Arapahoe High School shooting: Lessons from Columbine

It's one of those phrases that gets tossed around after a school shooting, like how the shooter "seemed like a nice, quiet boy" and "didn't fit the profile" -- never mind that there is no profile for school shooters, other than seeming to be nice, quiet boys. From the moment news of the attack on Arapahoe High School went live on Friday, you could see the newscasters straining to get to one of their favorite platitudes, trying to find something upbeat to say about a horror that's fresh and pointless. Governor John Hickenlooper himself said it on Face the Nation this weekend.

"This could have been much, much worse," he said.

Well, sure. Any outburst of public violence that leaves any survivors at all could, in theory, be much worse. Karl Pierson's brief rampage could have been much, much worse for just about everyone at Arapahoe -- with the possible exception of seventeen-year-old Claire Davis, badly wounded when Pierson began firing, apparently at random. But that doesn't seem like much in the way of consolation for Davis or her family.

The shootings at Columbine could have been much worse, too. If Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had managed to set off the propane bombs they planted in the cafeteria, the deaths might have numbered in the hundreds. Even Newtown could have been worse.

But focusing on the body count misses the point. What is striking about Friday's events is the rapid response by law enforcement. The school resource officer, Deputy James Englert, pursued the shooter into the school. A massive tactical response was on scene in minutes. Pierson was already dead by then; like many school shooters, he was essentially on a suicide mission, a private apocalypse with no second act. But the death was confirmed within minutes, even as the school was being safely evacuated.

That scenario is now routine -- and that's what makes it remarkable. The 1999 attack on Columbine exposed all the shortcomings of traditional SWAT procedures -- setting up a perimeter and command post, essentially ceding the school to an active shooter on the theory that to barge in would put more lives at risk -- and prompted a massive rethinking of how to handle such crisis situations.

Continue for more about the lessons from Columbine at Arapahoe High School.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast

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