Columbine, Virginia Tech Anniversaries: Reverence, Vigilance, Prevention

April 17, 2015 Updated: April 24, 2016

As America commemorates the anniversaries of the Columbine High School and Virginia Tech tragedies on the fateful days of April 16 and 20 respectively, we must pause.

The events demand reverence for those who lost their lives and prayer for their families.

Vigilance, especially during these tragic anniversary times, is also in order. An abundance of caution must be the foundation of mitigation, prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery principles of crisis management.

Columbine: A Snapshot

On April 20, 1999, two students killed 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, before committing suicide. The tragedy sparked a national response on school violence, bullying, character education, crisis planning, warning signs, police tactics, and firearms.

The cover of the study "Campus Attacks" released in April 2010. (Courtesy of FBI, U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Secret Service)
The cover of the study “Campus Attacks” released in April 2010. (Courtesy of FBI, U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Secret Service)

The tragedy continues to be analyzed due to its issues including the following:

• Diversionary tactics
• Propane tanks converted to bombs
• Nearly 100 explosive devices and bombs
• Firearms including a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, a double-barreled sawed-off shotgun, a Hi-Point 995 Carbine 9mm, and a 9mm Intratec TEC-9 semi-automatic handgun.

Columbine, and other incidents, led to a U.S. Secret Service report that shared the following findings relative to pre-attack behavior:

• Incidents of targeted violence at school were rarely sudden, impulsive acts.
• Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea and/or plan to attack.
• Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack.
• There is no accurate or useful profile of students who engaged in targeted school violence.
• Most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern, or indicated a need for help.
• Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Moreover, many had considered or attempted suicide.
• Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack.
• Most attackers had access to and had used weapons prior to the attack.
• In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity.
• Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.

Virginia Tech: A Snapshot

The serenity of Virginia Tech was shattered on April 16, 2007, with 32 students and teachers killed and 17 wounded.

Victims of violent crime by age. (Courtesy of U.S. Department of Education)
Victims of violent crime by age. (Courtesy of U.S. Department of Education)

This violence was particularly heart wrenching because it was preventable. But lessons were not learned from the Columbine tragedy and numerous government documents including the following:

• “Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools,” August 1998
• “The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States” by the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education, May 2002
• “Practical Information on Crisis Planning: A Guide for Schools and Communities,” May 2003

Despite a student killing two students on the fourth floor of the West Ambler Johnston residence hall, there were no precautions taken by school administration for the possibility that other shootings may occur. It was more than two hours later when an email alert was sent to the entire campus, but no emergency actions, such as lockdown, were implemented. Reprehensibly, the email did not emphasize that two students were killed or that the shooter was still at large.

Virginia Tech was eerily reminiscent of the Columbine tragedy—whose eighth anniversary was to be commemorated in just four days. It would be later discovered that the killer was obsessed with the Columbine killings.

How is it conceivable that two people are killed on a college campus during the anniversary week of Columbine, with a killer at large and no lockdown implemented? The failure of leadership is inexcusable as nothing was done to prevent the additional killings and injuries over two hours later.

Also, despite the pleadings of a vigilant professor calling for help for this student who manifested severe, troubling warning signs, school officials failed to provide the proper intervention to protect the campus. Not only were there warning signs, but the university had been put on notice at least a year and a half before the incident.

America wake up: character education, warning signs, threat assessment, and crisis planning principles must be the order of the day.

Vincent J. Bove
Vincent J. Bove

Vincent J. Bove, CPP, is a national speaker and author on issues critical to America. Bove is a recipient of the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award for combating crime and violence and is a former confidant of the New York Yankees. His newest book is “Listen To Their Cries.” For more information, see www.vincentbove.com