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Book Review: Columbine: A True Crime Story, A Victim, The Killers and the Nation’s Search For Answers by Jeff Kass

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Ten years has passed since that day when two students and their arsenal executed a ferocious attack on classmates at a Littleton, Colorado high school, but its imprint on the local community and broader national consciousness coldly reverberates. What occurred on that Tuesday, April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School, in the small, unincorporated Jefferson County township, is ignominiously enshrined in the pantheon of American evil, infamy, and, indeed, irrationality.

Thus a decade later we are still frightened by it and flummoxed as to why it happened, resolved to get to bottom of just what motivated these boys to commit such a vicious act on their peers. We feel stranded without the comfort of sensible or logical explanations. When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold embarked on that cold-blooded killing spree, massacring a dozen students and a teacher, in addition to wounding 24 more, before committing suicide, they went to their graves answerable for the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history.

But much of what we know or think we know about the sadistic spree comes from early news reports, long since filtered and diffused through hearsay, rumor, and the channels of pop culture: two misfits in black trench coats were taking vengeance against school bullies. Now, in Columbine: A True Story, longtime Rocky Mountain News reporter Jeff Kass — an investigative journalist who has been covering the story since the day it transpired — explores the mystery of how Harris and Klebold could have carried out such heinousness without others knowing even the very least about it. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is the third book released to coincide the 10 year anniversary, two of which are by journalists who have been studying the story for the past decade, and the other written from a psychologist’s perspective.

Predicated on inside research and exclusive information, it is hard to imagine any future projects superseding Kass’s moreforcible nonfiction narrative, in terms of its depth of study, breadth of knowledge, or creepy, eerie, grim application. In Columbine: A True Story, Kass focuses primarily on the murderers' psychological and social evolution — or utter maladjustment, really — and the battle to get government records relevant to the shooting made public. The book is crammed with passages from hard-fought copies of Klebold's college admissions essays and a federal deposition from Robert Kriegshauser, the Jefferson County diversion counselor who supervised the boys after they were arrested for breaking into a van. (Previously undisclosed, this lawsuit was filed against the company that manufactured the psychiatric drug taken by Harris. Kriegshauser has never spoken publicly.)

Another document Kass unearthed is a psychological profile of Dylan Klebold's mother, Susan, conducted when she was a teenager. The description reveals Susan as a bleak, macabre foreshadower of Columbine, for the psychiatrist treating her determines that she has a preoccupation with horror and death. Klebold's college admissions essay, written two months before the shooting, shows a tormented soul who regrets that he has made damaging life decisions.

In fact, most of the details in Columbine: A True Story corroborates what was already noted about Harris’s and Klebold’s antisocialism: they were outcasts and antagonistic, "probably on the lowest rung of the social ladder." Also, the boys vent in their journals their morose feelings of alienation and self-loathing. The book, however, holds some new disclosures for those who remember Columbine largely from preliminary media accounts. Kass rejects the enduring memory of two Goth freaks, or a pair of “Trench Coat Mafia” members, who targeted jocks, minorities and those who tormented them. These “Holden Caufields run amok” did not mark jocks or minorities, but rather aimed to wipe out as many people as they could, a few of whom just happened to be athletes and non-whites. Harris and Klebold seem to have devised the attack as a synchronized bombing; they began using their guns once the bombs failed to detonate. They were not Goths, and the Trench Coat Mafia did not exist, for the boys most likely donned trench coats to conceal weapons.

Another misconception that Kass addresses regards the shooting timeline. The barrage did not last as long as most people who watched the live television coverage recollect. Even though public perception lingers that the killings lasted perhaps more than an hour, from start to finish, the carnage took approximately 17.5 minutes. In Kass’s chronicle, the boys got tired of rampaging, stopped, chatted, roamed the high school for about a half hour, and then turned the guns on themselves.

Stark and sober, the book not only dissects all aspects of Columbine, but also invites readers to relive its gory pinnacle, replaying the execution of the killings for maximum literary impact. His storytelling is captivating, for it opens on the day of the shootings, and then works backward, wending a tale in which we absorb the killers' plummet into violence. Soon, we see the inner frustrations that fueled their quenchless anger.

Then, we are lead through the social and political aftermath of the shooting, a tense period rife with moral indignation. This fury targeted everything from lax school security and Goth and gun culture, to the use of pharmaceuticals and anti-depressants by teenagers, to parental supervision of the Internet, high school cliques, bullying, and the wantonly violent movies, video games, and magazines that allegedly whetted the shooters’ appetites. Too, Kass highlights the family of victim Isiah Schoel, framing their struggle to come to terms with his murder.

Ten years later, dealing with and attempting to understand evildoing still proves no easy matter.

Ultimately, what Columbine: A True Story does so well is to connect these dots, threads, and documents, leading us closer to an “answer” – if finding a satisfactory “answer” is even possible. Haunting, unforgiving, and chilling, it adds one more layer of reality to a horrendous event that no adequate emotional or mental appeal will ever quite mitigate.

From the galvanization of this sordid, painful, hopeful book, perhaps we can we learn — and relearn — from what happened at Columbine, and, most importantly, we can somehow apply its lessons to avert similar tragedies.

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About Brian D'Ambrosio

  • http://www.AggressionManagement.com John Byrnes

    Research has determined that from the Moment of Commitment (the point when a student pulls their weapon) to the Moment of Completion (when the last round is fired) is only 5 seconds. If it is the intent of a school district to react to this violence, they will do so over the wounded and/or slain bodies of students, teachers and administrators.

    Educational institutions clearly want safe and secure schools. Administrators are perennially queried by parents about the safety of their schools. The commonplace answers, intended to reassure anxious parents, focus on the school resource officers and emergency procedures. While useful, these less than adequate efforts do not begin to provide a definitive answer to preventing school violence, nor do they make a school safe and secure.

    Traditionally school districts have relied upon the mental health community or local police to keep schools safe, yet one of the key shortcomings has been the lack of a system that involves teachers, administrators, parents and students in the identification and communication process. Recently, colleges, universities and community colleges are forming Behavioral Intervention Teams with representatives from all these constituencies. Higher Education has changed their safety/security policies, procedures, or surveillance systems, yet K-12 have yet to incorporate Behavioral Intervention Teams. K-12 schools continue spending excessive amounts of money to put in place many of the physical security options. Sadly, they are reactionary only and do little to prevent aggression because they are designed exclusively to react to existing conflict, threat and violence. These schools reflect a national blindspot, which prefers hardening targets through enhanced security versus preventing violence with efforts directed at aggressors. Security gets all the focus and money, but this only makes us feel safe, rather than to actually make us safer.

    Some law enforcement agencies use profiling as a means to identify an aggressor. According to the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education’s report on Targeted Violence in Schools, there is a significant difference between “profiling” and identifying and measuring emerging aggression; “The use of profiles is not effective either for identifying students who may pose a risk for targeted violence at school or – once a student has been identified – for assessing the risk that a particular student may pose for school-based targeted violence.” It continues; “An inquiry should focus instead on a student’s behaviors and communications to determine if the student appears to be planning or preparing for an attack.” We can and must assess objective, culturally neutral, identifiable criteria of emerging aggression.

    For a comprehensive look at the problem and its solution.

  • starviego

    You are still being lied to. Big time. If you want to find out what really happened at Columbine I suggest you read what the eyewitnesses had to say.

  • james jay

    I agree Kass’ book is excellent,and has much exclusive information. It is not only the definitive book on Columbine, but the only one to connect the dots between school shootings across the country.