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Columbine tragedy 20 years later:
James Alan Fox and Kristy Kellom, Opinion
columnist and opinion contributor
Published 3:15 a.m. ET April 19, 2019
Obsessing over the risk and frequent
reminders that a Columbine-style shooting could happen anywhere do more to
elevate fear than alleviate it.
Despite fears, risk
of dying in school shooting is low
the 20th anniversary of Columbine High School massacre in which a dozen
students and one teacher were killed during a coldly-calculated assault with
high-powered firearms. The images of the horrific event, broadcast live via
satellite trucks and captured on the school's surveillance tapes, have
remained fresh in the minds of Americans even after so many years. The
anniversary is not only an occasion for remembering the victims, but for
contemplating Columbine's legacy.
There have been other
school shootings with staggering body counts. But none has had quite the
same impact on our collective consciousness or such a prominent place in
The hour-long killing spree has been chronicled in
countless books, spawned movies of various genres, and is tastelessly
recalled through tee-shirts, action figures and a role-play video game. It
has also inspired copycats.
A particularly troubling legacy lies in boundless
fear of school shootings. A cohort of youngsters -students forced repeatedly
to participate in so-called "Columbine Drills" - have labeled themselves the
Columbine Generation for their ever-present concern for surviving school.
Not to disregard the
significant impact of any school shooting, the level of fear is inconsistent
with the risk. In the 19 academic years since Columbine, a total of 124
students have been fatally shot at school, for an average of five annually.
By contrast, over that same time frame 20,000 school-age youngsters have
been the victims of gun homicide -1,500 of them at the hands of a family
member. By providing supervision and structure, our nation's schools are
safe; for some children, safer even than their own homes.
instead of alleviating it
Despite the statistical
rarity, obsessing over the risk and frequent reminders that a
Columbine-style shooting could happen anywhere do more to elevate fear than
alleviate it. Surrounding students with a fortress-like environment sends a
strong message of imminent threat: The bad guy is gunning for you!
In contrast to
metal detectors and active shooter drills, students can be protected through
unobtrusive measures, including the installation of bullet-resistant glass
and tiny acoustic sensors that would immediately alert the police to the
location of gunfire. Moreover, schools can be designed or reconfigured to
limit unwelcome access and the resulting carnage should an armed assailant
seek to turn a school into a personal battleground.
Partly inspired by lessons
learned at Columbine, the "Run, Hide, Fight" tactic has been promoted as a
"best practice" by Homeland Security. Unfortunately, much of the emphasis
has been on the last resort of engaging the assailant in a counterattack.
Schools have increased the deployment of school resource officers, teachers
with concealed weapons, and even provided students with rocks and hockey
pucks to repel a gunman.
Meanwhile, less attention has been given to the
higher priority options of run and hide. For example, hallways that are
well-illuminated and free of obstacles, such as recycle bins and display
tables, improve avenues for escape. Less obvious are appropriate strategies
for providing adequate safe cover.
Protection isn't just new locks
By calibrating levels of visibility, Linda
Nubani and Kristy Kellom of the School of Planning, Design and Construction
at Michigan State University are researching the optimal mix of open spaces
and hiding places. Expansive atriums and the abundance of glass walls,
although pleasant aesthetically, have been shown to make people feel exposed
and vulnerable. Such designs can also hinder the ability of first responders
to approach an active shooter with adequate cover. On the other hand, school
personnel need unobstructed sight lines to keep watch for any threatening
individuals, be they students or intruders.
Classroom design features
are similarly critical in shielding students. For the sake of energy
efficiency, some rooms are equipped with motion-activated lights, hardly
ideal if students need to hide from a gunman stalking the halls. The
increased use of inside door locks, believed to deter an active shooter, can
create other hazards. Not only can an unattended classroom with a lockable
door offer an opportunity for sexual assault, the more complicated locking
systems can interfere with flight attempts especially when thinking and
physical dexterity are compromised under extreme stress.
Of course, protecting
students is about more than just creating safe places. It also requires
investing in supportive programming and people - especially teachers and
counselors who can help divert a troubled youngster from a path towards
something worse. That would be the best legacy of Columbine.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman
Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University
and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of
Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. Follow him on
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