How We Talk About Columbine Matters As Much Today As It Did Then

By De Elizabeth

It would not be an exaggeration to say that, even 20 years later, we’re still sorting through the effects trailing in the wake of Columbine. On April 20, 1999, two perpetrators targeted Columbine High School and killed Cassie Bernall, Steve Curnow, Corey DePooter, Kelly Fleming, Matt Kechter, Daniel Mauser, Daniel Rohrbough, Rachel Scott, Isaiah Shoels, John Tomlin, Lauren Townsend, Kyle Velasquez, and Coach Dave Sanders. The event soon became a catalyst for many changes — including the ways in which many young people no longer viewed their schools as safe.

“[The Columbine shooting] felt so personal in a horrifying way,” Dan, a 31-year-old North Carolina resident who attended a public high school in New York and was 11 years old at the time of the attack, told MTV News. “It hit home … especially [given] the age we were at the time.”

That impact also struck Debbie, who lives in Brooklyn and was 13 at the time of the attack. “Our school district had just finished building a gigantic new campus that looked exactly like Columbine from the top,” she told MTV News; the attack occurred months before she entered her freshman year. “I cannot imagine what kids feel like today.”

While the attack on Columbine felt like an outlier to many people at the time, mass gun violence has become devastatingly normalized in our current culture; 2018 was reportedly the worst year for U.S. school shootings on record, and millions more young people are forced to grow up in communities where gun violence is an everyday reality. Everyone from college students to preschoolers participate in active shooter drills in their classrooms, despite proven evidence that these drills can have negative effects on students’ mental health. In the 2015-2016 school year, over 90 percent of public schools ran lockdown drills, and many students graduating today have been preparing to survive a school shooting for most of their academic lives.

For many people looking back two decades later, the Columbine shooting was a forced reckoning with the grave reality of school shootings; other young people today know of the impact it left on society. But a large part of what we remember is undoubtedly due to the way the media portrayed the events of the shooting; particularly, the seemingly obsessive fixation on the perpetrators themselves. As the frequency, and our understanding of mass instances of gun violence has grown, so has our knowledge of how to properly talk about them.

Larry W. Smith/Getty Images

Much of the initial reporting that emerged from Columbine’s campus included footage of the tragedy in process, a kind of documentation that would later be mirrored in the footage other school shooting survivors would broadcast on social media from their classrooms. But it wasn’t just the footage of Columbine’s campus that many people remember; it’s the perpetrators themselves, from their names to specific details of their appearances, which several TV news stations broadcasted throughout their coverage, along with copious detail about alleged and perceived motives. In following years, outlets have moved to focus on the victims and survivors instead, and activists are continually calling on the media not to publish the identities of other school shooting perpetrators.

That shift is one that activists are still pushing for today. “This should be our time to reflect and remember the lives that were taken from us,” Coach Sanders’s daughter Coni Sanders, a member of the Everytown Survivor Network, said in a statement following school lockdowns in the Denver area on Wednesday, April 17.

Tom Teves is convinced that if people had responded to Columbine differently, his son would be alive today. Teves and his wife Caren lost their son Alex in 2012 when a gunman killed 12 people and injured dozens more at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. In response to their grief, the Teves family founded No Notoriety, an organization that urges media outlets not to publish the names and photographs of the perpetrators of mass violence in order to prevent future incidents.

“Our goal is to eliminate gratuitous use of the names and likenesses of rampage mass killers and shift the focus to the victims, the heroes, and the survivors,” Teves told MTV News. “There is only one thing that connects all these killers: their quest for notoriety, their quest to be known.” (Ed. note: MTV News published the names of the perpetrators in its reporting dating back to 1999.)

“We knew so much about [the perpetrators], maybe more so than some of the victims,” Valerie, a 33-year-old from Chicago told MTV News. “They became sort of a stereotype for what a school shooter would look like… I remember having a conversation with my friends at lunch where we discussed who in our school would be most likely to bring a gun, or how we would escape if it happened.”

Because so much focus was dedicated to the perpetrators, students, and parents across the country were led to feel as if they were given a checklist for what to “watch out” for. Dan told MTV News that Columbine altered his perspective on his classmates, particularly those that were seen as social outcasts. “You just start looking at people differently,” he said.

Michael Smith/Newsmakers

Three Columbine High School students look at the 13 crosses memorializing those killed at the Columbine shooting.

Of course, not all “social outcasts” are potential perpetrators, and therein lies the trouble with assigning such surface-level qualifiers to a deeply horrific act. It turned out that much of the lore surrounding the perpetrators wasn’t even rooted in reality. But even inadvertently mythologizing the perpetrators carried weight — and consequences.

“After Columbine, I remember having this lump in my throat, like all the things I loved were ‘bad’ or ‘crazy,’” Debbie said, explaining that several of her interests, like punk rock and Magic: The Gathering, inadvertently labeled her as something she wasn’t. “I was bullied a lot,” she added. “These things were a way for me to channel my anger and rage.”

