The Columbine Report: Shedding Light on One of the Nation’s Darkest Moments
By Meghan Fay, Assistant Editor

In May, the Jefferson County (Col.) Sheriff's Department released a CD-ROM report of over 700 pages on the shootings at Columbine High School in April of 1999. Contained in the report is a timeline of events that follow the rampage of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, resulting in the deaths of 12 students, a teacher, and the shooters themselves.  The report covers most of the 13-month investigation from the incident itself to those who responded with aid, but cannot offer an insight into why this tragic event ever occurred.

As part of the recent National Major Gang Task Force Conference in Indiana, Ben Griego, Director of Support Services for the Colorado Department of Corrections, gave a multimedia presentation covering the report and its findings to law enforcement and corrections officials. The presentation served as a learning tool for those who deal with schools including how such an incident could occur and how the responses of support services were crucial to saving lives and comforting students. Griego's presentation also detailed some of the communication problems between those responding to the school and some of the after-effects of the shooting in the community.

"We kind of think that things like this happen in the not-so-fortunate side of town," says Griego.  "[Columbine] showed it can happen anywhere.  Kids should feel safe in school, but they don't."

Communication Problems

With 47 different agencies responding to Columbine High on April 20th, communication became a challenge, according to the report. Because some agencies were operating on different radio systems and different radio channels, communicating information about the developing situation became difficult. For instance, the first SWAT team on the scene could not reach the outside command post and communications center.  As the incident developed, response teams had to gather details such as how many shooters, their location and other information sporadically and communicate them to other agencies to prevent further injuries or fatalities.

The report also listed a number of critical issues that needed to be addressed upon first response to the scene, including determining the true number of shooters in the school. Between a logjam of 911 calls from within the school and a mass of fleeing students, there were various reports of exactly how many shooters people had seen and heard. Some students reported they had seen two people in trenchcoats at one point, while others reported seeing others in just white t-shirts, with or without hats.  As surveillance tapes show, Harris and Klebold discarded their trenchcoats midway through the rampage, accounting for the difference in “sightings” by students of other gunmen.

The number of explosive devices also provided confusion of how many shooters were in the school.  With timed explosives going off on one side of the building while a 911 call put Klebold and Harris in a separate location, the belief that there were others detonating bombs added more speculation to numerous shooters.  Additionally, there were erroneous reports that in the mass of students fleeing from the school, that a suspect had changed clothes and exited the school, providing a safety challenge to police who didn’t know if that suspect would either try to escape or continue the shooting outside of the school.  Some media photos reinforced this as officers had students running out of the school with their hands in the air, weapons pointed at them, just in case a suspect had indeed escaped.

In the report, Deputy Paul Smoker of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department later recounts, “This was no dope deal gone bad. There was an unknown inside the school.  We didn’t know who the ‘bad guy’ was but we soon realized the sophistication of their weapons.  These were big bombs.  Big guns.  We didn’t have a clue who ‘they’ were.  But they were hurting kids.  I couldn’t imagine something like this happening.”

Another critical issue on the afternoon of April 20th was the traffic of people on the premises.  With students fleeing the school and officers trying to get them to safety while at times under gunfire from the school, there was the presence of arriving parents and the media.  While trying to create a safe and secure area for students to exit the building and get to safer ground, parents who had heard of the incident on the radio, through television, and even those who received panicked cell phone calls from their children were trying to get to Columbine.  With close to 2,000 students in the building, the task of answering questions and reuniting families became a big concern.  The Columbine Public Library and Leawood Elementary School became central points for parents to be reunited with their children as well as briefing areas for the Jefferson County School District could share what information they had

As the events of the day progressed, anxious media flocked to the Columbine campus and the surrounding neighborhood.  While news helicopters initially were used to aid law enforcement in surveillance of the roof and grounds, there was great concern that the suspects were watching the televised images.  By being able to see the law enforcement presence and not being able to be seen themselves, the advantage would’ve definitely been in the shooters favor.

Luckily, Things Didn’t Go As Planned

As stunning as it sounds, the devastation at Columbine could have been a lot worse. The report indicates that there were approximately 488 students in the cafeteria at 11:17 a.m. on April 20th, the time that two large 20-lb. propane bombs placed by Klebold and Harris were set to go off.  Computer models done during the investigation demonstrated that such a blast would not only have resulted in serious casualties in the cafeteria, but would have likely caused a partial collapse of the cafeteria and possibly the library above. 

“Harris did surveillance of how many students came in [to the cafeteria] at a given time,” said Griego.  “He figured that between 11:10 a.m. and 11:20 a.m. was the biggest volume of students and that’s when the bombs would go off.”

Griego also pointed to the fact that the majority of shooting done by Klebold and Harris did not hit its mark.  “It’s a miracle that most were random shots,” said Griego.  “Because of this, there were much fewer killed.”

A Constant Reminder

While those directly affected by Columbine, as well as the rest of the nation, would like to move on after this devastating event, reminders of the incident are still prevalent in Colorado.  At his presentation, Griego held up a flyer by a group calling themselves the "420 gang," referring to not only the date the shootings occurred but also the California criminal code for possession of marijuana.

The flyer indicated that the shootings at Columbine High School were just the beginning and posted the score 13-2, indicating that the event claimed the life of 13 victims and only two of "their own."  With a school crossing sign in the middle, the flyer promised more school violence and only served as another inescapable reminder of what happened on April 20th. Local police and gang investigators are keeping a close eye on the appearance of future references to this "gang," and any other such threats of copycat violence.


To view the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department report on the 
Columbine shootings go to:

Ben Griego, Director of Support Services, Colorado Department of Corrections,
(719) 226-4778
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339