Columbine and Newtown Shootings

January 16, 2013 at 12:59 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Adult school shooters are learning from children – that is the idea I begin with in discussing the Newtown and Columbine shootings for a USA Today Op-Ed.

In my book Columbine: A True Crime Story, I discuss how traditionally school shootings undertaken by juveniles occurred in suburbs and small towns “because in those locales, high school is the only game in town. A loser there feels like a loser through and through and takes revenge on the source of their angst and the most immediate symbol of society: the schoolyard and its social hierarchies.”

Also, school shootings overwhelmingly occurred in the South and West of the United States. A so-called “culture of honor infused people in these regions – namely males – with the idea that if their honor had been violated, it was appropriate to respond with violence. Student outcasts translated this into a school shooting when they felt their mates had not given them proper recognition.

“Now adults everywhere have taken up the mantle of the mass shooting.”

As we explore the motivations of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter in Newtown, Connecticut, we should also keep in mind that violent threats, writings, and extreme changes in behavior are all warning signs we should look out for.

Taking Back Columbine on Film

April 16, 2012 at 12:20 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Amid the tears and reflections, anniversaries surrounding major events often emerge with a storyline.

At least that’s the way I’ve seen the April 20, 1999 Columbine High School shootings, where I was one of the first reporters on scene and ten years later published the book “Columbine: A True Crime Story.” The 13th anniversary is Friday.

The 10-year anniversary of the shootings, which prompted the greatest round of media attention since the shootings themselves, was no exception. The storyline then came, appropriately enough, at the culmination of a series of observances: A sunset ceremony at Clement Park adjacent the school. Former President Bill Clinton, who was in office at the time of the shootings, spoke by videotape, and approximately 1,000 people attended, according to one estimate.

The storyline from many of those who had gathered, as The Denver Post put it, was “The time to write a new meaning for ‘Columbine’ has come.” The paper quoted teacher Lee Andres as saying, “It’s my hope you look at your school as that — your school — not the most famous high school in the world.” Andres added that the world may then see Columbine as “a symbol for strength, courage and hope.” That same storyline was echoed earlier in the day when the state legislature passed the resolution “Columbine High School Triumph Over Tragedy.”

These were not bad thoughts. But the truth is that Columbine will never cease to be the scene where two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher before taking their own lives. It may never cease to be the archetype of school shootings. With apologies to Andres, Columbine alumni, and current students, this is not a bad thing either. To whitewash what happened at Columbine would also be a crime.

And yet, as we approach the 13th anniversary, the Columbine story is being revised in legitimate and important ways. This is not a nod to the pronouncements made on the 10-year anniversary, but like other historical turns, this change appears to result from the random yet timely collision of various factors: the rise of social media, one person’s vision, and enough distance from the original event to bring perspective and healing. And it is happening on film.

Last year the film “13 Families” was released portraying the journeys of the victim families. This was not the first time these families had taken ownership of the tragedy – there had been everything from lawsuits to the successful drive for a new school library, where most were killed. But the film was seen as another triumph for victim families in telling their story rather than the killers’.

And now Columbine grad and Denver resident Samuel J. Granillo, who works in film and television as a freelance camera and production assistant, is trying to raise funds for a film called “Columbine: Wounded Minds” about the survivors. Other Columbine students have explored the shootings, including Brooks Brown’s book “No Easy Answers.” Granillo was a 17-year-old junior lunching in the cafeteria when the shootings began. He and 17 others were then trapped in a kitchen cafeteria for three hours until rescued by SWAT.

As Granillo writes on the film Website, the “unofficial thought” for making the film was “how to get help to those still suffering from the mental and physical traumas of the event.” He adds, “The DREAM is to create a formula or foundation providing free services to all those who need mental health help. From soldiers coming home to other school shooting survivors, a plan needs to be devised….”

Granillo has raised approximately $15,000 of the $250,000 he is seeking for the film, but is already doing some interviews, fueled by his passion and the volunteer help of friends. Granillo’s film has been mentioned in a number of Denver media stories, and emerged as a counterpoint to an already controversial miniseries on the shootings proposed by Lifetime. Granillo and I are Facebook friends, and his Facebook page has become an online forum for discussing the healing and history surrounding the shootings.

The highly publicized 10-year anniversary of the shootings produced the call to rewrite and take back Columbine High. But this 13th anniversary – surely a blip on the media and public radar – may go down as the year that made that pronouncement reality.

From what I’ve seen so far, I think Granillo gets it right on his Website when he writes, “This documentary isn’t just a message, it’s a movement.”

Chardon and Columbine: Suburbs, Small Towns and School Shootings

March 1, 2012 at 11:01 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Chardon High School has at least a couple key things in common with Columbine that might help explain Monday’s shooting.

