Updated: Jan 6
Twenty years ago this year, two high school students walked into their suburban high school in Colorado - and open fired. They killed 13 students and injured 24. At the time, this massacre - the Columbine High School shooting on April 20, 1999 - was deemed the worst high school shooting in American history.
Reflecting on it today, you can imagine the victims as young, eager, and vibrant teenagers doing what we all did at those ages - balancing homework and sports, talking on the phone after school and planning for college. What they each did that April morning was what millions of American students did that same spring day and have done since then - they went to school.
At the time, that heinous act - students opening firing on their classmates - was unheard of. Mass shootings in public places were tragedies reserved for war zones. Now, a war zone was unfolding in one of America’s most sacred grounds - the classroom. As a result, Columbine changed school culture as we knew it. School administrators were tasked with leading efforts to plan for similar events in their own schools. Teachers changed how moved through their classrooms - from leaders to now protectors. And students faced a new reality - going to school was now a threat to their livelihoods.
Columbine changed how we each show up and protect ourselves in once safe spaces. And that’s been our way of life for the last 20 years.
Data from the Washington Post reports that the United States has seen more than 230 school shootings since Columbine. (Those numbers do not include events at colleges or universities.) With statistics like that, it’s hard to believe that processes and procedures have changed since 1999. But, they have changed for the better.
Here are just five ways how school safety has changed since Columbine:
Increased security when entering a school building
The New York Times painted a sad yet completely accurate picture of entering a school building today - "Present your driver’s license to be scanned and verified. Have your photograph taken. Pass your belongings through a metal detector. Welcome to your child’s school."
That process has become commonplace in thousands of schools (from elementary to colleges and universities) across the United States.
Anyone who has visited a school in recent years knows that the process of entering a school building has become an effort. All outside doors are locked. A visitor is often told where to park and then questioned via a video camera or intercom system as to why he or she is visiting a school and with whom he or she is meeting. Most schools take your picture and log your name and identification as well as the timestamp of your arrival and departure.
It's a coordinated effort that’s not only part of increasing school building security, but also controlling access to students, teachers, and administrators.
Changes to police protocol
Without question, Columbine changed the way schools protect themselves with security measures. It also changed how police approach and access a school in the event of an emergency.
At the time, and because it was such an unheard of event, police scrambled to respond to Columbine. Then, when on the scene, they treated the shooting like a bank robbery negotiation, waiting outside for almost an hour thinking that the shooters would be in communication with demands - all while the shooting continued inside. Today, protocols call for the first officer on-site to enter the situation rather than waiting outside to plan and respond.
Increased installation of security technology
The immediate reaction post-Columbine was an increase in physical safety measures. In 1999, only one in five schools used security cameras for video surveillance. Today, schools are relying more heavily on technology. Three out of five schools use security cameras now; some have also added metal detectors and X-ray machines.
In 2016, the RAND Corporation published a study titled, “The Role of Technology in Improving K–12 School Safety” in which the authors identify an increased need for technology for school safety. They identified 12 school safety technologies including ID technology, anonymous tip lines, tracking systems, violence prediction technology, and social media monitoring.
Other schools have added hardwire buttons - physical buttons installed in the school or given to specific staff members to be able to dial 9-1-1 easily and immediately from their offices or classrooms in the event of an emergency.
In addition to technology, schools are also increasing the number of safety and/or police officers on site. Some districts are even employing their own police departments with officers trained to handle active shooter situations specifically.
The creation of more cohesive emergency plans
Since Columbine, school leaders have focused more on strategic efforts not only to enhance emergency protocols and procedures, but also to identify and recognize red flags before events occur. It’s an effort that takes a village - and a plan.
This approach has pushed school and community leaders to come together to create more cohesive school emergency plans that focus on interoperability, or how school and community leaders communicate and share information with each other while responding during an emergency.
As well, organizations like National School Safety and Security Services have encouraged strategic initiatives for emergency preparedness. One of those five strategies focuses on strengthening partnerships with public safety officials so as to involve public safety partners in the development and updating of school emergency plans as well as school threat assessment protocols.
School leaders and teachers are demanding training
Along with physical safety measures, teachers have taken active (and often public) stands in protecting their students and preventing future school shootings by demanding active shooter training and emergency drills.
Schools are responding. According to the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics, nearly every public school in the U.S. now conducts lockdown safety drills — 96 percent in 2015 and 2016.
Today, teachers are instructed to act as the very first, first responders. They are taught to call 9-1-1 to notify the police, and then act to protect their students. Students and teachers alike are taught Active Survival: ABC'S Active Threat Response Plan - avoid, barricade, counter and survive. As well, school leaders and teachers today are being taught and advised to increase awareness and focus as well on typical threats to students’ safety which include mental health problems, family trauma, severe weather, traffic accidents on or near school grounds and child abductions due to custody disputes.
We’ve seen another important and daunting change since Columbine - money for a school counseling grant programs has increased; $52 million set aside for this fiscal year, compared to $20 million in 2000.
This proves that one of the biggest changes since Columbine is not only how we take care of our own physical, emotional, and mental health, but also how we take care of the health of others.
Lockdown International is a partner in bringing proactive solutions to unexpected situations. Our team is dedicated and driven to bring a variety of training programs, security products, educational tools, and proactive measures to schools and other communities.
To learn more about our trainings, please visit our Instructor Course.