Right: Columbine site map provided by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department
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On April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold, seventeen, and, Eric Harris, eighteen, both seniors weeks away from graduation, opened fire on students, staff, and teachers inside Columbine High School. Their initial plan was to detonate explosives inside the cafeteria, killing hundreds of their fellow classmates, while waiting outside of the school to shoot those who tried to escape. When the explosives failed to detonated, the shooters improvised and began shooting. 

The attack began shortly after 11:00 a.m. and lasted only an hour, with the killers committing suicide shortly after noon. During that time, they killed twelve students and one teacher, and wounded twenty four others. Despite lasting only an hour, the event lasted much longer. Police initially treated Columbine as a hostage situation, surrounding the school rather than entering, a result of the confusion of the moment. The police knew there were explosives not yet detonated. And because of conflicting reports from students, the police believed there were more than two gunmen. 

In the end, it took law enforcement three hours to clear the school, and even longer to get victims to medical facilities. This resulted in one of the greatest failures of Columbine, the death of Dave Sanders. Sanders, the only teacher murdered in the attack, lay dying in a classroom for three hours before being rescued. Students tried desperately to save him, even hanging a sign with the words “1 BLEEDING TO DEATH” from the window.

The shooting at Columbine drew national attention. At the time, it was the deadliest school shooting on a high school campus in America’s history. And while there’d been a series of high school shootings in the two years leading up to Columbine, such as Heath High School, Thurston High School, Pearl High School, and Bethel Regional, Columbine is often mistaken for being first, because it was the first to play out on national television. 

After Columbine, people across the U.S. searched for a an answer to why the shooting occurred and how to prevent another. Rumors surfaced such as Eric and Dylan were bullied, or that they were part of the “Trenchcoat Mafia.” But those myths have never been proven. After years of examining journals, tapes, and other evidence, the FBI found the simplest of motives: murder. According to Dave Cullen, author of the award-winning book, Columbine, “Their [Eric and Dylan’s] vision was to create a nightmare so devastating and apocalyptic that the entire world would shudder at their power.”

The Columbine shooting also sparked a national conversation about gun control and school safety, and changed the way law enforcement responds to mass shootings. No longer are mass shootings treated as hostage standoffs. No longer do first responders strive for negotiation. Columbine was a teaching moment for the entire country. It was the first mass school shooting Americans experienced through the lens of modern media.

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