TEXT ON SCREEN: April 20, 1999
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 4-20-99):
JOHN ROBERTS: School violence erupted again today, suddenly and with a vengeance…
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 4-20-99): PETER JENNINGS: Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado. It has been a horror.
NARATION: In 1999, two high school students went on a deadly rampage and the images seared themselves into the nation’s collective memory.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 4-21-99): TOM BROKAW: One of the worst school shootings ever – 15 dead bodies, still being identified.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 4-20-99): BOB MCNAMARA: An American nightmare that too many schools know too well…
NARRATION: Yet how much of our explanation for that nightmare was right?
DAVE CULLEN (AUTHOR, “COLUMBINE”): The entire country was confident that these two killers were two loner outcasts from the Trench Coat Mafia, who were targeting jocks in a revenge fantasy. None of that was true.
DEWEY G. CORNELL (FORENSIC CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST, PROFESSOR OF EDUCATION, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA): Misguided perceptions of the Columbine shooting continue to influence us today.
COLUMBINE: AMERICAN NIGHTMARE
ARCHIVAL (JEFFERSON COUNTY DISPATCH 911 TAPES):
DISPATCHER: Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, do you have an emergency?
TEACHER: Yes, I am a teacher here at Columbine High School. There is a student here with a gun…
NARRATION: On April 20, 1999, two students culminated months of planning by donning black trench coats and attacking their school. Armed with guns and an arsenal of homemade bombs, they terrorized teachers and peers.
SEAN GRAVES (FORMER STUDENT, COLUMBINE HIGH SCHOOL): They had a couple of duffel bags at their feet. And we witnessed them pulling out what we assumed to be paintball guns, uh, that later on turned out to be something completely different.
FRANK DEANGELIS (FORMER PRINCIPAL, COLUMBINE HIGH SCHOOL): My secretary comes in and yells that there had been a report of gunfire, and bombs exploding. And so I ran out of my office.I saw gunmen coming towards me. I remember hearing gunfire, and I remember glass breaking behind me.”
SEAN GRAVES: I was laying in broken glass from the window that had gotten shot out. All I could hear was the-the fire alarms going off. And then the gunshots at a distance.”
ARCHIVAL (JEFFERSON COUNTY DISPATCH 9-11 TAPES): DISPATCHER: Has anyone been injured, ma’am? TEACHER: Yes, yes. And the school is in a panic, and I am in the library. I’ve got, students down, under the tables, kids! Heads under the tables!
JOHN SAVAGE (FORMER STUDENT, COLUMBINE HIGH SCHOOL): We were all crouched under the tables, and we could hear the-the gunshots getting louder. And a couple times, there was big boom, and the floor would shake.
ARCHIVAL (JEFFERSON COUNTY DISPATCH 9-11 TAPES): TEACHER: On the floor! You guys stay on the floor! Oh God! Oh God! The gun is right outside the library door.
JOHN SAVAGE: They came into the library. Eric leaned under the table, and pointed his gun at me. I was like trembling under there, like a little leaf.
FRANK DEANGELIS: I saw the-the shotgun, stared at the shotgun, and all I remember is it seemed like the barrel of the gun was the size of a cannon.
SEAN GRAVES: As soon as that bullet entered my backpack and-and actually paralyzed me, shattering my vertebra, that’s when the pain set in.
JOHN SAVAGE: So, there was, like, Eric on my-my right, and then Dylan was up on my left. And I looked up at Dylan, and I said, “Hey, Dylan.” And he said, “Hey, man.” And I said, “What are you doing?” And—oh, it still, like, chills me, how he was just like, “Mmm, killing people.”
NARRATION: The killers fatally shot 12 students and a teacher in less than 20 minutes. Then they turned the guns on themselves.
FRANK DEANGELIS: 12 kids died on my watch, along with a teacher. You know, in our lives, you’re not supposed to bury your kids. And they were all my kids.
