Bullied into Murder? The Columbine High School Shooting

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Just Another Day

It was Tuesday morning on April 20, 1999. Brooks Brown, a senior at Columbine High School, noted something strange. His on-and-off-again friend Eric Harris had missed all his morning classes. It’s not out of the ordinary for a high school kid to skip class, but Harris wasn’t your ordinary student. He got straight As, and it was unlike Harris to miss his philosophy exam.

Columbine High School / Columbine High School Student / Eric Harris / Dylan Klebold.
Source: Getty Images

Right before lunch, Brown went outside and headed to the designated smoking area near the parking lot of the school. As he was walking, he noticed Harris wearing a trench coat and pulling a bulky duffel bag out of his car, which was parked far away from his usual spot.

A Toxic Friendship

Brown went over to confront him, but Harris interrupted him, saying, “It doesn’t matter anymore. Brooks, I like you now. Get out of here. Go home.” Brown was obviously confused, but that happened a lot during his friendship with Harris.

A photo of Eric Harris relaxing in the school cafeteria.
Photo by Rick Maiman/Sygma/Getty Images

Within the last year, Harris had done things like vandalizing Brown’s house repeatedly, posting death threats against him online, and bragging about his skills in building pipe bombs. At this point, Brown just looked at his classmate and walked away from campus, debating whether to skip next period.

Must Be Fireworks

When Brown was about a block away, the noises started. Initially, he assumed they were fireworks. He thought Harris must be pulling some senior prank. But then, the sounds got faster and sounded like gunfire. Brown ran, knocking on random doors until he finally found a telephone.

A surveillance tape of Harris and Dylan entering school wearing trench coats.
Source: YouTube

Within one hour, 18-year-old Harris and his 17-year-old accomplice Dylan Klebold – a fellow Columbine student and Brown’s friend since the first grade – were both dead. In that single hour, the duo murdered 12 students and one teacher in the deadliest school shooting in America (at the time).

They Weren’t Bullied

In the decades since the massacre, one accepted explanation for the shooting was offered to the public: Harris and Klebold were outcasts who endured years of bullying and were finally pushed over the edge.

Sitting in the top left in the class of 99’ photo Eric and Dylan make a gun sign at the camera.
Source: Reddit

This narrative inspired the modern anti-bullying movement and spawned a recurring media trope depicted in movies and television shows like 13 Reasons Why, Law & Order, Degrassi, and others. The myth also provides a strangely comforting and simplified explanation of the dreadful events of that day. But according to Brooks Brown’s 2002 book about the shooting, there are “no easy answers.”

Klebold and Brooks

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold lived rather normal lives until January of 1998. Klebold, a Colorado native, was described as shy and intellectual. He and Brooks Brown had both attended the Colorado CHIPS (Challenging High Intellectual Potential Students) program for gifted students since they were in third grade.

A picture of Klebold at home.
Source: Pinterest

Brooks left within one year due to the competitive attitude among the students and the lack of support he received from his teachers. Klebold was just as miserable but stayed in the program until he aged out in sixth grade. He wasn’t the type to talk about his feelings; he preferred bottling them up until he exploded.

Military Brat

Eric Harris was born in Wichita, Kansas. His father was an Air Force pilot, so Harris spent his childhood moving around a lot. Fascinated by war stories, Harris loved playing soldier and pretending to be a marine with his big brother and the neighborhood kids in rural Michigan. In his mind, he was always the hero in these violent games.

A photo of Eric Harris.
Photo by Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department/Getty Images

When he turned 11, Harris discovered Doom, a pioneering action-horror-first-person shooter videogame. As his father’s career pulled him away from school and friends, Harris increasingly retreated into computer games. By the time he was a sophomore at Columbine, Harris had already created 11 different custom levels for Doom and Doom 2.

Normal High School Kids

Harris and Klebold met each other in middle school, but halfway through high school, they became inseparable. While many believe the two young boys suffered from bullying, plenty of accounts show them as pretty popular and friendly with a sizable group of students.

