Today is the “National School Walkout” day, where kids across the country are leaving their classrooms to make a statement about the gun violence that has plagued American schools. Some folks initially rolled their eyes at the chosen date of 4/20, assuming it was a not-so-sly reference by mischievous teens to the universal number code for possession of marijuana. But that is not why it was chosen; it was because April 20th is the anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
Columbine — it is a “where were you” moment, one of those events that people old enough to remember can tell you where they were and what they were doing when it happened. To many people’s memory it was a watershed event, the ushering in of the era of the modern day school shooting. Many think of the sad phenomenon of school massacres as having begun with Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’ bloody, deadly rampage through their high school.
It didn’t, really. Surprisingly, there are incidents of mass murder in public schools in the United States dating back to the 1800s. The most deadly mass murder to occur in a school in United States’ history was at the Bath School House in Bath Township, Michigan in 1927, when local farmer Andrew Kehoe used bombs to kill 45 people, most of them children aged 7 to 12. However, the modern rash of multiple-victim incidents perpetrated by students themselves began in the late 1990s- but prior to the April 20, 1999 event at Columbine.
The first of these was in 1996, in Moses Lake, Washington, when 14 year old Barry Loukaitis killed two classmates and a teacher with his father’s gun.
There were two more in 1997. In Pearl, Mississippi 16 year old Luke Woodham killed his mother, then two students at his high school. In Paducah, Kentucky, 14 year old Michael Carneal fired on a morning prayer circle outside of his school, killing 3 and injuring 5.
In 1998 in Jonesboro Arkansas, middle schoolers Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson, ages 11 and 13 respectively, opened fire on their school yard. They killed 5 and injured 10.
In Springfield, Oregon, also in 1998, Kipland Kinkel killed his parents, then went to school, shot 2 of his classmates to death and injured 25 more.
By the time Columbine happened, the term “school shooter” had already burrowed into the American lexicon. It became a sort of zeitgeist of evil looming in our society, recurring often enough to instill a dull fear in the back of the mind of parents everywhere. Columbine was not the beginning, though it represented something different in its sheer scale. But it was more than just an increased body count that was new; Columbine also coincided with the beginnings of the ubiquitous 24 hour news cycle. CNN was on the scene early, breaking the news before the killers even shot themselves. Their live broadcast from the scene, its images of bodies on the sidewalk, scared kids streaming out of the building with their hands up, and crying, horrified faces of students and parents, gave viewers a sense of reality of something that until then, they could “only imagine”.
The reporting was thorough, continuous, and in depth. For weeks, the murderers’ names and faces, information about their families, and theories about their motivations dominated the media. Some of the survivors made the rounds on talk shows, describing what they saw that day and what they knew about the killers. We have now seen this scenario play out again and again, as the public struggles to figure out why this keeps happening and how to fix it.
There have been many other school shootings between that 1996 incident at Moses Lake and the recent event in Parkland, Florida. Counting only high school shootings for which a student was responsible and in which there were multiple victims, there have been no less than 12. That excludes Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and other colleges, incidents of targeted, one-on-one violence, and undoubtedly others that did not make national news for one reason or another. Since Parkland, there has been at least one more.
The February shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland was reminiscent of Columbine in setting, fatality count, and initial media coverage. The victims’ names and faces, and more so, sadly, those of the killer, have become familiar in American households. While tales of heroism arose from both tragedies, so did controversies. After Columbine, we villainized Marilyn Manson; after Parkland, we villainized (or, for some, re-emphasized the villainy of) the NRA. In both cases, people desperate to understand the inexplicable theorized that bullying of the perpetrator was the real culprit.
There are legitimate reasons why not everyone agrees with the protests that are happening around the country today, but it is hard to disagree that school massacres have become an unwanted but undeniable part of our lives. As we wait to see not if, but when, the next one will occur, take a moment today to reflect on the lives we have lost. From the bombing of Bath School in 1927 to the shooting at Great Mills High in Maryland- which occurred a few weeks after Parkland- America has lost well over 100 souls to school violence (including the victims at Sandy Hook.) We need not take a side in the protests to remember them all, and the potential that died with them.
Photo by Mobilus In Mobili