This past weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the Columbine Memorial in Littleton, Colorado. Even though my family loves Colorado as a vacation destination, I had never stopped by to see what was done to honor those who lost their lives in that horrific tragedy. My friend Dan – who lives in Littleton – said that he doesn’t understand why it isn’t more of a big deal. He discovered it while out for a run one day, but thinks that it should be in every “Top Things to See in Colorado” tourist list. I agree. It is a big deal. And it matters so much. Particularly to me.
I’ve spent my professional life studying bullying and youth violence, and the increased focus on the topic has – in part – stemmed from the rash of school shootings our country has experienced in the last two decades. Justin and I have pointed out that bullying victimization has also been correlated with bullying offending and other forms of violent behaviors as youth sometimes choose antisocial ways to cope or lash out in response to their experiences.1-5 And school shootings – though rare – have been connected in part to bullying, which once again underscores the magnitude of the problem.6 Based on a detailed case study review of 37 targeted school attacks in the last quarter of the 20th century, more than 2/3rds of 41 attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to the incident. Furthermore, some had experienced long-standing, severe bullying and harassment that clearly affected their emotional and psychological state.7
I’m not writing this to talk in detail about school shootings and what we can do to prevent them. For information towards that end, I’d encourage readers to see this article by Randy Borum and colleagues.8 I’m writing because it’s important to supplement all of the research we do with my human perspective.
Visiting the Memorial hit me very, very hard. While walking around and reading the narrative remembrances written by the deceased victims’ families, I cried multiple times. I had no idea it would shake me up so much; I’ve visited Ground Zero in NY and the Vietnam Memorial in DC, but this broke my heart so much more. I felt intimately connected to these kids, even though I didn’t know them at all. Maybe it’s because I could put myself in their shoes, maybe because I work with kids every week, maybe because I’m particularly sensitive to situations where people are helpless and it all seems so unjust and incomprehensible. And I know my experience at the Memorial isn’t unique. I’m sure when visiting it, so many others think the very same thoughts that were spinning through my head: “I don’t understand how this happened” and “This is so wrong” and “These kids are so innocent and young and had so much in front of them” and “This just cannot happen, it just can’t.”
While we don’t know for certain what drove the killers to murder 13 and injure 24, bullying victimization has been floated as a strong possible motivating factor:
“I hate you people for leaving me out of so many fun things. And no don’t … say, ‘Well that’s your fault,’ because it isn’t, you people had my phone number, and I asked and all, but no. No no no don’t let the weird-looking Eric KID come along.” ~ Eric Harris’s journal
“You’ve been giving us shit for years. You’re f***ing gonna pay for all the s***! We don’t give a s***. Because we’re gonna die doing it.” ~ Dylan Klebold’s home recorded video
More about their experience with victimization is explored elsewhere, 9,10 and is worth reviewing if you’re interested in learning more.
I know – and want to proclaim loudly so it’s very clear – that most kids who are bullied do not become homicidal. There is no direct link or relationship here. The picture of contributing factors is much more complex and layered. However, it is arguable that in this case, Dylan and Eric were not treated well and it played a destructive role in how they valued their lives and the lives of others. Their choices are not excusable in the least, but what happened can serve to remind us of the urgency with which we should work to address the problem of bullying.
As I reflected on what I saw around me at the Memorial – and what it signified – I was shaken up, and it is compelling me to redouble my efforts and commitment to making progress in this area. On one of the plaques there was the following question: “It brought the nation to its knees, but now that we’ve gotten back up how have things changed; what have we learned?” That is a great, profound question. What are we learning? What are we changing?
Another plaque displayed a quote from a student: “I don’t think our school was any different than any other school in America.” I think that’s true, based on what I know about Columbine High School at the time. If it happened there, it could happen anywhere. All kids are vulnerable on some level. All kids are impressionable in different ways. All kids are affected – in some small manner – to at least some hurtful sentiments from the peers they know and have to do life with. We have to be there for them to provide social support and tangible assistance, and we have to equip them with ways to cope, to be resilient, and to know where their worth and value comes from.
This visit, for me, was a painful but much-needed reminder.
A few people over the years have suggested to me that if bullying wasn’t a constant for kids, and if school violence wasn’t a social problem that has been and always will be, I wouldn’t have a job or a line of work. I wouldn’t have a successful career and have become an expert on this topic. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to research these issues and make a living from it. But when walking away from the Memorial on Saturday, I thought to myself – I don’t care if I wouldn’t have a career. I just don’t want any more kids to die this way. I’d do anything if we could never have another memorial like this to visit. I’d do anything to keep this from happening again.
And so I have to get back to work. And if you’re reading this and it strikes a chord, so do you.
1. Nansel TR, Overpeck MD, Haynie DL, Ruan WJ, Scheidt PC. Relationships between bullying and violence among US youth. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. 2003;157(4):348-353.
2. Barker ED, Arseneault L, Brendgen M, Fontaine N, Maughan B. Joint development of bullying and victimization in adolescence: Relations to delinquency and self-harm. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 2008;47(9):1030-1038.
3. Liang H, Flisher AJ, Lombard CJ. Bullying, violence, and risk behavior in South African school students. Child abuse & neglect. 2007;31(2):161-171.
4. Kim YS, Leventhal BL, Koh Y-J, Hubbard A, Boyce WT. School bullying and youth violence: causes or consequences of psychopathologic behavior? Archives of general psychiatry. 2006;63(9):1035-1041.
5. Arseneault L, Walsh E, Trzesniewski K, Newcombe R, Caspi A, Moffitt TE. Bullying victimization uniquely contributes to adjustment problems in young children: a nationally representative cohort study. Pediatrics. 2006;118(1):130-138.
6. Patchin JW. Bullied youths lash out: Strain as an explanation of extreme school violence. Caribbean Journal of Criminology and Social Psychology. 2002;7(1-2):22-43.
7. Vossekuil B, Fein RA, Reddy M, Borum R, Modzeleski W. The final report and findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the prevention of school attacks in the United States. 2002; http://www.secretservice.gov/ntac/ssi_final_report.pdf. Accessed August 29, 2003.
8. Borum R, Cornell DG, Modzeleski W, Jimerson SR. What can be done about school shootings? A review of the evidence. Educational Researcher. 2010;39(1):27-37.
9. Pankratz H. Columbine bullying no myth, panel told. DenverPost.com. 2000. http://extras.denverpost.com/news/col1003a.htm. Accessed October 3, 2000.
10. Brown B, Merritt R. No easy answers: The truth behind death at Columbine. Lantern Books; 2002.