Three students from Chardon, in northeastern Ohio, are dead and two are injured. The suspected shooter has been identified as T.J. Lane. 

The first similarity that came to mind is that Columbine and Chardon may both be classified as suburbs and small towns, where many school shootings have occurred.

According to the U.S. Census, Chardon’s 2010 population was only 5,148, and overwhelmingly white — 96.9 percent. As I point out in my book, Columbine: A True Crime Story, Columbine does not even exist. It is not an official city, but a “Census designated place” with a population of about 24,000 that is 92.5% white.

School shootings tend to occur in these places because they are so homogeneous that youths who are different from others feel like complete outcasts who have no place else to turn. Social services in such small areas may also be limited.

While shootings have traditionally occurred in suburbs and small towns, they are still seen as everyday Americana — a point the Chardon schools superintendent drove home: “We’re not just any old place, Chardon,” he said, according to the New York Times. “This is every place. As you’ve seen in the past, this can happen anywhere.”

 

Columbine, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the Wild West

January 8, 2011 at 4:31 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The common denominator emerging early on in the mass shooting Saturday that critically injured Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and school shootings such as Columbine is the Wild West.

In examining school shootings for my book Columbine: A True Crime Story, I found that they often occurred in the South and the West of the United States. In these two regions there is a character trait, confirmed in psychological studies, of a “culture of honor.” It means that when someone in these regions feels their honor has been violated, they feel it is appropriate to retaliate with violence. The other point here is that the perpetrator takes it upon him or herself to level the revenge. There is a name for that too: Being your own sheriff.

News on the Arizona suspect so far seems to include little more than a name: Jared Loughner. The snap judgements are that the shooting may have been politically motivated.

The New York Times noted that Giffords “has been an outspoken critic of Arizona’s tough immigration law.” And reports indicate there are five to six dead, including, “John M. Roll, the chief judge for the United States District Court for the District of Arizona,” according to The Times. “He had been involved in immigration cases and had previously received death threats.”

School shooters are prompted to take revenge against those they feel have made them outcasts or slighted them. The idea in Arizona would be that the shooter was motivated to seek his own sort of political justice for policies he opposed.

A further read of The New York Times article adds more to the “culture of honor” thesis in this case emanating from the South and West, although that term is not actually mentioned or alluded to in the story. “Last March, after the final approval of the Democrats’ health care law, which Ms. Giffords supported, the windows of her office in Tucson were broken or shot out in an act of vandalism,” The Times notes. The paper adds that other Congress members had also been threatened, and names Washington Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat, from yet another Western state.

Another idea being pushed early on in this story is that such violence may be prompted by Republicans and/or right-wingers. Here The Times notes:” During the fall campaign, Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice-presidential candidate, posted a controversial map on her Facebook page depicting spots where Democrats were running for re-election; those Democrats were noted by crosshairs symbols like those seen through the scope of a gun. Ms. Giffords was among those on Ms. Palin’s map.” I would add that Palin comes from another Western state: Alaska.

There is one other thing I found hard to ignore in The Times article about the shooting: “Television coverage showed a chaotic scene outside a normally tranquil suburban shopping spot.”

The other common denominator among school shootings is that they occur in suburbs and small towns, but that may be a topic for future discussion as more information emerges.

Columbine and the End of Journalism…A Daily Blog Series, Part II

April 15, 2010 at 12:13 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The lesson on this Columbine anniversary that hits April 20 may not come from the shootings themselves. But rather, how the media has covered the shootings since the ten-year anniversary last year.

Some Columbine myths, such as Cassie Bernall saying she believed in God before being shot, were quickly disproved. Other “myths” were never myths at all, such as shooter Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s disdain for virtually all other humans. Some supposed myths are complicated. Harris and Klebold may not have been members of the Trench Coat Mafia. But they wore trench coats; had friends in the clique; and maybe most importantly, identified with the group’s rebelliousness.

Yet the ability to grasp subtleties and provide historical context was not evident for many reporters and book reviewers going over Columbine. As they attempted to rewrite the Columbine story on the ten-year, the subtext was, ‘We blindly put our faith in the early news reports. Now we are told they were wrong. We are now blindly putting our faith in the latest story we are hearing.’

So the first reporters at Columbine were lumped into one category and chastised on the ten-year anniversary for not getting it totally accurate in the first hours, or days. Contemporary armchair journalists – themselves often misinformed – now harangued the rest of their on-the-ground brethren. This was all more perverse because the media seemed to take such glee in the spanking.

