High School Was Different Before Columbine

The year 1999 is, for many, a bright line dividing two divergent teen experiences.

Chet Strange / Getty

Jake Wakefield, who graduated from high school in Fort Collins, Colorado, in 2003, recalls that April 20 was the date of his Senior Ditch Day. One reason for the chosen date was “a tongue-in-cheek thing,” he told me; April 20 is an unofficial cannabis holiday. But he remembered students talking about another reason: “If someone wanted to re-create Columbine, the seniors wouldn’t be there, so we’d be okay.”

This second reason was sort of a joke, as far as Wakefield remembered—but it was still on seniors’ minds on Ditch Day. For Wakefield and many others who attended high school in the years shortly after the Columbine High School shooting, on April 20, 1999, the tragedy became a cultural touchstone, imprinting itself on teens’ minds and coloring their high-school years with nervous jokes, new fears, and new routines.

When I spoke with people who were in high school around the time of the Columbine shooting about how the school experience changed, one of the first things that came to mind for them was the introduction of school-shooter drills. Wakefield, who was in eighth grade at Lucile Erwin Middle School, in Loveland, Colorado, when the shooting occurred, underwent his first drills that same spring, which he remembered felt somewhat “rushed,” albeit “well intentioned.” He recalled a drill in the school gym where “they had us line up as far away from the door as we could, and all in a line against the wall.” He said he looked up at the small windows of the gym and thought, There’s just enough room to fit a gun through, and we’re all perfectly lined up. I wonder if they’re going to rethink this plan eventually. Wakefield went to a different middle school for ninth grade and then moved up to high school, where he said the drills were “more ironed out.” (The school districts mentioned in this story either did not have records of specific school policies or did not return requests for comment, so policies are described as the students remember them.)

After the Columbine shooting, schools moved quickly to take measures they hoped would prevent another attack, and in the process created the school environments that today are second nature to students across the country. While previous school shootings had stoked fear in students and parents, Columbine was at that point the deadliest high-school shooting in U.S. history, and it resonated on a national level. Some schools introduced surveillance cameras and locked more of their doors; some brought in armed officers. Drills like the ones Wakefield recalled, in which schools practiced their response to a shooter, were quickly popularized—they were actually called “Columbine drills” at first, the criminologist James Alan Fox recently told NBC News. (According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2016, 95 percent of public schools conduct lockdown drills, in which students simulate the experience of hiding in locked classrooms.)

Jill Westendorp, who graduated from Southwest High School in Minneapolis in 2000, told me that “there were doors all over” her school, which consisted of two separate buildings, and before the Columbine shooting, “most of them were unlocked” during the school day. Students could walk freely in and out of whichever door they wanted, and Westendorp said she was never concerned about violence at school. After the shooting, “they put electromagnetic locks on all of the doors that would only release if the fire alarm was pulled,” she told me. Students were able to enter and exit through just one set of doors, she remembered.

The safety measures that some kids experience can leave them with warped perceptions of what going to school is like. When Nicole Martin’s daughter started high school this year and asked for a new backpack, Martin, who graduated from high school in 2001, was shocked. “I was like, ‘But you can’t carry one?’” she told me in a Twitter direct message. “My husband thought I’d sprouted a second head when I said that.” Martin was remembering the backpack ban at her own high school, East Carter High, in Grayson, Kentucky, which was first put in place after a shooting there in 1993, in which a teacher and a custodian were killed. When Martin’s daughter told her that she was, in fact, allowed to carry a backpack, Martin responded, “Oh, a clear one, right?”

After Columbine, Martin said, security measures increased. She recalled that even though her high school had already experienced a shooting, Columbine was something of a turning point. “In a way, it was still a little easy to imagine that what had happened before [at my high school] was a onetime thing,” she said. The shooter “had carried the pistol in his backpack, so get rid of backpacks. A teacher and a janitor had died, but no kids did. Columbine was that kick in the head that no, the kids were sitting ducks and could be killed, too.”

The effects of these sorts of school-safety policies are still unfolding. Researchers don’t yet have a clear idea of whether lockdown drills and other measures are actually effective in preventing a shooting, and though they’re meant to protect kids, they can also do damage. Exposing kids to shooter drills at young ages can give them unnecessary anxiety about a risk that is still relatively rare. And students of color tend to get disproportionately targeted by some of the post-Columbine disciplinary and law-enforcement measures.

For many students who attended high school after the Columbine shooting, this is all they know. And for those who attended high school before Columbine—even just before—many things were entirely different. The year 1999 is, for many, a bright line that divides one type of school experience from another. Laura Lineberger, who graduated from West Mecklenburg High School, in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1998, told me that she “never feared for a school shooting, ever,” and that her high school never had a lockdown drill while she was there, as far as she can remember. Lineberger is now a teacher at a school in downtown Raleigh; she said that lockdown drills started there approximately five or six years ago. Her students have “grown up” with drills. “They expect them; they know what to do,” she said, especially by the time they get to high school.

