Surviving Columbine: What We Got Wrong

Myths about bullies, goths and school safety persist 10 years after Columbine.

April 17, 2009, 2:20 PM

April 20, 2009 — -- Patrick Ireland will forever be known as "the boy in the window" after television cameras covering the Columbine High School shootings captured the bloodied and limp 17-year-old dangling out of the library's second-story window.

It was 2:38 p.m. on April 20, 1999 -- more than three hours after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold attacked the suburban high school with automatic weapons and explosives, killing 13 and injuring 24. Ireland had been shot in the brain and foot.

Confusion reigned as SWAT teams grabbed Ireland, then stormed the school, where 200 to 300 terrified students and staff cowered under tables, above ceiling tiles and even in a school freezer.

"We were all shot fairly early on in the library," Ireland, now 27, told "We heard shots as they got closer, throwing pipe bombs, things falling from the ceiling. It was a surreal experience.

"Within the first third of the time frame I blacked out and was unconscious through the mayhem. It was kind of a blessing in disguise," he said. "I don't have a memory."

But for most Americans on the 10th anniversary of that tragedy, those images are still seared into their collective consciousness: two bullied outcasts, clad in trench coats, seeking revenge on "jocks" and minorities.

Today many still cling to myths about how the shootings happened, what motivated the killers and how to make schools safe, as survivors have tried to make sense of their own lives.

In the decade after Columbine, the U.S. saw 80 more school shootings, even as millions of dollars have been spent on metal detectors, security cameras and emergency response plans.

"Schools implanted some programs that were effective in reducing school shootings, but others were politically expedient and popular, but ineffective," said Northeastern University mass murder expert Jack Levin, who writes about Columbine for Behavior Science magazine.

"The law and order approach instituted in schools doesn't work very well," he told

In the 1997 school shootings in West Paducah, Ky., two students pulled a fire alarm then waited until students fled the school.

"They shot them down like ducks in a gallery," said Levin.

Attempts to put more police in schools have also failed. "To this point we haven't been able to get to a crime scene and prevent mass slaughter," he said.

Resource officers were present at both Columbine and the 2008 shooting at Northern Illinois University, according to Levin. Costly preventive programs aimed at bullying and conflict resolution work better, teaching empathy, anger management and impulse control.

Columbine, 10 Years Later

Breaking the "culture of silence" that prevents students from "snitching or ratting" has also helped schools detect troubled students "before they become troublesome," he said.

In 2000 a national school safety report attempted to characterize the typical school assassin, concluding that most are male loners with a grievance. More than half had revenge as a motive.

But law enforcement and educators still agree that profiling students has been ineffective in predicting which teens will become killers.

"There are a million men who are psychopaths and a few women, but they never kill anybody," Levin said. "They might sell you a bad used car or might clean out your portfolio of stocks or they might womanize or cheat. But killing's not their game."

What actually happened at Columbine is more complicated, according to at least three new books published on the anniversary: "Columbine," by Dave Cullen; "Columbine: A True Crime Story," by Jeff Kass; and "Why Kids Kill" by Peter Langman.

Journalists Cullen, who reported for Salon, and Kass, who covered the story for the Pulitzer-winning Rocky Mountain News, contend that the media got the story all wrong.

Eric Harris was a psychopath -- controlling, manipulative and sadistic; Dylan Klebold was a lonely depressive, full of suppressed emotional rage.

The pair planned the attack as a terrorist bombing, hoping to kill at least 500. They were not "goths" or members of the "Trench Coat Mafia," as was widely reported. They wore duster jackets to hide their weapons.

When their bomb timers failed to go off, they randomly fired at students for little more than 17 minutes. The shooters got bored, wandered the high school, then killed themselves 45 minutes later.

SWAT teams, thinking the school was under siege, delayed rescues for three hours as victims like coach Dave Sanders bled to death.

Cullen also claims the tragedy, anchored in confusion, was hijacked by the media, religious groups and filmmakers.

Some of the misinformation began as 1,000 students gathered at Clement Park the day after the shootings.

"Kids opened up and talked to each other, but they needed to talk to adults," said Cullen. "They used the press like shrinks, like a sounding board."