NARRATION: Before the world had fully grasped what had happened inside the school, there was a scramble to make sense of it.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 4-20-99):
ANCHOR: We’re getting coverage from four stations in the Denver area of a shooting at a high school.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 4-20-99): JOHN ROBERTS: Astill developing situation and one that looks like it’s not going to be over anytime soon.
DAVE CULLEN: Horrors like Columbine terrify us. And we need an explanation. So even if we don’t have an answer, we find one. And we find it really too fast.
ARCHIVAL (FOX, 4-20-99): PAULA ZAHN: Two witnesses we talked to on the telephone described them as members of the Trench Coat Mafia, these were kids they claim routinely dress in black trench coats…
DAVE CULLEN: Kids were watching this on TV. And also, it was the early days of cell phones. If they weren’t seeing it, their friends were watching it on TV, calling them on their cell phones and letting them know.
ARCHIVAL (KUSA-TV VIA MSNBC, 4-20-99): STUDENT: They were saying that, um, they were wanting to do this for their revenge, um for the school I guess because they’re such an outcast at our school.
DAVE CULLEN: It was this little round and round feedback chamber. So when a kid goes on TV and says, ‘Oh yeah they were outcasts,’ another kid who doesn’t really know the killers well or at all says, “Oh, oh, they were outcasts. Oh I didn’t realize that.’ That’s when he’s interviewed, he says they’re outcasts. So you’re, you know, you’ve contaminated the witness pool, [snaps fingers], like that.
NARRATION: And speculation about a black-coated Mafia and its supposed grievances ran wild.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 4-20-99): GEORGE LEWIS: …a gang that apparently hated athletes.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 4-20-99): STUDENT: It was all because people were mean to him last year.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 4-21-99): JIM AVILA: The Trench Coat Mafia is more than just black clothes. These boys were dangerously strange…
NARRATION: In a yearbook photo of some group members that was broadcast nationwide, neither gunman appeared. One member of the Trench Coat Mafia, John Savage, said there was a good reason for their absence.
JOHN SAVAGE: Eric and Dylan were not-not at all a part of the things that we did as a group. They didn’t hang out with us. They weren’t Trench Coat Mafia at all.
NARRATION: And he says the media’s description of him and his friends had little basis in fact.
JOHN SAVAGE: The Trench Coat Mafia, it was like, we were—we were video game nerds. We weren’t—we would like sit around the table, and play Dungeons and Dragons. Which is just about the least dangerous thing you could do.
FRANK DEANGELIS: It was a group of friends that had similar interests. Some kids referred to them as the Trench Coat Mafia, but it was not that it was an organized club.
NARRATION: But the explanation about outcast loners seeking revenge against bullies had the dual advantage of being both dramatic and familiar.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 4-22-99): DAN RATHER: What happened here at Littleton is a grotesque distortion of high school fears and rivalries involving cliques, the in-groups and out-groups that are a part of teen life in America.
NARRATION: Author Dave Cullen spent nearly 10 years on his account of Columbine—researching police records, the killer’s diaries, and their lives at the school. He said the boys had busy social lives, and didn’t seem motivated by bullying.
DAVE CULLEN: There was lots of bullying at Columbine. It was a high school in America. Did it have anything to do with driving these two boys to murder? I cannot find any evidence of that.
NARRATION: The killers directed their hostility toward the whole student population, placing propane bombs set to go off in the cafeteria at lunchtime. But the devices failed to detonate as planned.
DAVE CULLEN: Columbine actually wasn’t a successful shooting, it was a failed bombing. How much more indiscriminate can you get? Two big bombs to kill everyone who happens to be in that part of the building at the start of A Lunch.
NARRATION: Cullen describes the killers’ motives as a cocktail of malice, self-loathing and a craving for fame. Over time they became something like a two-man cult, bent on making their mark on the world in one final act.
DAVE CULLEN: It was a murder-suicide for both of them. For Eric it was primar-primarily a murder. For Dylan it was primarily a suicide. They took the tactics of terrorists and said, ‘We can do this for our own aggrandizement.’ Eric talked about his audience in his journal, and whether they were going to understand this.