Perhaps people’s fascination with the perpetrators had the best of intentions; perhaps it was a way to better understand a tragedy and help a grieving nation heal. Some reporters may not have known the best way to cover the story because it wasn’t one they’d often or ever encountered before; it is partly because of the repeated horrors of gun violence that we now know how to talk — and how not to talk about these events. Those not directly affected by the shooting might have been drawn to the perpetrators as a knee-jerk reaction, and without the framework and data that we have now, there was less knowledge of how such fixation would prove to be damaging later on.

But even with the benefit of the doubt, the reality is that sensationalizing the perpetrators of the Columbine shooting has had deadly ramifications, and the country is still feeling the aftershocks today.

Research has shown that there is a contagion effect with regard to publicizing the perpetrators of mass shootings; one study concluded that there is “significant evidence” proving that mass killings involving firearms are incited “by similar events in the immediate past.” And according to an investigation conducted by ABC News, there have been dozens of attacks, alleged plots, and threats made against schools that can be connected to the attack at Columbine.

From Teves’s perspective, the media got everything completely wrong with regards to the Columbine attack. “In the name of that investigation, [the media] delved into every little tiny detail of [the perpetrators’s] lives, but in doing so, [they] also used their names over and over and over and over and over again,” Teves said. It’s exactly what not to do when reporting on mass shootings, or when sharing information on social media — even when done in good faith. “A man who is known by no one is now known by everyone, with his face splashed across every screen, his name across everyone’s lips,” he added. “Every person on the planet all in the course of one day… Every one of these [killers] are telling you: This is what I want.”

This lesson came far too late for journalist Dave Cullen, as he explained in his books Columbine and Parkland: Birth of a Movement. Both works detail the ways in which dangerous ideas surrounding the Columbine perpetrators permeated and perpetuated narratives, ultimately creating lore that would change shape over time, and inadvertently incite both fear and further violence in years to come.

“What I failed to grasp that day I arrived in Columbine was how we were botching the story — and the staggering ramifications of mislaid good intentions,” Cullen wrote in Parkland: Birth of  Movement, published in February 2019. “I had no idea that I might be playing a role, and bear some responsibility for the children still dying around us two decades later.”

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Los Angeles students join in a nationwide walkout against gun violence 19 years after the shooting at Columbine High School.

While the fixation on the perpetrators of Columbine certainly warrants criticism, it should be noted that gun violence can be prevented through a host of crucial legislature, as pointed out by Everytown For Gun Safety. Red flag laws allow family members and law enforcement officials to prevent at-risk individuals from purchasing a gun, and activists are continually pushing for stronger background checks at the point of firearm sales. And given that hundreds of thousands of students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine, it’s beyond clear that the U.S. government has significant work to do.

However, the way we talked about Columbine at the time — and the way we continue to talk about mass shootings today — matters. Teves and No Notoriety recommend that people instead focus on the victims and survivors to “send the message their lives are more important than the killer’s actions.”

Kaylee Tyner, a current senior at Columbine High School, has a similar goal. The 17-year-old is the founder of #MyLastShot, a project that empowers young people to decide if they want their image to be publicized in the event they are killed by gun violence. She and several of her classmates were inspired in part by the ways in which Parkland students signal-boosted their fear on social media during the February 2018 shooting.

“I remember coming across videos on Twitter from inside the school as the shooting was happening,” the 17-year-old explained. “I remember seeing so many comments like, ‘Oh, this is so horrible. How could you post this?’ And I was like, ‘That’s real life. That wasn’t a movie. That’s what those kids actually went through.’”

By shifting the attention from the perpetrators of gun violence to the reality of the victims’ experiences, Kaylee hopes to shed light on the huge threat that firearms bring to people’s lives. “Because of the mass amount of people who die by gun violence every year, a lot of people just become another number in the news,” she explained. (2018, for example, held the highest gun-related deaths in the U.S. on record in 50 years, with 40,000 people being killed by firearms.) “By putting a face to the violence, people can see: ‘That could be my mom, that could be my dad, my sister, my brother, my best friend.’ And I think that makes people feel a sense of urgency to address this issue and realize that gun violence doesn’t discriminate, and it can happen to anyone.”

The legacy of her hometown also had a substantial influence on Kaylee’s efforts. “The community has healed… But it never goes away,” she said of the attack. “Growing up and knowing survivors … has had a huge impact on my life. I wasn’t even born when Columbine happened, but I’ve grown up still feeling all the effects of the aftermath.”

And that aftermath has been felt by many, particularly the young people who saw Columbine as a horrific manifestation of what could happen anywhere — even at their own school. “I had nightmares about it,” Valerie, who was in eighth grade at the time of the shooting, said. “I was convinced our school would be next.”

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