includes states along and west of the Continental Divide. The Tuesday seminar, “Special Report on the Columbine Incident” was hosted by Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar. Panelists were former Boulder County Sheriff George Epp; Del Elliott of the University of Colorado’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence; and Chief Deputy Attorney General Don Quick.Epp and Elliott both served on a commission to study the shootings at Columbine High School near Denver on April 20, 1999. During the incident, 12 students and a teacher were killed. The gunmen, Columbine students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, committed suicide at the end of the attack.”There’s a lot we’ve learned and a lot we have yet to learn,” Salazar told the audience.Bad tactics? Lessons learned have led to legislative efforts to close the “gun show loophole,” which allowed guns to change hands without any record at those shows, and passage of the “safe schools” act, which provided local officials with the authority to work together to plan for crises and, possibly, identify students who might commit violent acts at schools.
One of the crucial lessons learned at Columbine was the importance of communication, both before and during the incident, panelists said. Rapid response teams from several police departments converged on Columbine in the moments after the shooting started. But, Epp said, those teams had never trained together and had never tried to communicate with each other.In addition, the chaos at the scene, with countless phone calls pouring into dispatch centers, effectively jammed communication. “Dispatchers couldn’t get information to the officers,” Epp said.While better training can help in shootings and other incidents, Epp also said that the tactics used that day cost lives.”When I was first training in the early ’70s, we were taught that on any call, your first duty is to arrive at the scene safely, then to stop the assault, to render aid, then interview witnesses,” Epp said. At Columbine, officers formed a perimeter, but didn’t enter the school until hours after the shooting stopped.As a result, teacher Dave Sanders bled to death from his wounds.
“In our analysis, if officers had acted quickly, lives could have been saved,” Epp said.Science of preventionPerhaps more lives could have been saved if the myriad agencies that had dealt with Klebold and Harris had worked together before the shootings, Epp said.The problem was that law enforcement, prosecutors, social workers and educators were communicating “vertically,” that is, from manager to manager, and not “horizontally,” from officer to case worker to teacher, Epp said.”Different people had different pieces of the puzzle,” Epp said.If Klebold and Harris had been identified as potential threats, there’s a chance they might not have fired more than 1,100 rounds of ammunition that day at Columbine.
“The science of prevention is at a place where we can intervene successfully” with teens at risk for destructive behavior, Elliott said.Elliott, who Salazar said has donated “thousands of hours” of time to the Columbine investigations, urged the elected officials present to use their influence to try to put more preventive programs in place in their state. But, he said, not just any program will work.”About 75 percent of the programs in use now have no evidence of effectiveness,” Elliott said.But prevention is necessary. Elliott said while gun violence has dropped in schools, violent incidents were at record levels last school year. Bullying and substance use are endemic in schools and communities that recognize those facts and face them stand a better chance of succeeding, he said. The right programs can cut bullying and drug use by more than half.Getting to kids is easier with the right team in place. Elliott urged the attorneys present to work to put together “interagency social support teams,” comprised of school, law enforcement, mental health and social service officials. Those teams can bring together confidential information to identify kids who are at risk, and intervene at levels ranging from counseling to search warrants.
‘Convenient excuse’An essential part of prevention is putting Crime Stoppers and similar programs in place at schools, Quick said. Of 37 school shootings in the United States between 1974 and 2000, the shooters told someone of their plans about 75 percent of the time. In only two of those cases, though, did the shooters tell adults. “Kids need to be active partners in prevention,” and a way to anonymously report what they hear is essential, Quick said,.After the panelists had their say, a former Jefferson County school teacher asked just how to make programs happen.”We have huge deficits in the district,” Barbara May said. “I don’t know who’s going to pay for these programs.” Epp said budget issues are a “convenient excuse” for not doing anything. “It’s a matter of doing business differently,” he said.Elliott agreed, saying it’s crucial communities decide to “use current resources differently.”
The main issue is using the lessons Columbine taught to head off future incidents.In his remarks before the panel discussion, Salazar, a Democrat who is running for U.S. Senate, talked about spending a day at Columbine several months before the shootings.”What I saw was the kind of school anyone would want to have,” a place where kids wanted to learn, and teachers were enthusiastic, Salazar said. “It was the kind of community where you wouldn’t expect this to happen.”The next time Salazar walked the halls of Columbine, bullet holes pockmarked the walls, and victims’ blood was still on the floor. “This could happen anywhere,” Salazar said. “It needs to be a topic we discuss.”Preventing violenceTo learn more about the Safe Schools Initiative, the Colorado Anti-Bullying Project and violence prevention, go to: http://www.colorado.edu/cspv.
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