NARRATION: And there was one message observers seemed to take from the event immediately.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 4-20-99): TOM BROKAW: School shootings have become a dark stain on American life…
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 4-20-99): JOHN ROBERTS: The phenomenon of kids turning guns on their schoolmates is all too familiar.
ARCHIVAL (4-20-99): PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Columbine press conference: It’s not just Littleton. We know that now. We’ve had lots and lots and lots of places.
NARRATION: Columbine came after a string of school shootings in Oregon, Arkansas, and other states. Reaction to the Colorado massacre helped fuel a national movement toward school security.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 4-22-99): TOM BROKAW: Parents across the country are demanding to know what their schools are doing to keep their children safe.
NARRATION: Today nearly half of public schools surveyed nationwide employ police or hired guards. At least 21 states mandate lockdown drills for school shooting scenarios, and millions of dollars have been spent on everything from metal detectors to anti-bullying programs.
PASTOR (SPEAKING AT COLUMBINE): When people hear that somebody was caught planning a Columbine, the world knows what that means.
NARRATION: More than a decade after Columbine, we’re still struggling to figure out, not only what causes school shootings, but whether or not we’re seeing more of them. And coverage of the issue offers little clarity.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, 4-16-13): SENATOR BARBARA BOXER: School shootings are on the rise in America. I’m telling you, I have the numbers to show it.
NARRATION: But there’s actually very little consensus on those numbers.
ARCHIVAL (KRON, 2-2-14): ANCHOR: Experts say the number is statistically unchanged since the 1990s…
ARCHIVAL (MSNBC, 12-14-12): ANCHOR: …the number of school shootings in America has been rapidly in decline over the last decade…
NARRATION: Researchers can’t agree on a methodology for tallying up attacks. They make different decisions about whether to include non-fatal attacks on schools, or foiled ones – or even on-campus suicides or gun accidents– and this leads to vastly different final numbers.
DEWEY G. CORNELL: We, unfortunately, tend to judge how frequently events occur by often we hear about them. And that, of course, depends on news reports of these things happening.
ARCHIVAL (WJZ, 2-28-12): ANCHOR: The death toll rises in an attack inside a high school cafeteria…
ARCHIVAL (KTVU, 1-18-11): ANCHOR: In Los Angeles, two students were wounded in an accidental shooting…
ARCHIVAL (KTVU, 12-13-11): ANCHOR: A school shooting in Texas leaves 2 students injured…
NARRATION: One statistic with a more clear-cut definition is overall homicides in schools. The Center for Disease Control regularly tracks those numbers. And the trend line is clear. While they vary from year to year, school homicides are essentially flat across the decades. They’re also extremely rare.
DEWEY G. CORNELL: There are over 300 shootings every day in the United States. How many of those occur in schools? Almost none of them.
NARRATION: And rare as they are, when school shootings do happen, there’s some evidence that past attacks – and intense media focus on the killers – have helped inspire future ones.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 4-20-07): PETER ALEXANDER: Seung-Hui Cho wrote that he was inspired by the Columbine killers’ attack eight years ago today.
ARCHIVAL (ABC7, 11-25-13): ANCHOR: The gunman, Adam Lanza, was obsessed with the 1999 Columbine High School attack…
NARRATION: And some news outlets are beginning to take notice.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 12-15-12): ANDERSON COOPER: We are not, during this broadcast, using the name of the shooter. Often it seems that in history remembers the names of murderers and not the names of victims…
JOHN SAVAGE: It’s good that school shootings are still shocking. Because it shows that they’re-they’re really rare. So I think it’s important to kind of keep in mind that there are a lot of schools all over the world, where no one has ever been shot.
SEAN GRAVES: I could spend my entire life living in fear, wondering when’s the next attack or when’s the next person going to do that, but that would be it. I’d be living in fear. I would be giving into what they wanted to happen.