Columbine’s ten-year anniversary arrived as the business of journalism is crumbling amidst cries about its central role to democracy and a free society. Yet in covering Columbine on the ten-year many major publications fell flat on their face. It’s hard to rally round journalism after such instances. Do we really need TIME and Newsweek if they can’t get Columbine right? Reporters may have also been blinded by a desire to find some “news” – a new storyline – to add spark to anniversary coverage rather than take a look back. But one story the media might investigate is how, despite our ever-growing databases of knowledge, the public and plenty of journalists still manage to be misinformed.

A key way for reporters to become instant experts on a story is to “check the clips,” or what has already been written. Even if the clips have errors, reporters at least have a foundation on what questions to ask and may, wittingly or not, uncover past errors. Maybe it should be no surprise that some of the best Columbine coverage came from reporters who checked more than one source (or any source). That’s the good news: Good coverage doesn’t require anything fancy or expensive, but rather the tried and true method of being a reporter, checking the clips, and checking the facts. So simple, yet seemingly so tough.

Bloggers, called the grass roots saviors who would correct the biases and shortcomings of the “mainstream media,” mostly failed as dramatically as the professional press corps. Do we even expect bloggers to use more than one source and check the clips? If we don’t, we should. They seem to think whatever is floating around in their head must be true. They’re wrong.

Columbine and the End of Journalism…A Daily Blog Series, Part I.

April 14, 2010 at 2:49 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The lesson on this Columbine anniversary that hits April 20 may not come from the shootings themselves. But rather, how the media has covered the shootings since the ten-year anniversary last year.

Some Columbine victims families passed the ten-year by returning to the school and walking through the nearby memorial in Clement Park. The memorial was not cleared for the parents, and they quietly mingled with the reporters and general public who had arrived on April 20, 2009 to honor the anniversary. Most people and reporters buzzing the area that day did not recognize the victims families. Just as they did not recognize the story of Columbine.
Columbine has always been a very difficult story to untangle, even for those dedicated to covering it. Authorities – namely the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office – routinely withheld information but were then often forced to parcel it out, generally after lawsuits. The Columbine story dribbled out piece by piece, year by year. Each round of new information often changed the story as we knew it. Only a select number of reporters developed an expertise. The events of Columbine also defy easy explanation – it was not simply the parents, or gun control, or bullying.
Yet school shootings and other mass shootings are one of America’s most high-profile social issues. Like plane crashes, they are rare but highly dramatic events. Mass shootings hit schools, malls and health clubs – where people think they are safest. And Columbine remains the world’s most iconic school shooting. So with good reason, a phalanx of international media revisited the ten-year anniversary. It seems safe to say that media coverage of the ten-year anniversary was rivaled only by coverage of the shootings themselves.
A decade later, the media had a truckload of facts at its disposal to burrow into why Columbine seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 others before taking their own lives. Over 26,000 pages of police documents had been released, lawsuit files were the size of telephone books, and reams of news stories filled the archives. The Columbine file seems to be nearing completion (although one can never know, as information unknown to exist has a knack for surprise appearances). The ten-year also saw the publication of three books that reporters often used a pivots for their coverage, including mine, Columbine: A True Crime Story (Ghost Road Press).
And yet, media coverage of the ten-year was often uninformed and served to create new myths surrounding Columbine. The misguided coverage seems to fall into two main categories. Many reporters bought into a new myth that the Columbine killers were simply ordinary, popular teens, without stopping to critically examine that statement. Do ordinary teens really commit school shootings? If so, why don’t we have thousands of school shootings a day? If school shooters are ordinary, does that make the vast majority of teens who do not commit school shootings out of the mainstream? Of course not. School shooters are a disaffected, but thankfully rare breed.
Another false buy-in on the ten-year anniversary was that the Columbine “myths” were just now being debunked. In fact, plenty of media in the days and months after Columbine did get many aspects wrong. But they later corrected it. And the errors were not necessarily due to sloppiness, laziness or pursuit of a neat story angle. In part, it was inaccurate information accurately reported. Columbine students, for example, repeated error-filled stories to reporters either because they didn’t know or made honest mistakes (i.e. they truly thought Cassie Bernall was the one who said “yes,” she believed in God). Reporters wrote it down.
Columbine remains Colorado’s largest criminal probe with thousands of interviews, potential witnesses, and a crime scene the size of a high school. A small army of investigators did not have a full picture for months. Yet some of the media still got the early details right – or at least they provided multiple viewpoints. Many inaccuracies were corrected long before the ten-year anniversary. But you wouldn’t know that from reading the recent news coverage.
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Columbine and the real thing

July 5, 2009 at 7:55 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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My last book signing for Columbine: A True Crime Story taught a lesson about how there is no substitute for the real thing.

