On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered their Colorado high school and killed 12 of their classmates, then turned their guns on themselves. Ten years later, former Los Angeles Times reporter Jeff Kass’s book, “Columbine: A True Crime story, a victim, the killers and the nation’s search for answers,” looks back at the school shooting that has become shorthand for suburban teenage depravity. The Crime Report asked Kass to explore some of the issues that still simmer.
For a guide to other media coverage of the anniversary, click here.
The Crime Report: Why do you believe the two boys did what they did?
Jeff Kass: If I had to sum up 336 pages and ten years into one word, I'd say it was vengeance.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were angry that they were at the bottom rung of the social ladder. And Columbine High School was a symbol of the social order that put them there.
Eric and Dylan, I believe, were above average in intelligence and had high expectations for themselves. That ramped up their anger because their lowly status was therefore a huge drop. I also point out in the book that Columbine and other school shootings occur in suburbs and small towns. If you're an outcast like Eric and Dylan high school is the only game in town and a loser feels like a loser through and through. There are no (or few) alternative outlets to find your self-esteem.
Eric and Dylan, because of their mental states, were unable to recognize the friends they did have. Dylan was blinded by his depression and Eric by his rage. I say that specifically because some psychologists have given Dylan a post-mortem diagnosis of depression (although it is not unanimous) and Eric has been given a diagnosis of psychopath. Psychopaths are not typically violent. Deceit is their trademark. But Eric, at least in his Web postings, openly projected his anger and violence.
TCR: How would you rate the media coverage of Columbine in the immediate aftermath and the years since?
Kass: This is a very important question. There almost seems an attempt to rewrite history and journalists appear to be taking a giddy satisfaction in criticizing their own profession.
As the 10-year anniversary stories on Columbine arrive, one common theme is that the media got its initial reporting wrong. That is true. Yet the public record was also corrected pretty quickly.
The Los Angeles Times, for example, heralded the revelation in a story this month that Columbine student Cassie Bernall was not shot dead because she said she believed in God. That (false) story did go worldwide in the months after Columbine. Bernall's mother wrote a book, She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall.
For months after the shootings, media reports did incorrectly tell that story. (And I would add it wasn't necessarily sloppy reporting, but rather not enough access to investigative information.) But on Sept. 23, 1999, The Denver Post, citing Salon.com, noted “'key investigators' doubt the widely reported story that 17-year-old Cassie Bernall was slain because she told the killers, as a gun was held to her head, that she believed in God.” The next day the Rocky Mountain News ran a story with the headline, “Accounts Differ on Question to Bernall: Columbine Shooting Victim May Not Have Been Asked whether She Believed in God.” Ultimately, we would learn it was another girl who actually said she believed in God.
The Los Angeles Times (where I worked for many years) in part faults the media that parachuted in and out of Columbine. But The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News didn't parachute in. Then again, they never left. These two local papers stuck with the Columbine story and, in the case of Bernall, found that initial reports were wrong and corrected the story within a few months.
The Los Angeles Times, ten years later, indicates we are just learning that the original reports on the Bernall story were wrong. Why the Times thought we are just learning that, I don’t know. Maybe the Times didn’t stick with the story. Maybe they didn’t check the clips. I don’t know for sure.
TCR: Some have theorized that economic woes trigger most mass shootings. Do you agree?
Kass: I am not familiar with this theory, but on the surface, I do not give it much credence because I do not recall coming across any mentions by school shooters, their writings, or others that this was a factor. Also, school shootings and mass shootings seem to have been steady over the past ten years, despite economic ups and downs.
TCR: Have we learned anything about what drives people to engage in mass killing sprees?
Kass: School shootings overwhelmingly occur in the South and West. In these regions, there is a 'Culture of Honor' whereby if you feel your honor has been violated (in this case, through your outcast status) violence is considered an appropriate response. There is also the issue that school shootings occur in suburbs and small towns. Here, outrage is directed at the school as the center of social life and a symbol of the society that has wronged them. In the inner-city, violence is directed at specific targets: the rival gang member, the other drug dealer, etc.
Recent headlines show adult shooters unleashing in small towns and cities. A rampage through two Alabama small towns; another in Carthage, N.C.; and now Binghamton, N.Y. Across the Atlantic, last month the Winnenden, Germany school shooting took place in a town of 27,000. I have not kept up with developments in the German case, but at first glance, I wonder whether the lack of an outlet in a small town or suburb linked the shooters at Columbine and Winnenden.
TCR: Did Columbine teach us anything about how to prevent school shootings?
Kass: Schools struck by shootings have reacted with stricter law enforcement such as more school resource officers, but also instilling a greater sense of community. They have added student programs to emphasize character traits such as respect, fairness, and caring. Various campuses have added more counselors, and more teacher training on conflict resolution. Some educators and others have pushed for smaller schools under the notion that they will promote closer ties among students and faculty (although such schools also have their critics).
TCR: Based on your reporting, should we have expected someone to take action that could have stopped the Columbine massacre?
Kass: The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office had 15 contacts regarding Harris and/or Klebold beginning over two years before Columbine, including reports of violent Web pages that Harris had created. Investigators didn't have to predict they would undertake a school shooting, but simply connect the dots and come down harder on the two. For example, investigators, wrote a draft affidavit for a search warrant for Harris' home a year before Columbine but never took it before a judge.