Evolving Responses to School Shootings

April 4 2005, 9:20 AM

Times have changed. In the six years since the Columbine shootings, both police and media have sharpened their responses to such events. Jefferson County sheriffs were criticized in 1999 for waiting too long to enter Columbine high school once learning of the shootings. At Red Lake, police entered immediately, guns blazing, and engaged 16-year-old Jeff Wiese in a shootout. The Rocky Mountain News reports on the shift in police response:

"The lessons learned at Columbine have spread throughout law enforcement," [president of National School Safety and Security Services Kenneth]Trump said. "The first officers are to clear a path to the shooter, although they may have to bypass the injured and wounded who are calling out for help. "This is a switch in thinking that has permeated police culture nationwide."

The media, for its part, refrained from making the same kind of initial judgment about Weise that it made about the Columbine killers. The Columbia Journalism Review explores the difference in media repsonse to the incidents, giving high praise to Denver writer Dave Cullen's Slate article last year on why Harris and Klebold went on their rampage. CJR reports:

The press, in its rush to neatly explain the actions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, introduced the "trenchcoat mafia" to the American psyche, conjuring up a simplistic world in which bullying jocks terrorized lonely "Goths" until the outcasts sought their lasting revenge. The effect was to make the tragedy feel universal, so that Americans anywhere could and would imagine something similar happening in their own towns. The reality, we now know, was far different. ....The press, thankfully, has done a far better job with the Weise story than it did in Columbine. ....[It] seems that reporters have learned a few lessons in the years since Columbine. If they're feeling the impulse to neatly explain away Weise's actions, they're doing their best to resist it. ...If they wanted to, reporters could have shoehorned Weise's story into the dominant school-shooting narrative, perhaps substituting Weise's interest in Nazism for the Columbine killers' supposed (and fictional) obsession with Marilyn Manson. To their credit, reporters haven't gone quite that far.

I think it's too soon to draw analogies between Harris and Klebold and Weise, particularly since new reports are emerging that up to 20 students may have been involved in or known about the plans for the Red Lake killings. Also, at least some Native American leaders believe that the culture of exclusion is a big part of the problem.

In Oklahoma, officials with the United National Indian Tribal Youth, Inc. (UNITY) spoke out about the massacre, saying, "Although we are shocked at the evolving tragedy at Red Lake, we are well aware that this situation could occur in any community, at any time,� according to co-presidents of the National Unity Council, Dan Terrio and Misty Airington. Terrio is a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians. Airington is a Choctaw from Ada. Terrio said that solutions to problems are within the grasp of any community, and that youngsters need to be involved in finding answers to the challenges they face. "It's time for us to reach out to everyone, ever those who might seem ‘different'�, he said.

Maybe we haven't learned as much about these incidents as we think we have...the best policy probably is one that avoids stereotyping the killers and their motives.