A yearbook high school photo of Harris and Klebold.
Source: YouTube

Harris, Klebold, and Brown bonded over a bunch of things, especially their love of philosophy and video games. Brown joined the theater department, and Klebold followed, working as a backstage soundboard operator. They attended football games regularly, cheering for Harris’s brother, the starting kicker of the Rebels, the Columbine High School’s football team.

Red Flags

His connection to his star football player brother earned Harris some popularity points. He even managed to find a date to freshman homecoming. However, the girl eventually wasn’t interested and didn’t want to keep seeing him. That’s when Harris displayed one of his earliest warning signs.

An image of students running out of the Columbine High School as the shotting takes place.
Photo by Steve Starr/CORBIS/Getty Images

While Brown distracted her, Harris covered himself with fake blood, screaming before playing dead. This was a huge red flag, and the girl never spoke to Harris again. But at the time, Harris and his friends thought it was a pretty funny prank.

They Ran “Missions”

At Columbine High School, bullying was a fairly common occurrence, and the teachers didn’t do much to stop it. On Halloween of 1996, one routinely bullied 11th grade student named Eric Dutro asked his parents to buy him a black duster jacket for a Dracula costume. The costume didn’t end up working out, but he decided he liked the trench coat and the attention it brought him.

An interior shot of one of the classes at Columbine High School.
Photo By Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Soon enough, his friends also started wearing them, even in 80-degree heat. When one athlete joked that the group looked like a “trench coat Mafia,” the name kind of stuck, and the kids even saw it as a “badge of pride.”

The Responsible Pizza Boy

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold weren’t part of the Trench Coat Mafia, most of whom graduated by 1999, but their friend Chris Morris was. Morris worked at the local Blackjack Pizza restaurant part-time and even helped Harris get a summer job there, after sophomore year. Klebold soon followed.

A still of Chris Morris speaking during an interview.
Source: ABC News

Harris was a good employee, always polite and on time. Harris was such a great worker that during his senior year, he was promoted to shift manager and used his position to win girls over with free pizza slices. The boys and their coworkers liked to goof off when things were slow, drinking beer and shooting bottle rockets off the roof.

A Deadly Bond

It was during this downtime that the deadly bond between Harris and Klebold was cemented. It was also when their behavior shifted, with Harris becoming suddenly bolder and stranger while the impressionable Klebold followed along.

The Columbine killers practice shooting.
Photo by Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department/Getty Images

Brown recalled that one night, he and another friend were up 3 a.m. playing video games. He heard a tap on the window, and when he looked outside, he saw Harris and Klebold sitting in a tree, dressed in black. After letting them in, they told Brown they were running “missions” – spray painting graffiti, toilet papering houses, and setting fire to potted plants. These missions started off as little pranks at school, but Brown noticed that the missions were getting crueler.

Warning Signs

After Halloween of 1997, Harris and Klebold bragged about shooting trick-or-treaters with a BB gun. That same year, Klebold carved homophobic insults into a freshman boy’s locker, after which he was suspended. Meanwhile, Harris began pushing people away.

A copy shot of Klebold talking in a videotape recording.
Photo by Larry C. Price/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Since he wasn’t able to drive yet, he relied on Brown to take him to school and back. Brown, an admitted slacker, was frequently late, which drove Harris crazy. After a heated argument that winter, Brown told Harris he would never give him a ride to school again.

Anger Management Much?

Just a few days later, Harris noticed Brown’s car by his bus stop. He took a block of ice and shattered his windshield. Furious about his car, Brown told Harris’s parents about his recent behavior, including the drinking and the other mischief Harris was up to.

A still of Eric Harris speaking on a videotape recording.
Photo by Larry C. Price/The Denver Post/Getty Images

At that moment, Eric Harris found a target for the anger that was building up inside him. This obviously wasn’t the appropriate reaction, but his negative behavior became increasingly disconcerting.