The former students I spoke with also pointed to shifts in teen culture as a result of the Columbine shooting. After the shooting, stories spread quickly; some media outlets fixated on the black trench coats the shooters wore and reported that they had been influenced by goth subculture. Later research and reporting found that many of the media’s theories were inaccurate, but they changed the way some teens who fit these descriptors were treated at school. Meghan Bishop, who was a junior at Beaverton High School, in Beaverton, Oregon, in the spring of 1999, remembers her school focusing on “What makes a person go and do this?” News of the Columbine shooting “came out at the time of The Matrix. My friends loved The Matrix; my boyfriend at the time had one of those trench coats, and all of a sudden [people wondered], ‘Okay, does that make you a shooter, because you’re wearing a trench coat and dark glasses and you’re kind of a loner?’ So he was singled out.” She told me that her boyfriend, who went to a different high school, was “disciplined for coming to school in a trench coat, even though … he just really liked The Matrix and computers.”

Parents, school administrators, and other adults also viewed video games as a cause for concern; the Columbine killers were reportedly fans of the shooting game Doom, which was released in 1993, and observers worried that it had influenced them. “I remember so many people talking about it, so many people worried about, Is playing video games going to make my kid shoot up a school?” Wakefield said. “Before Columbine, video games were just kind of like something everyone did. You’d go rent a video game from an old Blockbuster or something. I’d remember playing games with my sisters. After Columbine, video games started to be seen as something that the fringes played.”

For some students, Columbine created an undercurrent of anxious jokes and banter. Wakefield told me that the Columbine shooting was a consistent subject of conversation among his middle-school peers (until the September 11 attacks, after which “that was all we talked about,” he said). “A lot of it was talking about what we would do if there was a shooter in the room, what we would say if they had a gun to our head,” he said. “A lot of middle-school-level bravado: ‘Oh, yeah, if a gunman came after us, we’d just karate-chop them in the neck and we’d save the day. I’d be great—we’d take the gun from them and then we’d be the hero.’”

The joking and bluster sometimes gave way to real fear. Wakefield said that he and his classmates would talk about the design of their school buildings, “loosely planning what would happen if there was a disaster like this.” When he started at a new middle school in ninth grade, he analyzed the school’s structure with his friends. “There’s more corners that we can hide behind” compared with his previous school, he remembered discussing. “If we can make it to the parking lot, we can hide behind a car or something. There’s lots more cover here.”

The Columbine shooting led some students to grapple with violence that already existed at their school. Westendorp, who went to high school in Minneapolis, remembered that at first the shooting felt “a little bit more removed.” But then a teacher “sat down with us,” she said, “and she’s like, ‘People do bring guns to school. We’re here to keep you safe, but you’re not immune to this. It could happen. It could happen anywhere.’”

Katreena Lloyd-Williams, who graduated from high school in 2002, remembers that at Audenried High School, in South Philadelphia, where she went for part of her freshman year, metal detectors were in place before Columbine. “That school was kind of known in the neighborhood as not the bad school, but a bad school,” she told me. “There was always something going on there.” Even so, Columbine changed how Lloyd-Williams thought about the dangers of going to school. “The violence that happened in the school, it was something that was very personal,” she said. “You knew if you weren’t fighting with somebody, then you weren’t going to be a target. When I thought about Columbine, it in a weird way took away that peace of mind. You realize: Okay, so somebody could just be pissed and come in and shoot everybody. I never thought that way. I just thought, Oh, I keep my head down, I mind my business, I’m good. That definitely freaked me out a little bit.”

Still, the Columbine shooting felt “removed,” Lloyd-Williams told me, “because it was across the country, [and] a mass shooting wasn’t so common” at the time. Today, she attends Temple University as an adult student, and she thinks about the risk of a shooting much more often. “That’s so in my head when something happens. Oh my God, this is a big campus, there’s a lot of kids here, anything could happen. And I know that I didn’t think about that before.”

Lloyd-Williams’s point is one that stood out in all my conversations. For many people who were students in 1999, the shock of the Columbine shooting punctuated their high-school years in a way that is hard to imagine in 2019. Now about 57 percent of teens worry that a shooting could happen on their campus. Most of the people I spoke with remembered the hour, even the minute, when they found out about the shooting; they recalled crowding in front of a TV in a school classroom, turned on during class by a frightened teacher. “I remember eating dinner that night with my family, and my mom sitting across the table from me, and she started crying,” Westendorp told me. “I had literally never seen my mom cry.” The Columbine shooting was, for many, a moment when the impossible suddenly seemed possible; today, teens, families, and schools know this all too well.