Columbine: The Turning Point

 

On Tuesday, April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, seniors at

Columbine High School in Littleton Colorado, outside of Denver, planted

bombs in their school cafeteria. Their plan was to detonate the devices at

lunchtime and kill as many of their classmates as possible (their hope was

to kill hundreds). The boys’ preparations were extensive and calculating.

At the appointed hour, they positioned themselves in the student parking

lot, near one of the school entrances, and waited for the bombs to go off.

From their outdoor perches they planned to shoot classmates as they fled

the firestorm. The boys wanted to see the terror on their classmates’ faces

as they attempted to escape the chaos created by the bombs’ explosions

and take out as many survivors as possible as they ran for safety.

 

Luckily, the bombs failed to detonate and mass destruction was

avoided, but when Eric and Dylan realized their bombs were duds they

stormed the school and rampaged for about an hour, randomly shooting

and terrorizing students and faculty. In the end, the boys killed 12 students

and one teacher before killing themselves.

 

What made Columbine such a traumatizing and significant event for

the nation, beyond the obvious facts, was that it played out in real time

in the media. Almost as soon as Eric and Dylan started their rampage,

terrified teachers and students—many of them holed up inside the school

in classrooms, closets, and the library—used cell phones to contact their

families, 911, and the local Denver TV stations. As a result, television

crews were on the scene almost immediately, and reporters and news

anchors were able to broadcast live conversations with terrorized captives

hiding inside the school building, while Eric and Dylan were still at large.

Americans watching TV that day bore witness to the horror as it was happening,

and did so from the perspective of the victims. (It is interesting

to note that cell phone use was not yet widespread in 1999; Columbine

was perhaps the first massive traumatic event where cell phones played a key role

in communicating information. Our understanding of the tragedy

was made possible, in part, by cell phones, and they gave the average

American a degree of connection to the event that would not have been

possible only a few years earlier.)

 

Naturally, the nation was captivated by the images and voices of traumatized

and hysterical students that were broadcast repeatedly—the dramatic

rescue of a student from the window of the school library being a

horrifying, and much replayed, highlight. Even students trapped inside

the school watched the events unfold on televisions in the classrooms;

they got their information about what was happening from the media,

just like the rest of us did.

 

Understandably, the media coverage of the massacre was extensive,

and Americans were riveted by the unfolding terror. And the search for

answers began almost immediately. Once the events had been chronicled

(and replayed again and again), the focus of the story shifted from what

had happened to why. Everyone wanted to know about Eric Harris and

Dylan Klebold. Who were these boys? What made them do what they

did? It seemed so inexplicable. What could cause two kids from good

families, living the American dream in suburban Colorado, to unleash

such destruction on their fellow students? How could this have happened

to such nice kids in such a nice place?

 

The public demanded answers to these questions, and the media

was happy to oblige. As a result, before any real investigations were conducted,

before forensics teams had the chance to scour the scene (and

search the perpetrators’ homes and read their detailed journals), and

before the myriad of evidence was evaluated, idle speculation morphed

into theory, which then hardened into fact, and America had the answer

it was looking for.

 

Bullying.

 

Eric and Dylan had been bullied, the media proclaimed, which is why

they almost blew up their school, killed as many people as they could, and

then committed suicide. Within hours of the massacre, stories to support

this theory started to emerge. According to sources (who were often

students who didn’t know the boys), Eric and Dylan were part of a group

called the Trench Coat Mafia (a reference to the trench coats they occasionally

wore and had donned on the day of the shootings), a group that existed on the

periphery of the allegedly harsh, exclusive, and socially

stratified world that was Columbine High. Members of this group were

misunderstood outsiders, the media reported, forever denied access to

the world of social privilege enjoyed by the “insiders” at the school—the

jocks, the mean girls, the rich kids, and the other menacing social leaders

who roamed the school halls prowling for victims.

 

According to reports, Eric and Dylan were picked on, castigated, and

disdained by their peers because they were weird and different. As members

of the Trench Coat Mafia, they suffered mightily at the hands of the

socially powerful in-crowd at Columbine, and the bullying was relentless.

 

Almost as soon as the media offered this motive for Columbine—as the

massacre quickly became known—it was accepted as truth, and the rallying

cries began. No more bullying! parents demanded. Zero tolerance for bullies!

teachers declared. From the moment the dust settled in the hallways of the

school, Bully Nation (the term I use for the anti-bully movement) was born,

and echoes of these original cries can still be heard in every schoolyard,

classroom, playground, and daycare center across America.