A Missed Cry for Help

In January, Klebold handed Brown a piece of paper in school with a website written on it. “I think you should look at this tonight,” he said. “And you can’t tell Eric I gave it to you.” Brown was never sure why he did that, but Columbine author Dave Cullen has a theory of his own: it was another attempt to draw attention to Harris’s behavior. A cry for help.

Chairs with bullet holes in the seat backs taken from Columbine High School.
Photo by Mark Leffingwell/Getty Images

Did Klebold feel a sense of responsibility or guilt? Perhaps he wanted to shed light on Harris’s recent thoughts that were getting more and more evil and violent.

Notifying the Police

On the website, Harris’s AOL profile was under the name “Reb” for “Rebel” and sometimes “RebDoomer.” He wrote about his nocturnal exploits with “VoDka” (Klebold’s screen name), detailing various acts of vandalism like building pipe bombs and his desire to kill people, and especially, Brooks Brown.

Police in the halls of Columbine High School / A screengrab of Harris’s AOL profile.
Photo by Chet Strange for The Washington Post, Getty Images / Source: Reddit

Brown’s parents immediately called the police. The detective they spoke to mentioned that pipe bombs had been found in the area and thought the threats were credible enough to file an official report. After a few days, Harris and Klebold didn’t show up to school. Rumors flew that they were in some serious trouble.

Getting Off Easy

The Browns were relieved, feeling like they had taken care of the problem. What they didn’t realize was that Harris and Klebold were actually arrested for a totally different reason: breaking into a parked car and stealing electronics equipment.

Dylan Klebold examines a shot-up bowling pin used for target practice.
Photo by Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department/Getty Images

Harris’s father Wayne was able to get both boys into a Juvenile Diversion program. Once they completed the program successfully, both teens were deemed rehabilitated and given clean records. If the presiding judge had seen the report from the Browns, or the subsequent search warrant had been executed, Harris would have been rejected and put in jail for the van theft. Police would have also found his growing pipe bomb arsenal.

Irresponsible Police Work

For whatever reason, the information wasn’t shared, and the search warrant was never signed. If they had treated these threats more responsibly, maybe the tragic school shooting could have been prevented. Unfortunately, the red flags were ignored.

A police officer stands guard at the entrance to Columbine High School.
Photo by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

By all accounts, Harris was a model participant in the program. He seemed deeply sorry, maintained straight-As, and showed up to every single counseling session. But behind that façade, the embarrassment of getting caught ignited a spark inside Harris and Klebold. By the spring of 1998, they were already plotting “Judgement Day” or “NBK,” shorthand for the film Natural Born Killers.

Inside The Minds of Harris and Klebold

Harris and Klebold’s journals offer insight into their planning of “Judgment Day” and their psychological makeup at the time. Harris stopped posting online in early 1998 and started keeping a notebook he titled “The Book of God,” where he expressed his homicidal fantasies and nihilistic “philosophy.”

Police notation marks on a wall outside the library in Columbine.
Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images

Klebold, on the other hand, had been keeping a diary entitled “Existences: A Virtual Book,” since last spring. But both of these books are strikingly different. Harris and Klebold were both clearly disturbed individuals but in totally different ways.

Klebold Writes Dark Poetry

Klebold wrote in elaborate morose prose and poetry about God, cutting himself, self-medicating with alcohol. He had persistent thoughts of suicide. But more often than violence, he wrote about love as both a concept and his personal experience. The journal includes many drawings of hearts and two notes to a girl he had a crush on – neither was ever delivered.

A portrait of Klebold’s mother.
Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Overall, Klebold felt like he ruined his life and that nobody understood him. He thought that other people were “zombies” but also saw them as the lucky ones. As a matter of fact, on the first page of his journal, he wrote: “Fact: People are so unaware… well, ignorance is bliss I guess… that would explain my depression.”

