April 20th, 2009
05:19 PM ET

Columbine: Lessons not learned

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/CRIME/04/20/columbine.myths/art.columbine.gi.jpg.jpg caption="Families visit the graves of the Columbine shooting victims at Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens in 2007."]

Andrew Robinson
Writer/Director “April Showers

Ten years ago today I was a senior at Columbine High School when two of my fellow classmates, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, opened fire. Their actions that day took the lives of 12 students and one teacher before they turned their weapons on themselves and took their own lives.

While I try to avoid such phrases as “a day that will live in infamy” it seems, ten years later, we still remember Columbine. However, I’d like to take this opportunity not to reflect on the day, but about where we’ve come as a society since that terrible day. Recently, I took part in a panel discussion in Colorado with Darrell Scott the father of my friend and slain student Rachel Scott. In the years since Rachel’s death, Mr. Scott and his son Craig have founded Rachel’s Challenge, an organization that speaks to school aged kids, mainly high-schoolers, about Rachel’s life and message surrounding acts of kindness and how they can create a chain reaction.

However, on top of his daughter’s message Mr. Scott speaks about the nature and status of today’s modern education system. It seems when our education system was founded it was founded upon a system that involved the three H’s. I’m going to paraphrase, but in a nutshell the three-H approach goes like this: by speaking and touching a child’s heart you’ll stimulate the head and produce results via the hands.

This methodology has been around for a long time, but these days we have abandoned the three-H approach to education in favor of statistical performance. We’ve put such a high price on results. It’s my opinion that we’ve lost sight of the purpose of education, which isn’t just about learning, but about understanding as well. By bringing up understanding I don’t mean simply knowing the why behind the facts we and our children are expected to memorize, but more importantly a basic understanding of who we are and who the people we go through life with are as well.

Here’s a personal example: On the evening of April 20, 1999, I, along with countless others, were in the gymnasium of Leawood Elementary School in Littleton, Colorado. The mood was somber to say the least as we were waiting for the last of the survivors to be bussed in so that we could determine who didn’t make it out of the Columbine H.S. alive. As the night wore on we began absorb the news, which was made official by the local media a few hours later. I remember watching the first broadcast where the names and faces of the deceased were flashed upon the screen. My first reaction was, of course, deep sadness and grief but another feeling crept into my consciousness. Shock.

I wasn’t in shock over what had happened as much as I was in shock over the idea that after four years at Columbine High School I didn’t know or recognize half of the victims being named. How is that possible? I understand it’s improbable to befriend everyone at Columbine but to be a complete stranger…that was jarring. I began to wonder how many others shared my feelings. Over the past 10 years I’ve grappled with a number of issues pertaining to that day and the days that followed, but the one thing I haven’t been able to process and/or explain is how I seemingly was a stranger in my own school.

Since making “April Showers” I’ve been lucky enough to speak to a number of high school-aged kids across the country and have found that my feelings and fears surrounding the stranger phenomenon in our schools isn’t a singular or isolated occurrence. In fact, it may be getting worse. So I ask, what is the purpose of our education system if the very people who inhabit it don’t take the time to learn from and about one another, let alone learn from a textbook?

We trail in most academic categories and now we find our children becoming more isolated in an ever growing, over-populated environment. While I believe this is a poignant observation, how does it tie into Columbine and school violence? Simple. There are many leading school safety experts that agree that metal detectors, ID cards, uniforms and other means are last resorts for a safe school and more often than not their implementation is usually a sign of defeat versus prevention. I’m not a statistician so I can’t speak to the validity of these claims but all the experts agree, as do I, that school safety begins not with the safety of the physical building but with the safety of the students; students being the operative word.

I posed this scenario to a classroom full of students at a recent lecture. When I’m cut off in traffic, perhaps I’m late for a meeting. My reaction, depending on my mood, can vary but can encompass rage, which can manifest itself in several ways; a vocal outburst, hand gesture etc. Now, these are all acts of aggression and/or violence and while I’m not proud of my response it does occasionally happen.

