This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, when 12 students and one teacher were killed on April 20, 1999. The assailants were two of the school’s twelfth grade students who died by suicide at the conclusion of the attack. This attack was the deadliest school shooting at the time, and the name Columbine, has since become synonymous with the term school shooting.
Eight years after Columbine, the Virginia Tech Shooting surpassed Columbine as the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. On April 16, 2007, 32 people were killed and 23 others injured on the campus of Virginia Tech––two students were killed in a residence hall and the remaining casualties occurred in Norris Hall, an academic building. The assailant was a Virginia Tech undergrad with a history of disturbing behavior, mental illness, and stalking whose attack ended when he fatally shot himself in the head.
Unfortunately, Virginia Tech was not the last tragedy to occur in the 20 years since Columbine. Other shootings in K-12 schools and institutions of higher education include West Nickel Mines Amish School in Pennsylvania (2006), Northern Illinois University (2008), Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut (2012), Umpqua Community College in Oregon (2015), Rancho Tehama Elementary School in California (2017), Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida (2018), and Santa Fe High School in Texas (2018).
I had the privilege of interviewing Frank DeAngelis, who was principal at Columbine High School at the time of the massacre. He recalls the tragic events on that beautiful Colorado spring day that took everyone by surprise. Mr. DeAngelis was about to go down for lunch duty when his secretary told him there was a report of gunfire. His first thought was that it was a senior prank because they were about a month away from graduation and there was seldom even a fist fight at the school, let alone an incident involving a gun. Mr. DeAngelis believed––like so many others––this could never happen here, not at a school like Columbine. But his worst nightmare became a reality when he saw a gunman coming towards him and shots were being fired. He ran towards the gunfire, because he saw a group of about thirty girls––who were unaware of what was happening––coming out of the locker room. He knew exactly what he had to do and that was to save them.
He tried to get the girls into a safe area, but when he pulled on the door, it was locked. The girls were screaming, and as he was trying to calm them down, he reached into his pocket where he had a key ring of about 35 keys. Miraculously, the first key he pulled out of his pocket opened the door, and he got the girls to a safe place. Fortunately, Mr. DeAngelis and the girls survived, but tragically, many others perished.
Change in Law Enforcement Response and Safety Equipment
Today, the first officers on the scene of a school shooting are required to enter immediately, but police tactics at the time of Columbine required law enforcement to first secure the perimeter. Mr. DeAngelis indicated that a School Resource Officer (SRO) who was on campus was ordered not to go into the building until SWAT arrived. Unfortunately, according to Mr. DeAngelis, 58 minutes transpired before law enforcement entered the building, by which time the shooting was over and the assailants, along with so many others, were already dead. In fact, according to the FBI, almost 70% of active shooting incidents are over in 5 minutes or less. More recently, we’ve seen how an SRO’s failure to enter immediately was an egregious error in the law enforcement response at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The death of Dave Sanders, the teacher who bled to death from his injuries, underscores the importance of having Stop the Bleed kits in every classroom. Although every effort was made to help him while waiting for first responders to arrive, Mr. Sanders might have been saved had the classroom been equipped with specialized equipment and first aid supplies such as tourniquets, chest seals, and bleeding control dressings. According to the Department of Homeland Security, an injured person can bleed to death in under 5 minutes; every second counts, and having the right supplies and equipment makes all the difference.
Redefining Normal and Providing Support
Mr. DeAngelis reminds us that recovery is a marathon and not a sprint. When asked, “When will things get back to normal?” he says we must redefine what normal is. We discussed these helpful tips for other principals and school administrators who have experienced a critical incident or school shooting:
- Offer support in the immediate aftermath and over time. At Columbine, they had counselors and therapists on site to help students, teachers, and staff when they returned to school, as well as substitute teachers to help the teachers who were triggered during the day. (Click here to listen to a radio interview on how to get through traumatic anniversaries).
- Triggers may include things that you can plan for as well as those that are unexpected. For example, they remodeled the library at Columbine which is where the majority of people were killed, but they didn’t anticipate that camouflage clothing (which is what the SWAT team was wearing) or the sounds of balloons popping or doors slamming would be trauma triggers. Mr. DeAngelis also said that the school didn’t serve Chinese food for three years because that was the meal the students were eating that day.
- Mr. DeAngelis struggled with the sounds of hammering and pounding during the remodeling of the school and went to counseling so he could be an example to everyone else and use his own experience to normalize what others were feeling. His counselor encouraged him to replace the traumatic memories and retrain his brain with memories that celebrate the lives of those who perished.