 

At the time, the connections drawn between Columbine and bullying

were so strong and convincing that they weren’t challenged for years, and

by the time they were, our approach to childhood aggression had permanently

changed. After Columbine, most Americans became convinced on

some level that bullying was so rampant and pernicious that a massacre

like Columbine was inevitable and even understandable—albeit inappropriate—

given the trials suffered by victims like Eric and Dylan.10

 

An essential takeaway at the time of Columbine was that bullying

was a scourge sweeping the nation and that it must be taken seriously and

stopped, of course. If bullying could cause the tragedy at Columbine, the

reasoning went, then such massacres could happen anywhere. Many in

the anti-bullying movement continue to contend that if we’re not vigilant

about bullying, then tragedies of this nature will continue to occur. And

thus the call to action carries on.

 

Thanks in part to Columbine, and as a result of the expanded definition

of bullying, we now see it everywhere, and lots of us are terrified.

The cultural belief is that aggression between children is necessarily and

inevitably harmful, and that children may not be safe with their peers

in school or have adequate resilience to get through childhood without

emotional damage. Anti-bullying rhetoric would have us accept, as fact,

that our way of thinking about childhood aggression—in the form of

Bully Language and labels, or the fixed mindset—is both appropriate and

accurate, and that fear and hyper-vigilance are the best responses to the

pains and challenges of childhood.

 

From my perspective, working in the field with children, it was

Columbine that got this ball rolling. It was the seminal expression of

childhood aggression of our generation, and it changed the cultural perspective

in profound ways. This makes sense. There was no way to experience

Columbine—up close and personal, thanks to the media—and

not feel terrified and transformed forever as a result. America did not

overreact to the tragedy as it was delivered and explained at the time.

Columbine left many questions in its wake, and bullying was the most

convenient answer at the time.

 

In the country’s desire to comprehend the incomprehensible and

regain a sense of control, bullying became the explanation of choice for

Eric and Dylan’s behavior—not severe psychopathology, which in fact was

the main culprit, or easy access to guns and ammunition, which made the

tragedy possible.11 No, the problem was bullying. And I think this helped

the country move on, at least initially. Great, we said with a sigh of relief,

at least we have a reason for the disaster. Now we can make sure it doesn’t

happen again. An enemy had been identified, and it was bullying. But did

we get it right?

 

As it happened, a crucial fact got overlooked in the aftermath of the

massacre, a fact that changed the course of bully history forever: Eric

and Dylan weren’t the victims of bullying. It turns out Columbine had

nothing to do with bullying.12 Eric and Dylan weren’t mistreated or marginalized

by their peers, nor were they subjected to repeated abuse. In

addition, Columbine High School wasn’t a dysfunctional community rife

with mean and terrible kids, a veritable breeding ground for aggression.

 

For weeks and months after the massacre, the media portrayed

Columbine as an alarmingly dysfunctional community, but it wasn’t. By all

accounts it was a caring, responsive school, and it fostered no more problematic

behavior than any other school in America. But this didn’t come to

light until much later. It wasn’t until years after the massacre that investigators

understood Eric and Dylan’s motives. It took time for all of the pieces

of the puzzle to fall into place, and for investigators to realize that the boys

did what they did for complex reasons, bullying not being one of them.

 

Nevertheless, by the time the truth came to light the Myth of

Columbine was set in stone, and bullying was on its way to being perceived

as one of the biggest threats facing America’s children. Some might

argue that the facts about the cause of Columbine don’t matter at this

point, because the myth has become part of our collective truth.

In the end, Columbine put bullying on the map and it put America

on high alert.

 

Fear: The Legacy of Columbine

Changes occurred in schools after Columbine. Teachers searched for any

indication of violence in their students’ behavior, including their writing,

speech, or artwork. Any signs of distress, or perceived distress, were dealt

with swiftly (although not necessarily effectively). Teachers wondered

how they could determine whether the next Eric or Dylan was sitting in

their classroom. How could they prevent the next tragedy from happening?

Parents were fearful, too. Would their children be safe at school, and

how could they protect kids from their dangerous classmates?

 

People were scared.

 

I remember the case of one boy, a 16-year-old high school junior,

whose entries in his English journal a few months after Columbine raised

some red flags. He had used some violent imagery to express his feelings,

which left his teacher in a panic. She went to the chair of her department,

who went to the vice principal, who went to the principal, who went to

the child’s parent. People were scared out of their minds that this boy had

been hurt and was now in danger of hurting himself or others. The school

wanted him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, which the student himself

thought was ridiculous. When confronted with everyone’s concern,

the boy claimed he had merely been blowing off some steam.

 

Before Columbine, interventions like this were rare. I had not heard of

anything like this before the massacre; now such interventions are routine.

And rightly so—we should always respond if we fear a child is in danger.

But what constitutes true danger? With our new definition of bullying,

our conception of what is dangerous has expanded considerably. Now,

per the definition, teasing is dangerous. Name-calling is dangerous. Being

excluded from a game at recess is dangerous. No wonder people are scared.