Now, when someone I know, not a best friend, but a friend, wrongs me does it illicit the same response? Most of the time, no. I’m more inclined to speak to that person or to approach him or her on a personal level to resolve the difference. Sometimes we can, sometimes we don’t, but the important observation is that in most cases the confrontation was dealt with in a non-outwardly aggressive manor. Why? Because the person that cuts me off is a stranger, a faceless, nameless person that if I assault from the safety of my car will have little to no recourse upon me. Whereas, dealing with someone face-to-face humanizes the exchange. I’ve found, and in speaking with teenagers, it’s a lot harder to cause a person physical harm if you know them or share a commonality with them for they’re not nameless or faceless. They’re like you.

Now, we have hundreds and in some cases thousands of teens sharing a common space for a sizeable duration of their impressionable lives that know little to nothing about one another. That doesn’t strike me as safe, let alone conducive for true learning, because what many of these kids don’t know is that in a Columbine-like event they, and they alone, are their own best support system. And being a stranger means someone isn’t going to necessarily get the support they need from those who could truly understand their plight and that, dear readers, is a very slippery slope.

At times, we - as a culture - tend to fear what we don’t understand. Fear can wear many masks and take many forms. Fear can cause someone or a group of people to become ostracized. It can cause a class system. It can create power struggles. It can result in violence. We see it in our schools. We see it in our lives. We see it in our government and our world. Where does it stop?

It stops, or better yet, starts - with our children. We must engage our children’s hearts and minds. It seems the education system has transformed and exists to talk at our children versus to engage them. What if we did away with devoting every second of a class to the “learning” of facts and dedicated a small amount of time towards allowing children and teens to steer the discussion?

In our attempts to “protect” and “shield” our kids from the real world we miss out on wonderful opportunities to learn from their unique insights and perspectives about the world as they see it. At the very least, by allowing them to share openly with one another they may learn a thing or two about one another and stop being strangers in the hallway. Who knows, perhaps the student in the back of the class may have an awful lot in common with the student sitting in front. Over time, social barriers and stigmas will be over come and our children will find themselves existing in an environment that is truly open and based on compassion, not fear.

I’m often asked what I hoped to achieve by making “April Showers”. My answer is simple, but often unexpected. I made “April Showers” to shed light on a side of a story we actually know little about, and by exposing teens, not to violence, but to the effects of violence in a way they can relate to so they can begin a discussion that didn’t have the ability to really begin ten years ago.

When events like Columbine occur we often focus on those who speak the loudest, which in my experience means focusing on the shooters themselves, the victims and their families and causes. In regards to causes, following Columbine issues dealing with faith and gun control became very hot topics and for good reason.

The violence that took place that day mobilized a large group of people for and against issues of gun control and faith for better and for worse. But did we miss the point? We were quick to ban items that we associated with our fear. We instituted ID cards. We asked for cameras. We forbid dissenting discussion and adopted zero tolerance policies. We created a place where kids felt watched and hindered, versus allowing their pain, expression and ultimate voice to be truly heard. In doing so we created the illusion of safety yet when you speak to students in schools today they don’t necessarily feel any more safe than we did on April 20, 1999 when our fellow students opened fire upon us.

Sure, we have policies in place that allow for first responders to potentially curb the loss of life more effectively, but I’m talking about curbing the issues long before we ever get to that point. Furthermore, I’m also not talking about cliques or bullying for it’s not that singular or simple and to sum up Eric and Dylan’s actions that day as a response to those issues isn’t really addressing the larger problem.

We need a massive overhaul in our educational institutions and instead of policy makers and administrators deciding what that entails we should ask those who look to us for guidance in steering them towards the future. Education is dialogue, not lecture. Instead of learning about the past, we need to see how the past continues to influence us so that we may truly understand who we are, where we come from and keep the past from happening to us in the future.

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Priscilla

    Schools have stopped being a place of education but rather more of a place of business. How can our students receive what they need if we tell them that they do not know any better.

    I agree that students need to feel connected, we adults need to stop focusing on the number and concentrate on the QUALITY!!!!