The media picked up on narratives such as the "trench coat mafia" and "jock bullies," then students watching the news parroted back the falsehoods.

"All rumors were in place that first day," said Cullen. "And once it started it was an echo chamber where we would say something on TV and radio, and they would hear it and report back to us. We thought they were verifying."

He debunks the myth that student Cassie Bernall professed her Christianity before being killed by a shot to the head. An eyewitness confused the 17-year-old, who had no time to speak before being slain, with Valeen Schnurr, who told Klebold she believed in God before being shot in the chest, arms and abdomen.

'Bowling for Columbine'

The tragedy spawned Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," which became the top-grossing documentary of all time in the United States in 2002. Moore and shooting victim Mark Taylor walked into a Kmart and demanded the store "take back" the multiple bullets left in the teen's body.

Taylor's parents told that their son had "never received a dime" from the movie. Today Taylor is mentally ill, living with his mother on food stamps in New Mexico.

The Harris and Klebold families have avoided the press for the last 10 years. Their homeowners' insurance paid out $1.6 million to 31 families of victims, according to Cullen.

Their side of the story will not be known until 2027, when their depositions to police are made public.

The survivors have also struggled with their version of the tragedy.

Brooks Brown, now 28, told that he had been ostracized by victims' families because he had once been friends with the killers. Brown's mother had reported to police months in advance of the shooting that Eric Harris was unstable and a threat to her family.

When Harris arrived in the Columbine parking lot ready for the suicide-rampage, he famously spared Brown's life.

"I like you now," Harris told Brown, who was at first a suspect. "Get out of here. Go Home."

Brown appeared on Oprah and wrote his own account in his 2002 book, "No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine."

Today, in an ironic twist, Brown, who often played video games with the shooters, works in the games division of Lucasfilm's Star Wars outside San Francisco.

"I am perfectly OK since it happened but there's always a little affecting you," Brown said. "I am finally able to do my own thing now. It's definitely a nerd's dream."

For him, the most difficult challenge in healing was the "complete utter lack of support from the community I lived in."

"I basically got thrown out," said Brown. "I wasn't welcome by the friends and families of the victims. People were quite angry with me."

Columbine Victims Rebuild Lives

Many survivors, like Ireland -- who recovered from injuries that paralyzed his right side and damaged his language center -- have rebuilt their lives.

Anne Marie Hochhalter, 27, who was shot in the chest and permanently paralyzed from the waist down, dealt with her mother's suicide just 18 months after the shootings. Today, she has a degree in business management and is a part-time manager at a local Bath & Body Works store.

"It helped me, you know [to] believe in faith as well, that I'm here for a reason," she told ABC's Kate Snow. "I have a lot more to give to the world."

Parents of the dead have taken on causes in their children's names. Tom and Linda Mauser, who lost their son Daniel, work for stricter gun control. Brian Rohrbough, father of Daniel, fights to ban abortion; Darrell Scott, father of Rachel, challenges teens and now corporations to help the troubled and lonely.

Not all have happy endings. Marines Lance Cpl. Greg Rund, who survived the Columbine shootings as a freshman, was killed in action on his second tour of duty in Iraq at 21.

Today, on Columbine's 10th anniversary, some things have changed -- the high school library has been destroyed and a memorial to the victims has been dedicated.

And some things haven't. Frank DeAngelis, who counseled countless administrators through their own school shootings, is still principal. He vowed at first to stay until the school's freshmen had graduated and has now pledged to wait for the kindergartners from 1999.

Ireland is poised to publish his own book, "The Boy in the Window," and has been giving motivational speeches at his company, Northwestern Mutual. He and others, like Hochhalter, have forgiven the killers.

At one point, when he was hospitalized, his mother asked, "Do you have any anger toward them?"

"She was harboring a lot of anger," Ireland told "To sum it up, I basically said, 'Please forgive them.' She looked and asked, 'Why?' Because they were confused and didn't know what they were doing.

"We have a choice in how we live our lives," he said. "You wake up every single day and have a choice as living as a victim or a victor. When you choose to be a victor, you have so much more positive impact on how people view you and the way you want to live your life."

ABC's information specialist Nicholas Tucker contributed to this report.

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