Eric Harris’s Thoughts

Harris’s journal, on the other hand, was much more single-minded. The way he saw it, people were “robots” conned into following a false social order – the same one that judged him. A year before the attack, Harris wrote, “I have something only me, and V [Klebold] have SELF AWARENESS.”

Randy and Judy Brown watch a video of Dylan and Eric at a firing range.
Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Harris believed that nobody else could think for themselves and would never survive a “Doom Test.” A Final Solution, like that of the Naz*s, was the only way to save the world: “Natural Selection” – the same message printed on his shirt during the shooting.

The Psyche of a Psychopath

Most of the time, Harris’s cruelty was unfocused and not tied to anything particular. It was compulsive. In addition to despising human beings, looking up to Naz*s, and wanting to “kill mankind,” he described his fantasies in an entry from November 1998: “I want to grab some weak little freshman and just tear them apart like a f*cking wolf. Show them who is god.”

Klebold’s locker is marked by officers.
Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images

During a psychologists’ conference years after the shooting, the FBI’s Dwayne Fusilier presented his beliefs. He explained that Eric Harris’s homicidal fantasies, lying skills, and lack of remorse meant that he was“a budding young psychopath.” One participant objected, saying, “I think he was a full-blown psychopath.” Mostly everyone agreed.

Preparing for “Judgment Day”

For a full year before the Columbine shooting, Harris dedicated himself to building countless explosives: pipe bombs and “crickets” made from CO2 canisters. He looked into making napalm and once tried to recruit Chris Morris into his plans for these explosives. When Morris refused, Harris played it off as a joke.

A view of damage to the west entryway to Columbine High School.
Photo by Jefferson County Sheriff/Getty Images

Harris took notes about student movements at a number of exits in the school. Meanwhile, he researched the Brady Bills and other gun law loopholes. Then, finally, on November 22, 1998, he and Klebold convinced an 18-year-old mutual friend (and Klebold’s future prom date) to buy them two shotguns and a high carbine rifle at a gun show. Later, Klebold bought a sim-automatic pistol from a buddy behind the pizza shop.

A Few Obstacles

Harris claimed that after the first time they purchased a gun, they had crossed “the point of no return,” but he didn’t expect a few complications. Before the New Year, his house got a call from the local gun shop, saying the high-capacity magazine he ordered for his rifle had arrived.

A look inside Columbine High School.
Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post/Getty Images

The problem, however, was that his father answered the phone. Harris brushed it off as a wrong number. A more persistent obstacle, though, was Klebold’s mental state. Before the attack, Klebold wrote about his plans to kill himself numerous times. He even considered stealing one of Harris’s pipe bombs and strapping it to his neck. He signed some other entries “Goodbye” as if he expected them to be the last ones.

Time to Die

Something changed between his last suicide threat on August 10, 1998 and the attack on April 20, 1999. The exact trigger is unknown. At a certain point, Klebold committed to the NBK plan, but perhaps he only thought about it as some theoretical suicide.

A surveillance tape of the Columbine shooting.
Photo by Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department/Getty Images

One of his final entries says: “I’m stuck in humanity. Maybe going ‘NBK’ (gawd) w. eric is the way to break free. I hate this.” The second to last written page in the journal, transcribed five days before the shooting, ends with: “Time to die, time to be free, time to love.” Almost all the remaining pages are drawings of his intended outfit and weapons.

Their Final Shift

The best friends worked their last shift together at Blackjack Pizza on April 16. Harris secured advances for both of them, so they were able to buy last-minute supplies. Klebold went to prom that Saturday with 12 friends, and Harris went on a first date with a girl he had just met.

A photo of gasoline canisters, a propane tank, bleach and homemade weapons collected from Eric Harris's vehicle.
Photo by Mark Leffingwell/Getty Images

That Monday, the initial date for the attack, Harris delayed the plan in order to buy more bullets from a friend. Apparently, he forgot that he just turned 18 and didn’t need a middleman anymore.