- The school prioritized “counseling before curriculum” and understood that trauma impacts the brain and students’ ability to learn. Children can’t learn if they don’t feel safe.
Preventing School Shootings
Mr. DeAngelis shared how difficult this tragedy was, especially considering that the assailants were two of his own students. The FBI has identified that 95% of assailants in school shootings were current students and the most common motive was feeling bullied, persecuted, or threatened. Mr. DeAngelis conveyed that he saw the two assailants as bright, intelligent, involved students, but that they also “had an evil side to them.” This underscores the importance of reporting concerning, threatening, and dangerous behaviors such as the behavior described and depicted in the journals, videos, and photos that were created by the Columbine assailants. In fact, a preoccupation with Columbine or other publicized violent events is a red flag for potential violence; even after 20 years, Columbine is still an inspiration to future assailants. We can mitigate this effect and not glorify assailants by avoiding repeatedly identifying them by name or showing their photos.
Surviving Virginia Tech
I also interviewed Lisa Hamp, who, along with her classmates in room 205 of Norris Hall, survived the attack 12 years ago at Virginia Tech. From her computer science class on that cold, snowy morning in Blacksburg, Virginia, Lisa heard a loud, recurring popping sound. She thought it sounded like gunfire, but she wasn’t sure. Surely, there wouldn’t be guns on campus or in the school, so what else could this sound be? Deep down in her gut, though, she knew something wasn’t right.
Her classmate and teaching assistant went out into the hall to see what the sound was. Just then, the assailant came out of a classroom, shot at them, but missed. They went back into their classroom and closed the door, telling everyone that they saw someone with a gun. It was confirmed what Lisa thought she heard; there was no wondering anymore. Lisa says she froze, but someone said, “Let’s build a barricade” (their door did not have a lock) and everyone quickly moved into action.
Together, they built a barricade with a card table, desks, and their bodies––just seconds before the assailant arrived at their door. He was now kicking and pushing the door. Almost instinctively, they got low and pushed back on the door just before he started shooting through the door chest high and above; fortunately, no one was shot. After a few seconds, he left, but they knew law enforcement had not yet arrived.
They started brainstorming out loud and considered jumping out of the second story window or running down the stairwell, but they decided to make their barricade stronger and stay put. The assailant did return, but Lisa had more hope this time that they would be able to keep him out and stay safe. If only law enforcement would just come! The whole episode lasted 11 minutes from the first sound of gunshots to when law enforcement arrived at their classroom.
Lessons Learned from Virginia Tech
Lisa and I discussed quite a few lessons learned from the shooting at Virginia Tech.
- If you think you hear firecrackers, a car backfiring, or you think you hear gunfire, assume it is gunfire and respond by evacuating (if you can do so safely) and moving away from the sound of gunfire. You lose precious seconds when you go toward the sound. Although it was risky for Lisa’s classmate and teaching assistant to go into the hallway, they were able to confirm that the sound was gunfire very quickly, which may have saved their lives.
- Incidents unfold and conclude in a matter of minutes––often when law enforcement arrives, the assailant dies by suicide, or you take action.
- Communication is vital. While Lisa and her classmates brainstormed and decided to barricade, they still had to quickly determine what to make their barricade with and communicate that to one another.
- There are no right or wrong answers and no check-the-box lists of what to do. This underscores the importance of “what-if“ thinking, planning, and preparation before a critical incident occurs. Good situational awareness helps you to identify in advance what options may be available to you.
- Trust your intuition. The doors at the bottom of the stairwell near Lisa’s classroom were actually chained shut by the assailant and Lisa and her classmates would not have been able to evacuate had they chosen this option. They had no way of knowing this, but they trusted their intuition when they remained barricaded and got low on the floor.
- Check to see if your classroom doors lock from the inside; Lisa’s classroom door did not. It is vital to be able to instantly deadbolt a classroom door from the inside with just the push of a button, while maintaining 100% fire code compliance.
- Physically uninjured survivors should be afforded the same post-incident care and consideration as injured survivors. They may suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress and other forms of distress.
As we commemorate the anniversaries of both Columbine and Virginia Tech, let’s reflect on the valuable lessons learned and remember those whose lives were lost and those who were impacted by the tragedy. Listen to both interviews with Frank DeAngelis and Lisa Hamp in their entirety at DrPegRadio.com.
Dr. Peggy Mitchell Clarke is a clinical psychologist and retired psychology professor with almost three decades of combined experience in mental health, education, threat assessment, and violence prevention. She is a Certified Executive Instructor and Curriculum Author for SSI Guardian, a subsidiary of School Specialty, Inc.