Lessons from Columbine: Then and Now

April 20, 2018

Nineteen years ago I decided NOT to take my 5 month old son for our usual walk in Clement Park by Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. A few hours later, rather than questioning my decision to abandon a spring walk with my new son, I was questioning what kind of world he would grow up in.  What was happening at a school that one day could be his high school.  Why was it happening?  How?  Where, in the words of Fred Rogers, were the helpers? Like millions of people across the world, I watched the SWAT team arrive. At a school.  

Fourteen years later, on December 13, 2013 I received a text from that now 15 year old son, a sophomore at Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, Colorado:  “I just wanted to let you know I’m okay.”  A few miles away, at neighboring Arapahoe High School, there was a shooting.  What was happening? Why? How?  One of the helpers that day was the father of a friend of one of my daughters.  An Arapahoe County Sheriff’s officer, he strapped on his bullet proof vest, loaded his weapons in his patrol car, heading without question towards the shooting scene.  At a school.  Again.

Columbine is the beginning of the story that asks: what we can do to achieve school safety? The shooting that left 12 students and one teacher dead, over 20 injured, corresponds to the boom in 24-hour rolling news coverage, yet pre-dates Facebook, twitter, and Snapchat.  Here in Colorado the question has expanded over the years to include Platte Canyon, the Aurora theater, and Arapahoe, as well as out of state incidents such as 9-11, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and most recently Stoneham Douglas.  

In October of 2015 I was asked to testify in front of the School Safety and Youth in Crisis Interim Committee commissioned by the Colorado General Assembly after the shooting death of Claire Davis at Arapahoe High School on December 13, 2012.  I wasn’t an expert on mental health, gun control, or risk management.  I had, however, spent my entire adult life working in schools, with students, parents and teachers to ensure every child has the opportunity to earn success through a public school education.  Most of that work revolves around content, pedagogy, and child development of teaching children to read and write, and the broad policies that remind us that public schools are at once incubators for both egalitarian and utilitarian ideals of society as a whole. I had learned, however, that when you are a legislator, everything looks like a law.  And laws tend to be blunt instruments for dealing with delicate issues like creating cultures of school safety.

The goal of the Claire Davis Act was and is admirable.  According to Michael and Desiree Davis, Claire’s parents, “The lesson to learn is not that our schools should be less tolerant and more punitive, rather that our schools are now, as never before, in a unique position to identify and secure help for troubled students.” Sponsors of the legislation saw the Claire Davis Act as their legacy: preventing another school shooting from ever happening.  Again.  

I was asked to focus my testimony that day on privacy.  What right do students have to privacy in the context of preventing harm to themselves and others?  Threat assessments, a snapshot in time, were being discussed as a tool to prevent future tragedies.  Threat assessments, however, are simply a snapshot of time.  They are neither predictive of future behavior nor prevent harm to our children. Where was the line between preventing and predicting? How had we moved from the expectation being about the here and now, is this child or children safe in the present moment, to an expectation of foreseeability, or predictability, in order to stop harm from happening in the future?  With the expectation of foreseeability, privacy is comprised for our children, because nothing is private in the context of foreseeability.  

A major concern and rub for advocates is about changing a “here and now” assessment of what a child needs to somehow become predictive, or foreseeable.  The ability to predict, or foresee, is predicated on background knowledge and experience, or massive amounts of data and information.  Over-reliance on threat assessments can have negative consequences, and result in negative outcomes for certain students,  Students with disabilities are more likely to rank high on risk assessments, and be assessed more frequently.  Linking information from a child’s cumulative file, IEP, or 504 Plan, and discipline record pose a grave concern for labeling, mislabeling, and segregating students.  

Although the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was designed and intended to prevent linking academic data to non-academic data, the current reality is that FERPA has been radically revised several times the the United States Department of Education, without vote or authorization from Congress.  This effort at the federal level has shifted the expectation from privacy to foreseeability, or predictability.  The Data Quality Campaign created 1,500 common data element statistics that can be tagged, shared, and used operationally between K-20, workforce, and other public and private agencies, including law enforcement.  

The key here is that data, including student personally identifiable information (PII) included in educational records, which includes threat assessments, is “interoperable” between governmental agencies and for profit companies looking to create context, a background, from which to foresee, or predict, future behavior.  In effect, what had previously been private information to enhance students’ learning, only accessible but those with direct influence and accountability over students’ learning, has shifted to others who do not have accountability and are far removed from children in schools.

Hindsight may be 20/20.  We can see what was unreasonable and erroneous in a moment in the past, to attempt to predict, or foresee, or prevent situations we have never before experienced.  Even former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, once said we need to be able to look a 2nd grader in the eye and say, “You are on track.  You are ready.”  In our efforts to gather information, to look our children in the eye and say, “You are safe”, what else are we going to tell them? That they are the next school shooter or victim of suicide?

As politicians and media pundits across the country debate the merits of arming teachers and increasing the presence of armed guards and school resource officers (SROs) at schools, we must ask how effectively someone with a gun can protect students from someone else with a gun.  Even the presence of SROs is not without controversy.  Having armed personnel on school campus does not stop crimes from happening, and runs the risk of policing and intrusive surveillance, especially of students of color. Lockdown drills, secure perimeter, and active shooter training have been added to fire drills.  Perhaps these are the fallout shelters of my own early school days, when we lived in fear of a nuclear attack.  

My 5th grader recently asked why when they practice active shooter drills, they all stay together.  Wouldn’t it make more sense if they were all in different parts of the room.  I hug her tight and remind her that way the adults, the helpers, know where they are and can keep her and her classmates safe.  I also remind her that the responsibility to keep schools and the people in them safe falls on all of us, students, teachers, coaches, neighbors, friends and parents.  We know that personal connections matter.  

But none of the knowledge and experience since Columbine happened 19 years ago has stopped me from continuing to ask why is it happening, what is happening, who is available to help. All school safety advocates need to look school and school district leaders in the eye and ask:

  • What are the components of your school and district’s comprehensive safety plan?

  • Does the comprehensive safety plan include:

  • Physical safety

  • Psychological safety

  • Safety teams

  • Crisis teams

  • How does the comprehensive safety plan address:

  • Prevention

  • Planning

  • Intervention

  • Response

  • Who is part of the safe schools team?

  • School and district personnel

  • Law enforcement

  • School Resource Officers (SRO)

  • Police

  • District Attorney

  • Office of Emergency Management

  • City

  • County

  • Fire

  • EMS

  • 911

What information is available on non-academic factors that can impact student learning such as:

  • Student perceptions of environment

  • Risk behaviors

  • School climate

  • Bullying

  • Wellness

  • Threat Assessments

  • Who has access to personally identifiable information (PII)? For what purpose? For how long?

  • How do we balance what we know, that personal connections matter with impersonal connections made by data sets and algorithms?


It’s easy for us to blame the school or the police or the gun lobby. What’s harder is to listen.  To ask questions.

 

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