    April 21, 2009 at 8:00 am |
  2. Michelle Moore

    I cannot express enough how much I agree with this!!!! I've been extremely discouraged with our children being "successful" based
    on a #. To add further, but separately, I feel that we've told our children
    that they have to fit a mold that the education system has created–the fact that this does not work best with each child only further creates the lack of knowing one another. If you're different, if you don't fit in. Does that make sense?
    Teaching "empathy" regardless, would also be extremely valuable...

    April 20, 2009 at 10:22 pm |
  3. alohame

    These are my sentiments exactly. I just wrote to Senator Harman about something very similar recently.

    In my eyes, there is education beyond the classroom. Why do we have to live in a box and just take test scores as reality? We need to teach the kids in this country (from kindergarten through senior year) that education can only go so far to explain what respect is. It can only go so far to explain what your cultural background is. It can only go so far to explain why you are a bully and why you are a victim.

    We need more positive feedback from students in this country. When I wrote to Senator Harman, I mentioned the fact that positive psychology is taught at Harvard University and has increasingly become a popular class, year after year. Why, you may ask? I say it's because kids are looking for something more in school than the regular hum drum classes. They are looking to change their lives and make something of it.

    We should initiate these ideas in Mr. Robinson's article, along with what I have added, and add some education in the system in place and really teach our kids something valuable before they finish high school. That way they can really make an impact in analyzing when they get to the college level classes.

    I am tired of hearing educators who say that their classes are not generating enough interest. We have to put that interest in there and make these kids care about what we are teaching them:)

    April 20, 2009 at 9:12 pm |
  4. Caroline, Los Angeles

    Andrew, you have expressed the problems of secondary education in this country very well.

    We know the solutions. One solution is smaller, more socially intimate high schools. This is so simple and so effective, but they don't get built because they cost money; money that taxpayers don't feel is needed because, after all, can't they just put more bungalows in the parking lot if they need more classrooms?

    Another thing high schools need is more counselors for the students. I don't know how it is where you went to school, but out here it is not unusual for one counselor to be in charge of helping 600 to 800 kids, or more. Let's say 10% of those kids are feeling depressed or suicidal. That's 60 to 80 kids walking through high school dealing with serious internal issues. How is any counselor supposed to even pick up on any hint of depression when they have responsibility for watching over the academic progress of 600-800?

    But you're right. Rather than approach the issue from a human perspective schools decided to approach it from a war perspective. Man up. Technology up. Install metal detectors, cameras, scanable ID cards, hire more school cops. Figure out a better, more efficient way to process the crowds through the hoops of high school; but don't figure out better ways to reach their troubled hearts and minds, or how to make high school more fun and more relevant, or how to build relationships with even the oddest and angriest of kids.

    By the way, I see all this as a task for the adults first, and then peers second. If the adults can't do it then how can they teach the kids to do it?

    April 20, 2009 at 8:55 pm |
  5. Jaime

    Very well said.

    April 20, 2009 at 8:41 pm |
  6. William of Iowa

    This is a must read in America. Well said Andrew. Thank you.

    April 20, 2009 at 7:36 pm |
  7. Roxana

    Very well written... speaks to the heart of the issue, especially near the end in the description of how our education system needs to take a different and more relationship-based approach rather than the fear-based 'security' efforts. You are advocating for a connected, meaningful approach to school safety that many researchers and educators would also likely support. I clicked on "April Showers" above, but the link did not connect. Please post information on how to find out more about the film/documentary. Thank you for this excellent blog post.

    April 20, 2009 at 6:57 pm |
  8. Susan Vaughn

    Very interesting article and very true. The overhaul that is taking place in our school system is called "homeschooling." Parents are fed up with the poor quality of the education and the lack of guidance and good examples that should be set by the faculty and administration of the schools. Instead, they are keeping their children home to avoid the bullying and negative social environment. Schools are a war zone. I only this year put my daughter in high school to have what I hoped would be a good experience, however, I'm second-guessing this decision. Academics don't seem to be the focus – it's all about boys, girls, dating, sex, and all things social. This is not the education I want for my children. I can educate them and protect them right here at home.


    April 20, 2009 at 6:51 pm |
  9. IDA

    This sums up my feelings on the education system...Please listen to this person.....

    April 20, 2009 at 6:24 pm |