The evening I visited Columbine High School, the Rocky Mountain foothills beyond one classroom window were turning a velvety green and black as the summer sun sank behind them. Their calm beauty, with prosperous, shingled homes nestled peacefully in front of them, made it almost unimaginable that in this room science teacher Dave Sanders died after being shot by Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris last April 20. That very window had held the sign, referring to Sanders, 1 BLEEDING TO DEATH.
Sanders first encountered the killers in the cafeteria downstairs and had an easy exit from there. Like many others, he could have run out the door toward one of the nearby homes you can see from that classroom window. Neighbors would have tended him, as they did the bloodied students who appeared at their doors. But when Sanders was shot, he staggered up the curving staircase to a main corridor, where alarms rang their dire warning and sprinklers further soaked his bloody shirt, shouting at students to flee. As students hid in lockers, in false ceilings, even in the school kitchen's refrigerators from which they were pulled icy with cold and fright hours later, Sanders pushed on until he collapsed into the room where the sign announced his demise to the watching world.
At the Governor's Summit on Youth Violence in Denver two months after the shootings, I thought about Sanders and that sign, as evidence mounted that the urge to teach and protect the young is itself suffering a mortal wound. A group of Denver-area high schoolers, including two from Columbine, repeatedly spoke of the absence of adult guidance in their lives, of their wish for more support, more time, and more moral clarity from parents and teachers. Their adult-free society had become a scary place. When asked, nearly all said they had seen guns in their school, but only one had told a teacher or administrator. They expected no protection from them. "I didn't trust the principal or the teachers," one high schooler announced. "They'd tell me to leave that person alone," said another.
At the time of the shootings, Columbine had six guidance counselors, dozens of peer mediators, conflict-resolution classes, campus safety supervisors, and an on-site Jefferson County sheriff. What it seems Columbine lacked—with the exception of a few like Dave Sanders—were the kind of adults those kids at the Summit were talking about. Like so many high schools around the nation, Columbine, as increasingly seems clear, was an adolescent-dominated institution that neither taught nor imagined dignity, courtesy, and moral seriousness.
Instead, it was a place where kids could learn how to make a video about shooting up a school and how to write a poem about murder, as Klebold and Harris did. "It was a creative writing class, and you write whatever you want," one student nonchalantly noted. Recently, the Denver Post wrote of a Columbine football player who harassed his ex-girlfriend so severely that she got a restraining order against him. Columbine administrators suggested that she do her schoolwork at home, effectively suspending the victim instead of the malefactor. The Rocky Mountain News reports that two athletes tormented a Jewish student for a year and a half, with the Hitler-loving star wrestler threatening to burn him in an oven. Columbine administrators ignored the boy's father's repeated complaints, until he threatened to sue.
The audience at the Summit clearly found the kids' sense of adult abandonment touching but didn't quite understand it. When one speaker said, "I think kids are much smarter than we give them credit for," listeners burst into applause. When another gushed, "We need to listen to kids' wisdom," they cheered. And when another declared, "The number-one answer is to empower young people!" they gave him an ovation to remember. Their response reminded me of a talk show on teen violence I appeared on some years ago. As another guest, a psychologist, spoke, an assistant producer, believing her presentation too complex, frantically waved a sign at her saying: SELF-ESTEEM!
Though the Denver Summit also in effect waved self-esteem signs, self-esteem can be a flammable substance in a cultural void. I recalled that ratings-hungry talk-show producer again. He had another sign, which he waved at the teenagers in the audience. It read: GO WILD!