Things Didn’t Go According to Plan

The next morning, on April 20, the boys woke up early and were out of the house by 5:30 a.m. to start their last-minute preparations. In some ways, the killers’ writings help explain the Columbine shootings, not because they reveal their emotional stability, but because it details what they really wanted to do.

A photo of gallon sized canisters of kerosene and camping fuel, bagged as evidence.
Photo by Mark Leffingwell/Getty Images

From the outside, the massacre at Columbine High School looks like a school shooting. But from their notes, it’s clear that this was a badly failed bombing. The duffel bag Eric Harris was holding when he talked to Brooks Brown contained one of many propane tank time bombs.

It Was Supposed to Be Way Worse

Two of the bombs were placed in the cafeteria in order to bring down the ceiling, which would allow Harris and Klebold to shoot students as they ran away. Brown also mentioned that Harris’s car wasn’t parked in its usual place. That was because Harris and Klebold’s cars were both rigged to explode as police, ambulances, and journalists arrived on the scene, in order to kill many people.

Dark storm clouds gather over Columbine High School.
Photo by David Butow/Corbis/Getty Images

The final bomb was placed three miles away from the school at a park. It was set to go off before the rest. They hoped that this would draw police away and buy them time before law enforcement showed up and killed them. Harris and Klebold’s envisioned suicide by cop as their grand finale. Anyone who is familiar with this story knows that none of that happened.

Last Minute Bombs

Since these bombs were so much bigger than the others, Harris and Klebold weren’t able to hide them at home. Instead, they constructed them hastily on the morning of the attack. Although the boys were smart, they didn’t know how to wire detonators and couldn’t figure it out in the limited time they had. Luckily, none of these bombs went off.

A photo of the cafeteria after the wake of bombs and bullets from the massacre.
Photo by Jefferson County Sheriff

With this central failure in mind, the killers’ actions took on a new significance. Apparently, when the cafeteria didn’t explode, Klebold got cold feet. They were supposed to stand yards away from one another for an optimal firing range.

Was Klebold Hesitant?

But when the shooting began, the two were standing next to each other at Klebold’s assigned position. From this, we can assume that Harris had to convince Klebold to go through with it at the very last minute. Even after that, Harris fired most of the shots.

A copy shot of Klebold talking in a videotape recording.
Source: YouTube

Police and survivors were confused about why the shooting suddenly stopped. About thirty minutes into the attack, the boys were in the school library with 50 hostages at their mercy. Then, they left, allowing most of them to escape. The next time they shot anyone, it was to kill themselves.

The Turning Point

The turning point came in the library. After killing a student in there, Harris’s shotgun pushed back into his face, breaking his nose. As security cameras show, the boys went to the cafeteria, trying and failing to set off the propane tanks with pipe bombs and shotgun blasts.

Students grieve after discovering a friend was one of the fatalities in the shooting.
Photo by Steve Peterson/Getty Images

Then, they tried provoking police by firing through windows. The officers didn’t hit them or enter the building. Finally, Klebold and Harris went back to the library and watched their car bombs fizzle. After that, they picked a spot with a view of the Rocky Mountains and shot themselves in the head.

The True Motives

As tragic as the school shooting was, it was a complete failure if you compare it with Harris and Klebold’s ambitions. They originally planned to put the plan into action on April 19 – the anniversary of the Waco Siege and Oklahoma City Bombing. Harris hoped his attack at the high school would beat Timothy McVeigh’s body count in Oklahoma.

A student holds a single carnation while at a memorial for the victims.
Photo by David Butow/Corbis/Getty Images

He fantasized about planting bombs around Littleton and Denver, and he wrote in a journal entry that if he and Klebold survived “Judgment Day,” they would hijack an airplane and crash it in New York City.

Eric Harris Was Evil

Eric Harris didn’t look at himself as a good-hearted kid who was pushed into violence. He wanted to be a domestic terrorist. In response to his parents’ concerns about his future, Harris wrote: “THIS is what I want to do with my life!”

