The killers screamed, but no one listened
On April 20, 1999, while smoking a cigarette at the beginning of a lunch break, Brooks Brown watched as Eric Harris arrived for school.
Brown and Harris had parted ways a year before after Harris threw a chunk of ice at his car windshield. They patched up their friendship and on this day Brown teased Harris about skipping his morning classes. Brown knew Harris was always serious about schoolwork and being on time.
According to reports, Harris said to Brown, “It doesn’t matter anymore.” Harris supposedly also said, “Brooks, I like you now. Get out of here. Go home.” Thinking something very serious was about to happen, Brown quickly left the grounds at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. At 11:19 am, he heard the first gunshots after he had walked some distance away from the school and he informed the police by using a neighbor’s cell phone.
By that time, Harris’ partner in crime, Dylan Klebold, had arrived at the school in a separate car and the two boys left two gym bags, each containing a 20-pound propane bomb, inside the school cafeteria. When these devices failed to detonate, Harris and Klebold armed themselves with guns and launched a shooting attack against their classmates. At the time, it was the deadliest attack ever perpetrated at an American high school.
The two high school seniors killed 13 people and injured 24 others, three of whom were hurt as they escaped the attack. Harris was responsible for 8 of the 13 deaths, including a teacher. Klebold murdered the remaining five.
At 12:08 pm, art teacher Patti Nielson, who had locked herself inside a break room with student Brian Anderson and library staff, overheard Harris and Klebold shout in unison, “One! Two! Three!” That was immediately followed by the sound of gunfire. Harris had fired his shotgun through the roof of his mouth, damaging his face and blasting off the back of his head. Klebold had shot himself in the left temple with his TEC-9 semi-automatic handgun, a bullet slicing through his head.
A subsequent investigation revealed that Harris and Klebold started planning their assault at Columbine a full year before they launched the attack. All along the way, the killers were screaming, but no one was listening. Red flags can be found all the way up to the massacre, but they were largely ignored by the two killers’ parents, law enforcement, their classmates and teachers. Had any of these groups acted on what they saw and heard before the murders, those Columbine students might not have died at the hands of Harris and Klebold in 1999.
Screaming. Their parents have been laying low since the killings, surfacing a time or two to do an interview here and there. Most of the blame should be aimed at them. How could they not know their sons were dangerous? There are reports the two teenagers actually managed to build the bombs at their homes. How do parents not know their kids are building bombs on the premises? Bad parenting. Inattentive. Not fully engaged.
Screaming. An examination of their journals and diaries reveal what was inside the minds of these two killers. Their writings are full of anger, hostility, rage and the desire for revenge over perceived slights. They make threats. They spew hatred. Did these parents never look at their kids’ papers, and if they did, how could they not know their sons were deeply troubled? Bad parenting. Inattentive. Not fully engaged.
Screaming. In March, 1998, a Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office investigator, acting on a complaint, looked at Harris’ website and found numerous threats aimed at Brooks Brown after that falling out between them. The investigator wrote a draft affidavit for a search warrant, but the affidavit was never filed. This information was not revealed to the public until 2001, though it was known by the police the entire time. Bad policing. Inattentive. Not fully engaged.
Screaming. The two made a video for a school project that showed them pretending to shoot fake guns and “snuffing” students in the hallway of their school as “Hitmen For Hire.” The video is full of swearing scenes. Harris and Klebold yell at the camera and make extremely violent statements. Over time, they both focused on themes of violence in their creative writing projects for school. Bad teaching. Inattentive. Not fully engaged.
Screaming. Because Harris and Klebold were both underage at the time, Robyn Anderson (with whom Klebold attended the prom three days before the shooting), an 18-year-old Columbine student and old friend of Klebold’s, purchased two shotguns and a carbine for the pair. In exchange for her cooperation with the investigations that followed the shootings, no charges were filed against Anderson. Bad friending. Inattentive. Not fully engaged.
Now, it’s Sandy Hook. The killer was Adam Lanza and he was screaming all the way up to the massacre on Friday, December 14th. Lanza’s mother, twenty elementary school students and six teachers are dead. His family wasn’t listening—mother, father and brother. His extended family and friends of the family weren’t listening. This 20-year-old was deeply troubled but everyone involved waited too late to get him help, which might have been as simple as the proper medication or as difficult as having him committed to a mental health facility. His extended family and friends of the family waited too late to act on what they saw and heard.
The killings in Colorado and Connecticut did not happen in a vacuum. They never do. Someone always knows something is up. The problem is the failure to communicate and act on what is seen and what is known.
Unfortunately, there are many more Eric Harrises, Dylan Klebolds and Adam Lanzas in this world. Even now, the people around them know something is up. If you are one of those people, do you hear their screams? Parents, are you communicating what you are seeing and hearing? Are you going to act before it is too late? If we are attentive, if we are fully engaged, if we are listening, we can hear the screams of those who are deeply troubled and need help.
Ed Baswell is the host of “Crossfire Radio,” Monday through Friday, 7-9 am, on The Promise, 90.7 FM. The show is streamed live at promisetalkradio.org.