Almost two decades after Columbine, how to prevent school shootings still vexes security experts

With more protests and walkouts planned, there's no consensus on security options

The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.
Columbine High School students mourn beside Rachel Scott's car at Clement Park near the high school. Scott was killed during the 1999 shooting rampage at the high school.

Columbine High School students mourn beside Rachel Scott’s car at Clement Park near the high school. Scott was killed during the 1999 shooting rampage at the high school.

The report below was produced by the news division of WHYY, the Philadelphia public media outlet, and is republished here with permission.

Before Columbine and Newtown and Parkland, there was Our Lady of the Angels.

On Dec. 1, 1958, a fire broke out at that parochial school on Chicago’s West Side, killing 92 students and three nuns. The Our Lady of the Angels catastrophe shocked the country and spurred action, leading to the proliferation of fire drills, sprinklers and other protocols that have so far helped prevent another similar event from occurring in America.

Nearly two decades after the infamous massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, why haven’t ghastly school shootings gone the way of ghastly school fires?

For Aaron Vanatta and other school safety experts, it’s a vexing question.

“You thought you’d see a lot more change a lot quicker,” said Vanatta, a school police officer in the Quaker Valley School District outside Pittsburgh and a regional director for the National Association of School Resource Officers. “But it didn’t really happen that way.”

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been changes since Columbine.

The protocol for confronting school shooters has just about reversed itself over 19 years.

At the time of Columbine, Vanatta said, cops were told to establish a perimeter and wait for a trained SWAT team to arrive. Now, police departments train officers to engage the shooter immediately, Vanatta said, because research shows many mass shooters surrender or commit suicide as soon as police arrive.

There’s also been a sea change in how staff and students are taught to respond. Early wisdom told students to shelter in place, turn off lights and lock doors. Now, officials preach an “options-based” response where students flee if they can, hide if it’s practical or fight back when they must.

“If the bad guy’s at the north end of the building, and occupants are at the south end of the building, why would those people at the south end of the building wait there?” Vanatta said.

Laws have changed, too, said Jennifer Thomsen, director of the Knowledge and Research Center at the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan group that tracks school policies. She places the legal shifts into two main phases.

After Columbine — an event perpetrated by two teenagers who attended the school — new state laws tended to focus on how schools deal with aberrant student behavior.

“So, for example, strengthening codes of conduct and modifying laws regarding suspension and expulsion of disruptive or threatening students,” Thomsen said.

Take Delaware, which in 2000 passed a law requiring schools to notify parents about state rules regarding bomb threats, destruction of property, disrupting school and reporting crimes.

The second swell of laws arrived 13 year later, after a man killed 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Since the crime wasn’t perpetrated by a student, the responding laws focused more on guns in schools and emergency preparedness, said Thomson.

New Jersey lawmakers established a “School Security Task Force” to “develop recommendations to improve school security and safety.”  In Delaware, the state legislature passed a law requiring each school to conduct two lockdown or intruder drills each year. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania created a grant program to fund district-level school-safety projects.

Districts across the country have invested in all sorts of new safety infrastructure. Surveillance cameras, metal detectors, and card-scan systems are just some of the physical augmentations that have proliferated in the post-Columbine era.

The Pennsbury School District in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, for instance, has equipped its schools with secure lobbies that allow school staff to screen all visitors before they enter and walkie-talkies to improve emergency communication..

“Those things did not exist in all of our buildings 20 years ago,” said Elizabeth Aldridge, Pennsbury’s director of pupil services.

For Aldridge, however, the change that stands out most is the increasing number of safety drills. Pennsbury now requires intruder drills every quarter, and that includes kindergarten classes.

Related: Marjory Stoneman Douglas students give legislators a civics lesson

But whereas fire drills — combined with other reforms — have helped snuff out the specter of major school infernos, school shootings persist. This despite the fact that schools have “hardened” their targets with new technology, raised awareness through training and drills and changed the way they intercept troubled students.

Part of the problem is circumstantial, said Amanda Klinger, co-founder of the nonprofit Educator’s School Safety Network. An attack from a gun-wielding human is simply harder to prepare for than a fire.

But she also believes the response to Columbine and Sandy Hook has been less coordinated than the response to the Our Lady of Angels fire in Chicago. As an example, she points to all the different types of drills schools do — intruder drills, active-shooter drills — many with their own distinct variations.

“How can we come to some sort of consistency so that everybody is increasing their level of preparedness?” she said.

Many also cite the nation’s gun laws and gun culture as causes of the continuing problem.

President Donald Trump has proposed allowing districts to arm teachers, theoretically further fortifying schools against potential assailants. A group of academics who study school violence recently released a list of suggestions that includes restricting gun access and increasing mental health services.

And as most have already heard, students across the country have staged school walkouts and are planning a march on Washington, D.C., this weekend, to call for more gun control. The rallies are another reminder that, while school safety looks different than it did 20 years ago, it confronts many of the same challenges.

This story was produced by the news division of WHYY, the Philadelphia public media outlet, and is republished with permission.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.


Letters to the Editor

Send us your thoughts

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

No letters have been published at this time.