An unidentified girl cries during a candle light vigil.
Photo by Larry W. Smith/Getty Images

Almost exactly a year before the Columbine shooting, Harris came closest to revealing why he would shoot up a school. He wasn’t attacking specific students of even the high school itself. He was attacking what the concept of school meant to him: the point of indoctrination into the society he despised, suppressing individuality and “human nature.”

He Hated Society

“[School is] society’s way of turning all the young people into good little robots and factory workers,” Harris wrote in a journal entry from April 21, 1998. He went on, “I will sooner die than betray my own thoughts, but before I leave this worthless place, I will kill who ever I deam [sic] unfit for anything at all. Especially life.”

Students huddle together in comfort while gathered at a memorial for the victims.
Photo by David Butow/Corbis/Getty Images

So, why aren’t more people aware of this? When I learned about the Columbine shooting, I was under the impression that these boys with severely bullied in school and just snapped one day. I had no idea that they were attacking the school system as a whole and weren’t actually bullied.

The Media Frenzy

The Columbine shooting was one of the very first national tragedies in the era of cell phones and a 24-hour news cycle. Reporters were interviewing traumatized teenagers at the school as the events unfolded. People just wanted answers, and the media was all over it.

Police officers sit in the parking lot next to Columbine High School.
Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Some of the students were unable to get to the overloaded emergency services, so they started calling news stations. The news reported their understandably unreliable eyewitness testimonies to the entire world. Needless to say, the witness rumors were taken as fact. And the false narratives only continued to spread.

They Weren’t in the Trench Coat Mafia

Klebold and Harris were just two of the 2,000 students who attended Columbine High School. Most of the kids who were interviewed didn’t even know them, but that didn’t stop them from talking to reporters. A few false statements led to this flawed narrative: Klebold was in the theater department, so he was gay and mocked for it.

Columbine High School survivors speak at a microphone.
Photo by David McNew/Newsmakers/Getty Images

It was also said that the boys were in the Trench Coat Mafia because they wore trench coats during the attack. The confused classmates assumed that the teens were made fun of because of their association with the Trench Coat Mafia, but they had nothing to do with them.

Irresponsible Police Work

The police only added to the problem. The Jefferson County sheriff hadn’t been in the department for long and simply didn’t know how to handle such an extreme situation. Instead of sending in SWAT teams, law enforcement held their perimeter until after Harris and Klebold were dead.

A student cries during a memorial service.
Photo by Michael Smith/Newsmakers/Getty Images

One of the victims, Dave Sanders, could have been saved, but because of the slow police work, he bled out. Multiple bodies were left there uncovered overnight – in fear of “booby traps.” Some parents weren’t even informed of their child’s passing and only found out when they read about it in the newspaper.

Police Cover-Up

Brown Brooks and his family shared the dirty secret about the troubled students almost immediately: the police were warned about Eric Harris. An affidavit for a search warrant was ignored. If authorities had taken these situations seriously, the Columbine shooting could have been avoided.

An exterior shot of the Hope Columbine Memorial Library at Columbine High School.
Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post/Getty Images

When the police were exposed for their negligence, resources were shifted from an investigation to a cover-up. In order to silence him, the sheriff labeled Brown Brooks an accomplice on television. Families of the victims fought to get the documents released in Colorado courts but failed.

The Truth Is Worse

As it turned out, the police file on Eric Harris went mysteriously missing. How convenient. The real facts about what happened and the reason behind the Columbine High School massacre finally surfaced in 2006, shortly after the public had moved on.

Police officers sit in the parking lot next to Columbine High School.
Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

By that point, the distorted story had been seared into the collective consciousness, and nobody seemed to question the motives of the devastating event. Even now, many people think this shooting wouldn’t have happened if someone had been a little nicer to Eric Harris. The rumored story humanizes Harris while the truth is much more difficult to even think about.