School violence erupted again today, suddenly
and with a vengeance. Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado.
It has been a horror. In 1999, two high school students
went on a deadly rampage and the images seared themselves into the nation’s collective memory. One of the worst school shootings ever. 15
dead bodies, still being identified. An American nightmare that
too many schools know too well. Yet how much of our explanation
for that nightmare was right? 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. Misguided perceptions of the Columbine shooting
continue to influence us today. 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. They had a couple of duffel bags at their
feet. And we witnessed them pulling out what we assumed to be paintball guns that later
on turned out to be something completely different. 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. I was laying in broken glass from the window
that had gotten shot out. All I could hear was the fire alarms going off.
And then the gunshots at a distance. 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. 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. I saw 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. As soon as that bullet entered my backpack
and actually paralyzed me, shattering my vertebra, that’s when the pain set in. So, there was, like, Eric on 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.” The killers fatally shot 12 students and a
teacher in less than 20 minutes. Then they turned the guns on themselves. 12 kids died on my watch, along with a teacher. In our lives, you’re not supposed to bury your kids. And they were all my kids. Before the world had fully grasped what had
happened inside the school, there was a scramble to make sense of it. We’re getting coverage from four stations
in the Denver area of a shooting at a high school. A still developing situation, and one that
looks like it’s not going to be over anytime soon. 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. Two witnesses we talked to on the telephone
described them as members of the Trench Coat Mafia, these are kids they claim routinely
dress in black trench coats. 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. 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. 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 thinks, “Oh, oh, they were
outcasts. Oh I didn’t realize that.” Then when he’s interviewed, he says they’re outcasts. So you’re, you know, you’ve contaminated
the witness pool, like that. And speculation about a black-coated mafia
and its supposed grievances ran wild. A gang that apparently hated athletes It was all because people were mean to him last year. The Trench Coat Mafia is more than just black
clothes. These boys were dangerously strange. 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. Eric and Dylan were 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. And he says the media’s description of him
and his friends had little basis in fact. 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 & Dragons, which is just about the least dangerous thing
you could do. 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. But the explanation about outcast loners seeking
revenge against bullies had the dual advantage of being both dramatic and familiar. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. It was a murder-suicide for both of them.
For Eric, it was primarily a murder. For Dylan, it was primarily a suicide. They took the
tactics of terrorists and said, “We can do the same stuff for our own aggrandizement.” Eric talked about his audience in his journal, and whether they were going to understand this. And there was one message observers seemed
to take from the event immediately. School shootings have become a dark stain
on American life. The phenomenon of kids turning guns on their
schoolmates is all too familiar. It’s not just Littleton. We know that now.
We’ve had lots and lots and lots of places. 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. Parents across the country are demanding to know what their schools are doing to keep their children safe. 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. When people hear that somebody was caught planning a Columbine, the world knows what that means. 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. School shootings are on the rise in America.
I’m telling you, I have the numbers to show it. But there’s actually very little consensus
on those numbers. Experts say the number is statistically unchanged
since the 1990’s. The number of school shootings in America
has been rapidly in decline over the last decade. 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. 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. The death toll rises in an attack inside a
school cafeteria. In Los Angeles, two students were wounded
in an accidental shooting. A school shooting in Texas leaves 2 students injured. 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. There are over 300 shootings every day in
the United States. How many of those occur in schools?
Almost none of them. 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. Seung-Hui Cho wrote that he was inspired by
the Columbine killers’ attack eight years ago today. The gunman, Adam Lanza, was obsessed with
the 1999 Columbine High School attack. And some news outlets are beginning to take notice. 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. 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. 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.