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Caitlin Kushnir
Ben Henderson
Rhetoric and Civic Life, Section 008

The Columbine Effect

On April 20, 1999, the face of American schools would change forever. In
Littleton, Colorado, two Columbine students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, murdered
13 people and injured 23 before committing suicide in a school-wide massacrelater
identified as only Columbine. Though school violence has been documented
throughout United States history, the Columbine massacre marked a significant shift in
the American paradigm of school safety and policy. Extensive media coverage
contributed to nationwide fear and chaos; soon, much of the public began to believe that
schools were unsafe and extreme action needed to be enacted to prevent more
Columbines. The Columbine shootings and the subsequent effects created the concept
that modern-day schools are unsafe; thus, extensive student profiling and intense zero
tolerance policies were enacted across the United States and dramatically impacted
schools across the nation.
Prior to the 1999, the United States had seen school shootings; however, these
incidents did not cause ignite chaos like the Columbine shooting. Unlike the Columbine
massacre, the lack of media coverage in previous school attacks led the public to believe
that schools were generally safe. Even the string of school shootings two years before

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Columbine, such as those in Pearl, Mississippi and Bethel, Alaska, did not shift the
general American perspective of schools. Although the public began to fear that violence
was infiltrating suburban schools like it had in city schools, the panic faded after no
school shootings occurred in 1998-1999. Soon, the country shifted their attention to
different issues, like the crisis in Yugoslavia (Cullen 15-16). According to a U.S.
Department of Education survey, almost all students felt safe in school. In the survey,
only 4.8 percent of responding students feared an attack at school before the 1999
Columbine attack (Violence, Crime, Victimization, and Safety in Schools). However,
after the Columbine attack, many Americans began to frame schools as unsafe. Much of
this shift in perspective is due to the new approach to media coverage; prior to the
Columbine attacks, school shootings had not been televised. The Columbine tragedy was
different because America was almost witnessing the murders; this type of coverage
created a new sense of frustration and panic that changed Americas ideas of schools
(Cullen 67).
Though Columbines horrific nature was enough to cause public fear and unrest,
the media contributed significantly to the panic that ensued during and after the event.
Within twenty eight minutes of the attack, the local news stations began to cover the
attack. Soon, the national media outlets followed. However, these early reports were
confused and often incorrect (Cullen 52). Though the initial reports were not accurate, the
news still sparked public panic. Their reports featured firsthand accounts of student in the
building, and showed the students running out of the school in tears with their hands
above their heads (The Washington Post). These initial reports ignited the extensive
media coverage that would continue throughout the shootings and for years afterwards.

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According to David Cullen, author of Columbine, the coverage of Columbine reached
unprecedented levels. Cullen asserts:
The country was transfixed. In the first ten days, newsmagazines on the front
main broadcast networks devoted forty-three pieces to the attack. The shows
dominated the ratings that week. CNN and Fox News charted the highest ratings
in their history. A week afterward, USA Today was still running ten separate
Columbine stories in a single edition. It would be nearly two weeks before the
New York Times would print an issue without Columbine on page 1 (178).
With record breaking coverage, the United States was saturated with Columbine-frenzy.
Unlike other incidents of school violence, Americans were now subjected to constant,
detail-hungry reminders of the incident. With Columbine engrained in the minds of
Americans, fear of other shootings surfaced. Such extensive media coverage of the
shooting contributed to the idea that school shootings were possible anywhere; however,
schools were still one of the safest environments for children (Violence in Schools 253254). As the action at the school slowed, the media searched for new outlets. In the
months after the incident, sectors of the media began to release more information of the
shooters, including violent home videos. This new information continued to heighten
public fear and acted as a catalyst in the newly-perceived school shooting culture.
Prior to the massacre, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris filmed several violent home
videos; one video showcases the boys shooting weapons in the woods while another
video, which was created for a class project and entitled Hitmen for Hire, shows the
boys acting as murders in the halls of Columbine. Time magazine wrote an article on
these videos, The Columbine Tapes, and the videos were released to the public five
years after the incident. The Columbine Tapes led to amateur video montages over the
internet, some which glorified the shooters (Imagining Globalized Fears 260-261). Two

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new fears arose from these videos. One fear was regarding how these gruesome and
threatening videos could have slipped past officials who could have intervened. The other
fear was now about how Columbine will affect violence in the future.
After Columbine, a surge of copy cats began to threaten students and schools.
According to the statistic in Violence in Schools: Cross-national and Cross-cultural
One week after the massacre in Littleton, Colorado, at least one copy-cat threat was
reported in each of 49 states. In Pennsylvania alone, more than 60 threats of violence
against schools or students were reported. Four weeks after the massacre, over 350
students were arrested nationwide on charges related to threats of school violence, a
dramatic increase from the weeks before the Colorado incident at Columbine (53).
Many of these threats were made by students who did not intend to cause any
actual violence, but it was impossible to tell real threats from those that were fake
(Cornell 164). However, some of the copy-cat attacks were carried out after the
Columbine attacks. In 2007, a Virginia Tech student, Seung-Hui Cho, killed 32 people
and wounded 17 others on the universitys campus. Cho mailed videos, photos and letters
to NBC in the middle of his attack. In his letter, Cho claimed that he aimed to be a
martyr like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of the Columbine shooting (Imagining
Globalized Fears 260) Thus, with more threats and shootings referring to Columbine, the
fear that schools were now unsafe became a prominent perception in American society.
After the Columbine massacre, Americans ideas of school safety shifted. One
year after Columbine, a Pew Research Center poll showed that, 71 percent of parents
felt that the Columbine shooting had changed their view of how safe their child was at
school. Fewer than half (40%) of parents regarded their child as very safe at school and

