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Colorado shooting eerily recalls Columbine massacre

Parents gather in a circle to pray at a recreation center where students were reunited with their parents after a shooting at a suburban Denver middle school May 7. David Zalubowski/AP

Columbine. Contagion. Clusters.

These are the culprits to consider as the nation reels from yet another school shooting.

This one took place on May 7 at the STEM School Highlands Ranch – just a few miles from Columbine High School. The high school was the site of a shooting in 1999, which – at the time – was the nation’s worst school shooting in history. It also took place just a couple of weeks after the 20-year anniversary of the Columbine shooting.

One teenager was killed and eight others injured after two students allegedly opened fire at the STEM School Highlands Ranch.

The shooting is eerily reminiscent of the Columbine tragedy. Similarities between the two shootings include the geography and the fact that not one, but two, school insiders are accused of carrying it out “deep inside the school.” Columbine is the one school shooting that all others are measured against, and it has become a script for a new form of violence in schools.

We make that argument as researchers – a psychologist and a sociologist – who have been studying mass public shootings as part of a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Since the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School, we identified six mass shootings and 40 active shooter incidents at elementary, middle or high schools in the United States. Mass shootings are defined by the FBI as an event in which four or more victims died by gunfire.

In 20 – or nearly half – of those 46 school shootings, the perpetrator purposely used Columbine as a model.

Columbine’s influence continues until this day. On April 17, just three days ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting, authorities closed schools across Colorado due to a credible threat of a woman armed with a shotgun and who was “infatuated with Columbine.” The 18-year-old Florida woman was reportedly found dead in Colorado later in the day from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The ties that bind to Columbine

In our study of school shootings, we only looked at cases where a gun was fired on campus, following the practice of The Washington Post’s database on school shootings. Had we included foiled plots, the number would be significantly higher.

Several school shooters in our study were fascinated with Columbine and researched the massacre before their own. This includes the Parkland shooter, a 14-year-old who aspired to be “the youngest mass murderer,” and a 15-year-old who shot at his teacher after she refused to praise Marilyn Manson, the rock singer who was erroneously blamed for inspiring the Columbine killers.

Prior perpetrators chose the anniversary of Columbine to commit their shootings, including one month and two years after. A different shooter talked of how he was going to “pull a Columbine.” Others discussed Columbine with classmates, even joked about it.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter idolized the Columbine killers and curated a Tumblr account paying homage, alongside a graphic collage of Columbine victims. A North Carolina shooter was so obsessed with Columbine that he took a vacation there with his mother and fantasized about “finishing off” any wounded survivors.

Multiple shooters, including one 15-year-old in Oregon and another in Washington state, were inspired by a documentary about Columbine that included detailed recreations of what happened. One Wisconsin teenager held his classroom hostage after reading a book about Columbine.

Separating myth from reality

School shooters are almost always current students of their schools. They are students who are in crisis, students who have experienced trauma, and students who are actively suicidal prior to the shooting and expect to die in the act.

Such children have always existed. But for 20 years they’ve had a new script to follow.

And we, the public, have contributed to the production and direction of this script. Again and again and again. Through our obsession with true crime and films, books, memes and entire websites devoted to Columbine. By releasing CCTV footage of the shooting to the public. By running our children through regular lockdowns and active shooter drills starting in preschool through 12th grade. By sending them to school through secure entrances with clear backpacks and bulletproof binders. Society and culture have reared a Columbine generation, modeling that this is just part of childhood in America.

Flipping the script

Beyond the Columbine effect, research shows that school shootings have a contagious effect and tend to take place in clusters.

A 2015 study found “significant evidence of contagion in school shootings.” Specifically, it found that a school shooting is “contagious for an average of 13 days” and incites other school shootings. Although college campus shootings and K-12 school shootings are distinct, it is notable that the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting comes just one week after a shooter opened fire and killed two and wounded four at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte on April 30.

After 20 years, it’s time to rewrite the script being rehearsed with young people.

It starts with no names, no photos and no notoriety for mass shooters in media coverage – which is why we don’t indulge here. At the same time, the fact that both of the suspects in the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting survived, presents an opportunity to better understand the motivations of the shooters in an effort to prevent further tragedies like this occurring. As we have argued in the past, school shooters almost always show warning signs well before they open fire.

The next step is a paradigm shift from homeroom security to holistic violence prevention in schools – mental health, supportive environments, strong relationships and crisis intervention and deescalation. Teachers should feel as comfortable asking a student about suicide as they feel going into lockdown; empowered to spend as much time teaching empathy and resilience as they do now training to run, hide, fight.

The victims and survivors of school violence must not be forgotten, but to prevent another two decades of contagion and copycats, it requires a recognition that it is time to close the curtain on the spectacle of Columbine.

This is an updated version of a story published April 17, 2019.

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