Book Review: Columbine by Dave Cullen
I was winding up my second year of teaching when the Columbine shooting occurred, so I remember the flurry of rumors that surrounded this tragic event.
The intensity of the media coverage was unforgettable. And then I watched school policies change as Columbine's ripple effect reverberated. I'm still practicing or participating in lock-downs every year.
This book has been on my to-be-read pile for quite some time. After spending ten years on the research to set the record straight, Dave Cullen's account of this shooting is widely considered to be the most comprehensive.
The sobering tone of this narrative began with the description of the events of the shooting, and then alternated between details about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and their families, and the victims, their families, and the Columbine community.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Don Leslie. His reading was just as objective as Dave Cullen's writing. Nothing was over-dramatized, which I appreciated. My goal in listening to this book was to hear the facts about this tragedy to try to find some understanding of why. Leslie's reading provided a clear picture of the events without making me feel like an intruder or voyeur. His narration was easy to listen to, which was critical when I was listening to some of the most horrific details that are not easy to process.
Going into this book, I knew that the Trench Coat Mafia was a myth. Some oddball yearbook photo that had nothing to do with Eric or Dylan or the shooting. I knew that in the rush to get the story, other details were reported incorrectly, but I had no idea which ones. Most details blurred in my mind.
And last spring I came across this really inspirational blog post about a teacher who changed her seating chart every week. She would ask her students to identify a few peers they wanted to sit near the next week, and then she used her discretion to create a new seating chart. Her aim was to track the students who were never chosen. Identify the outsiders. When asked when she began this practice, her answer was "After Columbine."
Now, as a teacher, I am 100% on-board with the idea that we should all be finding the kids who don't quite fit in to help them build relationships. And I'm of the Bill Murry Meatballs attitude: "You make one good friend a summer and you're doing pretty well."
So what this teacher was doing was a good thing, but her motivation was totally misinformed. After reading the blog post, I dug a little deeper into Columbine details and learned that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not bullied or goth loners.
When I realized how blurred my mental picture of Columbine was, I moved this book higher up on my reading list. And after reading Cullen's research, I learned that both Eric and Dylan were bullies picking on freshmen. They weren't the victims.
Some of the details were oddly eerie. Like the Columbine principal had the security cameras installed in the cafeteria just four months prior to the shooting. He was big on making sure the students cleaned up their own trash, so he wanted proof of any litterbugs. And now we have video footage of these two killers stalking through that cafeteria preserved forever on YouTube.
I don't write that to be critical of principal Frank DeAngelis. I just remember watching that cafeteria footage on the news a lot, and I do wonder how this story may have been reported differently if those cameras were not in place.
As far as DeAngelis, he certainly found a way to take back that school for the students and the community after this shooting. The ceremony where the parents formed a human shield to shut out the majority of the media, but applauded each student as they walked back onto campus for the first time was chilling reading. Truly inspirational.
The entity that infuriated me was the Jefferson County government.
To start, at the time of the shooting, their sheriff was holding press conferences and making up facts. I don't have words for this kind of glaring mess.
But even worse were the revelations about how the sheriff's department and JeffCo officials suppressed evidence that community members had raised the alarm on Eric.
Brooks Brown had an on-and-off-again friendship with Eric. The Brown family met with the sheriff's department 15 times. All with concerns about Eric. The sheriff's department denied that any investigator ever met with the Brown family.
Mrs. Klebold wrote apologies and condolence letters to every victim. She sent the letters to JeffCo asking them to deliver them to the families. JeffCo officials wouldn't read or deliver these letters. Eventually, Mrs. Klebold was able to get the addresses of every person, so she wrote again and sent them directly. But my stomach churned that the officials of this community wouldn't even read her letters.
And the worst piece of information about JeffCo? A few days after the shooting, when the FBI had descended and the investigation was in full swing, top JeffCo officials met secretly to decide how to handle the bungled sheriff's department investigation on Eric and Dylan. Not only had the Brown family reported concerns about Eric, the sheriff's department had a file on Eric and Dylan that included violent writing from Eric's website.
So then, why did Eric and Dylan plan and execute this attack? The simplest, but most spine-chilling sentence in the book explained, "Dylan was an angry depressant conscripted by a psychopath." That sentence still haunts me.
A good section of the book delved into the research history on psychopaths. Dr. Robert Hare created the psychopath checklist and confirmed that there is no treatment or cure for a psychopath. Any attempt at treatment basically results in the psychopath having access to a finishing school where they can practice their lies and learn how to better charm their victims.
Cullen traced the FBI investigation focusing on agent Dwayne Fuselier, who poured over the writings from both killers, watched and analyzed various videos, including the Basement Tapes, and helped interview over 5,000 people. Fuselier's conclusion was that Eric Harris was a psychopath and Dylan Klebold was an angry depressant.
These two young killers didn't plan a school shooting. Columbine was a failed bombing. There were 100 bombs, many of them pipe bombs, spread over the campus. In the cafeteria, the larger bombs made out of propane tanks were meant to blow up the entire school. When the bombs failed, the killers just kept shooting.
The chapters on the victims were equally sobering as the ones about the killers. I vaguely remember hearing about Cassie Bernall, the girl who Eric shot in the library after he asked her if she believed in God and she responded yes. Turns out, that story doesn't hold.
Then there was the teacher who died: Dave Sanders. I knew that it took several hours for the paramedics to be cleared to go into the school, and that Dave Sanders bled to death in one of the science rooms.
What I didn't know was that the Sanders family didn't blame the SWAT team who responded. They recognized that it was the system that delayed the SWAT arrival into that science room. The family invited the entire SWAT team to Dave's funeral. Every officer showed up. That's community.
The survivor who made the biggest impression on me was Patrick Ireland, the boy in the window. After learning how to walk and talk again, he led the students back into Columbine High the fall after the shooting. Cullen details his rehabilitation process and the successes he found after this tragedy.
Listening to this narrative certainly helped me understand why these killers acted. The problem now is how to identify the psychopaths among us.
As a result of Columbine and subsequent school shootings, the Secret Service published the results of their report examining this issue. The downside is that there's no useful profile of a shooter. No piece of data about the shooters tracks accurately across the board. One piece of good news is that most shooters leak information about their plans prior to carrying them out, so the push for "See something. Say something" is definitely relevant.
Reading this book was disturbing. I'm glad that I have the facts, but I can't help but feel incapacitated by them. As a teacher, I can help the outsider. But how do I identify the monsters?