The signing was at the Houston Barnes & Noble across from the massive, famous Galleria chock full of retail stores. The significance was that I was with Michael Shoels, the father of Isaiah Shoels, who was killed at Columbine.

We must have looked like an odd couple; me a short white guy in a tie and Michael a tall black man dressed all in black. We have known each other for almost ten years, since I started writing the Columbine book, and it meant a lot to be with him in Houston. I felt proud to share the moment with Michael because he and his family had opened up to me long, long before I had a book contract, and believed in me as an honest person and a book author. And the tour was part of proving I could publish the book. (I was also told, in Houston, that my book was required reading for a course in criminal profiling at Rice University.)

The final chapter of my book is about the Shoels family. Early on, they were amongst the most critical of the victims families, questioning the school, police, and killers’ parents. The Shoels, in turn, became amongst the most criticized of the victims’ families. People said their stances and lawsuits (among the first to emerge from Columbine) were grandstanding, opportunism, and money-grubbing. But no matter how hard you try to tell the story, it is no substitute for the real thing: Being there alongside a victims family. To hear Michael tell his stories brought up old emotions, and new emotions, as he recounted his feelings and fights for information. And Michael reminded people only the way a victims family can: Columbine never goes away.

Buy Columbine: A True Crime Story, a victim, the killers and the nation’s search for answers on Amazon.

Columbine and Jonesboro school shootings and Mike Huckabee

June 20, 2009 at 1:44 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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I was in Jonesboro, Ark. for the book tour Friday night to discuss Columbine and, according to one story, I beat Mike Huckabee.

A photographer from the Jonesboro Sun said he once attended a three-hour booksigning by Mike Huckabee (I think it was some years ago) when Huckabee was Arkansas governor. Huckabee sold two books.

While I beat that record Friday I have little doubt Huckabee, the prominent conservative with his own talk show on Fox News, would today beat me (and his own record).

But more down to substance, I did not do an actual talk Friday but a sit-down, meet and greet (and hopefully sign) book appearance.

One woman told of how she had been a teacher before Columbine, and expressed concerns to the school about a student. Nothing happened, and the student later committed suicide. That would not happen today, I believe, because post-Columbine warning signs about problem students are taken much more seriously, whether the issue is suicide or homicide. (Although, notably, school shooters often express a desire to die in the course of the shootings. But that’s another story.)

One man did not believe gun control was the answer. While I could argue that the more barriers you put in front of someone to getting guns, the harder it is to get them, it is also likely that the Columbine killers would have gotten their guns no matter what. Three of the four were purchased, legally, at a gun show. The fourth was purchased casually through a friend of a friend type situation.

One woman who made a beeline to my table said she heard my book was the more accurate Columbine book, and scooped it up.

I ended my two-hour session sitting around with a bunch of local teenagers. They were smart, sassy, and bored. And I thank them for buying a book with graduation money.

Columbine and Virginia Tech school shooting memorials

June 15, 2009 at 1:47 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I visited the memorial to the Virginia Tech school shooting victims today, just over two years after I followed a Columbine parent there.

April 20, 2007 was the eight-year anniversary of Columbine and four days after the Tech shootings left 33 dead, including the killer. Tech is the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. Columbine is the deadliest high school shooting.A terrible torch was passed on that day when Michael Shoels, the father of slain Columbine student Isaiah Shoels, traveled to Blacksburg, Virginia with his traveling gospel of grief counseling and civics lesson.

As I visited the Tech memorial a little after noon today, a few things struck me. After the shootings, 33 thick squares of pale ‘Hokie Stone’ (named for the school nickname) ringed the crest of the central grassy quad area known as Drillfield. One controversial stone, it seemed clear, was for the shooter. Similar things happened after Columbine, such as when at least one person posted crosses for the Colorado shooters.

School shooters may be in anguish, but I think most people believe it is inappropriate to memorialize them alongside the victims.

The permanent memorial at Virginia Tech is an arc of 32 square stones. Each is about the size of an ice bucket, near where the original stones were placed. Each stone is engraved with the name of a victim, and a sprig of fresh flowers leaned against each stone. (I wonder if they are changed every day.) The Tech memorial is powerful, but smaller and more low-key than the Columbine Memorial, which has written remembrances to the victims, quotes from community members, and envelops people with stone walls as they walk inside. The Columbine Memorial more fully shuts out the rest of the world. That Tech even has a memorial also differs from Columbine: It took several years to raise the money for the Columbine Memorial.

Tech today was certainly quieter than the day I was there. No satellite trucks. The dozens of reporters, and hundreds of mourners, were gone. But the memories were still there. And that’s how it should be.

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