Columbine’s Long-Term Harm: the Bully Pulpit

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Like 9/11, Columbine was an event that “changed everything.” It challenged our belief that kids, for all their quirks, would always conform to basic rules of human nature. Now, as we mark the 10th anniversary of the massacre of 13 and suicide of two that took place in the high school outside Denver in April 1999, a troubling cautionary lesson for educators, youth workers and policymakers is coming into focus.

It turns out that a lot of what we thought caused Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to kill and maim so many was wrong – and that the laws and programs designed to ensure it would never happen again were based on shaky foundations. Almost immediately after the killings, news stories described a school environment dominated by athlete-bullies.

“Columbine High School is a culture where initiation rituals meant upper-class wrestlers twisted the nipples of freshman wrestlers until they turned purple and tennis players sent hard volleys to younger teammates’ backsides,” The Washington Post reported just a few months after the event. “All of it angered and oppressed Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, leading to the April day when they staged their murderous rampage here, killing 13 and wounding 21.”

Other reports told about the “Trench Coat Mafia,” a group of outsiders, including Klebold and Harris, who wore black trench coats and plotted revenge against these alleged tormentors. The widely accepted conclusion: A toxic school culture dominated by bullies made them do it.

The theory launched thousands of anti-bullying conferences, grant applications, curricula, programs, workshops and videos, along with the careers of researchers and consultants. Even the most hard-stretched communities somehow found the funds to get at the putative root cause of school violence. No one has calculated precisely how much federal and local money went into this bully-educational complex, but it’s safe to say it was many millions of taxpayer dollars. Less expensive but equally certain of their rightness that bullying explained Columbine were the 44 state legislatures that passed laws requiring schools to ban bullying.

There was just one problem: Bullying had nothing to do with the Colorado tragedy.

According to Dave Cullen, author of a best-selling book, Columbine, the killers had plenty of friends and were not even part of the mild-mannered Trench Coat Mafia. After combing through records that could fill a high school football field, both Cullen and Peter Langman, author of Why Kids Kill and clinical director of KidsPeace, a charity providing treatment for disturbed children, concluded that the only bully connected to the horror was Eric Harris himself; it seems that Harris had repeatedly threatened his classmate Brooks Brown.

According to Cullen and Langman, the real explanation for the tragedy was mental illness. Harris was a raging psychopath and Klebold a suicidal depressive.

It could be argued that even if people got the Columbine story wrong, there was no harm done. After all, bullying is a problem wherever kids congregate, and especially in the schools. According to the Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2008 survey from the National Center for Education Statistics, 32 percent of students said they had been bullied during the previous year. In bad cases, kids are in despair, their grades suffer, and they avoid going to school. In extreme instances, they might even try to kill themselves. Why not introduce programs and laws to tackle the problem?

Two reasons.

First, it’s not clear that the laws and programs work. Most of the research evaluating those programs is seriously flawed. But a meta-analysis of rigorous research published in 2007 in Criminal Justice Review found that “anti-bullying programs produced little discernible effect on youth participants.”

Reason No. 2 might explain why: Bullying programs bureaucratize and systematize what should be the commonsense efforts of adults to socialize kids. Adults working with youth have a responsibility to teach them to suppress their natural tendencies toward status-seeking and cruelty. Turning that behavior into a legal matter to be resolved through some bureaucratic process can’t help with such a delicate human task. Instead of reacting to cruelty, the educator consults his rule book, calls his lawyer and forgoes judgment.

The bullying bureaucracy also imposes a rigid, conceptual structure on behavior that does not fit into neat categories. Good Morning America recently reported that over the past 10 years, senior girls at New Jersey’s Millburn High School have created a “slut list” of incoming freshmen girls. Every adult knows this is wrong. Instead of consulting the guidebook about whether to call it bullying and push kids into programs of uncertain value, why not do the obvious: Denounce and, if feasible, punish the behavior?

For better or worse, Americans are suspicious of bureaucratic expertise. Unfortunately, the bully-educational complex, founded on faulty premises, plagued by arbitrary nomenclature, and very possibly a waste of taxpayer money, gives them more reason for doubt.