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50 percent described their child as only somewhat safe (Pew Research Center).
Student perception of schools also changed; more than one-third of teenagers in the same
poll believed that there were students in their school that could be capable of Columbinelike violence (Cornell 27). In one Washington Post interview, a 12 year-old student even
says, It was kind of scary thinking about what happened to the Columbine kids and
thinking maybe someday it might happen to us (After Columbine C13). With parents
and students now fearing that Columbine-like incidents could occur in their schools, the
perception of school violence transformed. Prior to the Columbine-craze, the popular
perception was that school violence was localized to specific areas, especially urban
centers. However, the highly-publicized Columbine massacre occurred in a suburban
area. As such, the concept of localized violence began to dissolve and wide-spread
anxiety was generated as a result (Muschert 123). With the idea that schools were unsafe
and school violence could occur anywhere, the public cried out for school security
reform. With fear and societal pressure, the Columbine effect led to wide-sweeping
changes and new policy.
After Columbine, Americans enacted new school policy in order to prevent future
school tragedies like the April 20th massacre. Although it was a policy already found in
some American schools, the idea of the zero tolerance policy spread rapidly as part of the
Columbine effect. Zero tolerance policies called for swift action against students who
threaten others or possess weapons or drugs in school, usually with suspension or
expulsion. Millions of dollars have also been spent after Columbine across the United
States to install metal detectors and hire extra security (Violence in Schools 261).
Although some claim that these new safety measures create a greater feeling of security

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for students, there is no evidence that zero tolerance policies are effective (Cornell 165).
Some claim that zero tolerance policies are actually detrimental to a students safety and
rights. The development of zero tolerance in schools has been called The new American
school, which is labeled as controlling students through fear and prison-like control
(Muschert 139). In this new American school, society also attempts to profile students
that could pose a possible threat. In the post-Columbine society, people searched for ways
to identify dangerous children. Despite the search for a specific type of person, the Secret
Service Study of past-attackers concluded that there was no set of characteristics that fit
all, or even most, of the group (Cornell 34). Though identifying threats and cases of
mental illness have proved to be important in preventing violent school attacks, there is
no way to accurately identify a future shooter without a direct threat. Thus, a cycle of fear
and harsh policies continue to exist in American schools as policymakers search for a
solution to Columbine-like school violence.
The Columbine shootings marked a turning point in American society; with
constant exposure to the details of the shooting, a new sense of fear transformed the
opinion of American schools as a safe environment to the opinion that schools are a
potentially dangerous place. With the fear that there were more Dylans and Erics in
schools around the country, schools soon adopted policies that quickly attacked a possible
threat and raised suspicions about the intention of students. Because Columbine caused
such public upheaval and terror, the school shooting can be considered the spark that
ignited the perception that schools are unsafe, which is still prominent today.

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Word Count: 1690

Work Cited
"AFTER COLUMBINE; Kids Cope With The Fear of School Violence." The Washington
Post 20 Apr. 2000. Web. 22 Oct. 2014. <>.
"A Year After Columbine Public Looks To Parents More Than Schools To
Prevent Violence."Pew Research Center for the People and the Press
RSS. Pew Research Center. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.

Cornell, Dewey G. School Violence: Fears Versus Fact. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum
Associates, 2006. Print.
Cullen, David. Columbine. New York: Twelve, 2009. Print.
Denmark, Florence, Herbert H Krauss, Robert W Wesner, Elizabeth Midlarsky, and Uew
P Gielen, eds. Violence in Schools: Cross-national and Cross-cultural
Perspectives. New York: Springer, 2005. Print.
Muschert, Glenn W. "The Columbine Effect and School Antiviolence Policy." Research
in Social Problems and Public Policy 17 (2009): 117-48. Print.
Sumiala, Johanna, and Minttu Tikka. "Imagining Globalized Fears: School Shooting
Videos and Circulation of Violence on YouTube." Wiley Online Library. European
Association of Social Anthropologists., 21 Sept. 2011. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.
"Violence, Crime, Victimization, and Safety in Schools." Youth Violence, Crime, and
Gangs: Children at Risk. Ed. Kathleen Edgar. 2004 ed. Detroit: Gale Group, 2004.
Information Plus Reference Series. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 1 Nov.

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