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Cover Story

Columbine Murders Offer Lessons for the Future

April incident, at the hands of two heavily armed teens, claimed the lives of 12 high school students and a teacher and reportedly had been planned for a year.

June 01, 1999  |  by Dennis Hall

Capt. Fleer said that public concerns about police allegedly taking too long to enter the school and reach students and victims are unfounded.

"Tactical officers from several departments responded and were at the school within 30 minutes of the initial 911 call," he told POLICE, adding that the sheriff's department SWAT team was also dispatched. "That initial response involved tactical officers from our agency and the Litteton, Denver and Lakewood Police Departments.

"They formed a tactics team and a decision was made by the on-scene supervisor to make entry into the school."

Outside Views on Incident

SWAT experts POLICE spoke with commended the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office's handling of the incident.

"From what I could tell, these officers did a fantastic job under the circumstances," said Aurora (Ohio) P.D. Officer Dan Kalk, a 10-year SWAT veteran, attorney, legal advisor to Sagamore Hills (Ohio) PD and POLICE Advisory Board member, in comments typical of other SWAT and tactics professionals.

"This type of situation is just no-win for first responders," said Kalk. "They don't have a good option.

"If they go in right away, they're viewed as reckless; if they wait, then the criticism is 'they did nothing.'

"Those first officers have an obligation to establish a perimeter for safety reasons then take on any immediate threats," he added.

"Initial patrol units responding are not set up or prepared for an assault on a school. For one thing, in that kind of situation, you have no way of telling the suspects from the other students and at a school you can't know where victims and other people are located inside.

"Probably 90 percent of the departments in this country operate that way," he told POLICE.

Is There a Solution?

Can police officers, parents, teachers and others do anything in the community they serve to identify potential youth killers? Is gun control an answer?

President Clinton called upon Americans to try and stem the rising tide of teen violence while proposing, at POLICE's deadline, new gun control measures.

The crime package Clinton sent to Capitol Hill proposed several controversial restrictions on explosives and firearms, including raising the minimum age for handgun possession from 18 to 21. The White House says it would allow exemptions for police, the military and other special cases.

"We all must do more to recognize and look for the early warning signals that deeply troubled young people send," often before they explode into violence," said Clinton in published remarks shortly after the shooting.

But what of police officers and those who work with students every day?

"I think it's rare to impossible that the (gunmen) didn't have any problems before doing something like this," said Neil Sorokin, a staff psychologist who works with violent adolescents at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Fort Logan.

"It almost never happens that someone would kill people without having had significant problems. And it's also true that access to guns is the biggest predictor for people committing homicides. If kids don't have funs, these kinds of situations don't escalate as fast. Knives and fists can't hurt or kill as many people as easily as guns can."

Rob Clyman, director of the Kempe National Center for Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse at Children's Hospital, said "a fairly large percentage of adolescents who are committing violent acts have had trouble since they were very young- like 5 or 7 years old." Although, "when you're dealing with a terribly unusual type of event (Like the Columbine High schooting0, it's hard to talk about what would lead kids to do something this aberrant," Clyman said.

Dennis Hall is the executive editor of  POLICE and a former police officer for several California jurisdictions. He editorialized on the issue of youth violence last July following an incident in Oregon in which a 15-year old boy opened fire on classmates killing four and wounding 22. Some information for this report provided by The Denver Post.

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