 

After Columbine, the fear seemed justified. Contemplating the connection

between bullying and wanton murder was terrifying, but it was

a reasonable connection to make given how the media portrayed the

tragedy. Years after Columbine many of us are still terrified, despite the

fact that the massacre had nothing to do with bullying. And while we

might not be consciously terrified of another Columbine occurring, we’re

unabashedly, and increasingly, terrified of bullying. Bullying now tops the

list of things parents are scared of. A national survey commissioned by

Care.com, in October 2010, reported that, “Nearly one in three parents

of children ages 12-17 agree that bullying is a more serious concern than

other dangers, including domestic terrorism, car accidents, and suicide.”13

 

In the course of just a decade, bullying has gone from being something

that was underneath the radar to being the thing parents are most

concerned about when it comes to children’s welfare. This is truly astonishing

given that, as I’ve said, childhood is safer than ever before by many

accounts and measures.14 If Columbine was the event that sparked this

firestorm about bullying, then parents’ fears continue to serve as the kindling,

and there’s nothing to suggest that this fear is going away any time

soon. The parents I work with are very worried about bullying, and even

when they are presented with facts that should serve to allay their fears,

they remain scared. Even when their own children have never been bullied

or witnessed bullying themselves, they remain fearful.

 

I recently heard of a group of parents who get together regularly to

discuss “problem kids” in their children’s schools. The parents identify

the children whom they believe to be actual or potential bullies (I assume

their own children do not make the list) and then work to keep their

children away from the potential threats. This is what scared looks like,

and this fear is both the cause and the effect of our expanded definition

of bullying.

 

I can assure you that the children of the above-mentioned parents

live in some of the safest areas of the country; their risk of experiencing

physical violence at the hands of their peers is negligible. In truth, these

kids are much more likely to experience self-inflicted dangers, such as

car accidents, drug or alcohol misuse, or snowboarding into a tree, than

physical harm by a classmate. For these concerned parents, then, physical

bullying can’t be the driving force behind their fears. If physical bullying

were our greatest fear as a culture, then the definition of bullying wouldn’t

have increased the way it has over the past decade. No, the fear isn’t about

children getting hurt physically, it’s about them getting hurt emotionally,

and this is what the new definition of bullying is trying to address.

 

Our cultural concern about children experiencing psychological

pain, and the desire to prevent it, are the primary reasons the definition of

bullying has expanded beyond recognition. But this has had a paradoxical

effect on kids. Instead of promoting the development of resilience,

which is presumably the goal of anti-bullying efforts, it actually inhibits

it. Why? Think about it. Bullying is everywhere: in the statistics, on the

news, in the movies. Wouldn’t you be scared if you were a kid? But bullying

is everywhere because the definition of bullying has changed, not

because children have changed, and not because the risk of pain or damage

is any worse than it used to be. The perception is that childhood is

more dangerous now because of bullying, but it’s not, nevertheless, this is

the perception being taught to children, and this is dangerous because it

affects how children develop resilience.

 

Notes:

10. The theory that Eric and Dylan were bullied was so well accepted that

it even made it onto the big screen, in the movie Bowling for Columbine (2002).

There is a scene where director Michael Moore interviews Matt Stone, one of the

co-creators of the television show South Park and a native of Littleton, Colorado.

In a voiceover, Moore says, “Matt . . . found a way to take [his] anger at being

different in Littleton and turn it, not into carnage [like Eric and Dylan], but into

a cartoon [South Park].” Matt then explains that all of the “dorks” in high school

went on to do interesting things while all the cool kids are still in Littleton, selling

insurance. “I wish someone could have grabbed them [Eric and Dylan].” Matt

says. “If someone could have told them that, then maybe they wouldn’t have

done it.”

 

11. Mental health experts agreed years later that Eric Harris suffered from

Anti-Social Personality Disorder; he was a sociopath. Eric’s voluminous journals

provided investigators with an in-depth view into the mind of a sociopath

(also known as psychopath). Anti-Social Personality Disorder is characterized

by, among other things, lack of empathy, remorse, shame or guilt; pathological

lying; shallow emotions; grandiose sense of self and extreme narcissism; superficial

charm; trouble with the law. Eric had all of these in spades, and he carefully planned his violent rampage for over a year. Dylan, on the other hand, was lost.

He wouldn’t have come up with the plan for Columbine on his own, but he was

depressed and suicidal enough to sign on. (Sociopaths are rare, and most sociopaths

are not violent. Instead of killing people like Eric Harris did, non-violent

sociopaths may be quite high-functioning and they generally skirt the law. If

they’re very successful, non-violent sociopaths might engage in high brow criminal

activity, such as running corporations in Enron fashion or bilking people of

their life savings, like Bernie Madoff.)

 

12. I am indebted to Dave Cullen and his excellent book Columbine (Twelve,

March 2010) for this information.

 

13. Care.com, Wednesday, October 20, 2010.

14. National Center for Educational Statistics.

 

Excerpted from BULLY NATION Copyright Susan Eva Porter, Ph.D.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *