The four most useful lessons of Columbine.

The history behind current events.
April 29 2009 7:05 AM

The Four Most Important Lessons of Columbine

How "leakage" and the "active shooter protocol" have prevented other tragedies.

This is one of several pieces related to Dave Cullen's Columbine, published this week. Click here for an excerpt about Eric Harris' planning for the attack and here for an excerpt about the wounding of a teacher during the assault. You can watch video of attackers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and you can read Cullen's seminal 2004 Slate essay about Harris and Klebold: "At Last We Know Why the Columbine Killers Did It."

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The taking seriously part is fine. We do need to investigate every "joke," just in case. But we also need to respond reasonably. We should not execute a search warrant every time a little kid points his finger and goes, "Bang." And while the teenager who says he's going to blow up his school should have his house searched, if the search turns up empty—no explosives, no ingredients, no Anarchist Cookbook, no diagrams, and no manifesto—the worst thing administrators can do is expel him. If we want our kids safe, we need to resist the urge to make an example of someone who spoke stupidly but had no plan. Punishing him harshly sets exactly the wrong example to the crucial audience: friends of the next "joker." That's because kids remain the best early warning system. We're counting on kids to turn in a friend, even when they're sure he's innocent, just to be safe. They need to know that if they report a "joke" and it turns out to be a joke, there are no consequences except brief embarrassment. If they're wrong and it's not a joke, they'll save lives. We need to convince them to let adults make that determination. We can only do that by giving the jokester a pass if it's just a joke.

Click here to see home video of Harris and Klebold conducting mock attack and weapons training.
Click here to see home video of Harris and Klebold conducting mock attack and weapons training

The third key lesson of Columbine: We need to prepare students and teachers better for an emergency. Harris and Klebold caught their high school unprepared. We're less naive now. Most kids and their teachers are now drilled on lockdowns and evacuations. Police departments have up-to-date floor plans and alarm codes. (At Columbine, SWAT teams were hampered by ear-splitting sirens and searched for the library on the wrong end of the school building, unaware a new wing had recently been added.)

And the final practical lesson of Columbine is a revolution in police response tactics. Cops followed the old book at Columbine: surround the building, set up a perimeter, contain the damage. That approach has been replaced by the "active shooter protocol." Optimally, it calls for a four-person team to advance in a diamond-shaped wedge. (If there isn't time to gather four officers, a single officer should charge in alone.) They're trained to move toward the sound of gunfire and neutralize the shooter. Their goal is to stop him at all costs. They will walk past a dying child if they have to, just to prevent the shooter from killing more. The active protocol has proved successful at numerous shootings during the past decade. At Virginia Tech alone, it probably saved dozens of lives.

Dave Cullen is the author of Columbine, which was published this week. Cullen has contributed to Slate, Salon, the Washington Post, and the New York Times