On the morning of April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a killing spree inside their high school, Columbine High. No one can give the exact reasons of why this happened except for Harris and Klebold, but they turned their weapons on themselves and committed suicide. However, the two did leave behind numerous writings in their personal diaries and school calendars that spelled out their plans for the attack. There were even signs that Harris had a preoccupation with killing and death exhibited in his written assignments for English class. The two boys documented their shooting practices on video for nearly a year before the mass killing. Other indications were present when the boys got into trouble with the law by breaking into a vehicle and were arrested. When all of these indicators had gone unnoticed (or at the very worst) ignored, Klebold and Harris relentlessly unleashed their anger and killed 13 others before taking their own lives. After the proverbial smoke had cleared, law enforcement agencies were forced to evaluate what had happened and come up with solutions to try and prevent another event such as this from ever happening again.
Law enforcement officials and school officials had worked together to try to come up with initiatives to prevent subsequent mass killings. Officials were able to come up with signs to watch for when assessing a threatening situation. Many signs to look for included aggressive behavior, change in social constructions, changes at home, background. Officials were provided with a model to assess how serious the threat was and what they could do if they thought it deemed immediate attention. However, when that fails and the act of violence is perpetuated, the next thing to do is decide how to punish the offender under the Rational Choice theory.
Rational Choice works closely with Classical Theory in the fact that the punishment should fit the crime. The crime, not the criminal, should be taken into account. If the offender has committed murder, then perhaps capital punishment is best suited for this offender.
On the morning of April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire with 9-mm semi-automatics inside of Columbine High School killing several of their classmates and teachers. Since that fateful day mental health professionals, law enforcement agencies, and society itself has been scrambling to understand why such a large scale mass killing happened. Although it was not the first mass killing on school grounds, Columbine triggered law enforcement agencies nationwide to seek and initiate preventive programs in an effort to be more prepared in the event that a mass killing on school grounds when and if it were to happen again. In order to do this, they first needed to discover the causes or motivations behind the incident and what triggered the actual event.
By all accounts Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had grown up in stable environments with two-parent homes and all the amenities a child could need. According to the Biography Channel (2007a) Dylan Klebolds' mother worked with disabled persons' and his father was a geophysicist. Klebold, in his formative school years was in a program for gifted children, a Boston Red Sox fan, and was considered to be socially withdrawn. (Biography section, paras. 1-2).
A native of Denver, Colorado, Dylan Bennet Klebold was the second child born to Thomas and Susan Klebold on September 11, 1981. He had a brother, Byron, who was three years, his senior. In his youth, he was a pitcher for his Little League baseball team and a member of the Boy Scouts. According to his parents, Dylan had never given any implication that their son was violent. After leaving Normandy Elementary School, where he attended the first and second grades, Klebold transferred to Governor's Ranch Elementary School and was active in the CHIPS (Challenging High Intellectual Potential Students) program designed for exceptional students. After elementary school Klebold was enrolled in Ken Caryl Middle School where his parents say he had a difficult transition because he was generally a timid child but did not read too much into the difficult transition at the time due to the fact that they considered his shyness typical adolescent behavior (11, n.d., paras. 1-2).
After enrolling at Columbine High School, Klebold became an assistant for the computer department and assisted in the maintenance of the school's computer server and subsequently built a home computer for himself. Klebold showed interest in school plays by participating in productions and even operated the sounds and lights on stage. Additionally, Klebold was active in his school news department, Rebel News Network, by being involved in video productions (11, n.d., "Dylan" section, para. 3).
According to 11 (n.d.) Klebold's parents reported "(our) son was extraordinarily shy and did not have a girlfriend but did socialize with different groups of friends. He and his group of friends were interested in video games, midnight bowling, and fantasy football leagues" (11, n.d., para. 4). One of these friends turned out to be Klebold's co-killer in the Columbine massacre, Eric David Harris.
Harris' childhood, according to Biography Channel (2007b) was not unlike Klebolds' in the fact that he played little league baseball while living with his parents in Plattsburg, New York. (Biography section, para. 1).
Eric David Harris was born in Wichita, Kansas to Wayne and Kathy Harris on April 9, 1981. He too, had a sibling, Kevin, who was also three years older than Eric. Harris' father was in the Air Force and moved the family around from city to city when Harris was young. It was reported that by the time Harris was in the 7th and 8th grades, he had developed a liking towards computers and was also involved in the video productions at Columbine's Rebel News Network with Dylan Klebold. It was also reported that Harris was satisfied being by himself but had developed a few close relationships while in school (11, n.d., "Eric" section, paras. 1-2). The most damning relationship would be that of himself and Dylan Klebold.
Harris and Klebold's first brush with the law came on January 30, 1998. They were caught breaking into a vehicle and placed under arrest. "In April, 1998, they were both placed in a juvenile diversion program offered by the Jefferson County District Attorney's Officeâ€¦where they [Harris and Klebold] were required to pay fines, attend anger management classes, counseling, and complete community service" (11, n.d., "Dylan" section, para. 7). This one was one of the first signs indicating that Klebold and Harris may be having some trouble with social acceptance, thereby, committing acts of juvenile delinquency. According to Jefferson County Sheriff's Office [JCSO] (n.d.) Harris had written out a "[s]hit list" of those he wanted dead (p. 934).One year later, they would take the lives of 13 others before turning their weapons on themselves, thus ending their vengeful rampage. Clearly, this was a case of revenge against those who had ever done them wrong placing Klebold and Harris in the category of Choice Theory.
Marsh, Melville, Morgan, Norris, and Walkington (2006) reiterated Cornish and Clarke's take on Rational Choice theory:
The basic premise of this theory is related to the rewards that potential offenders seek from their crimes. This is done by certain decision-making processes that are unique to the individual (e. g. skill) and to the dynamics of the actual situation (e.g. time available). Rational choice theory clearly believes that certain crimes are selected by offenders and committed for specific reasonsâ€¦.Although these related primarily to property offences and offences committed for financial gain, the authors believe that they are easily transferable to violentâ€¦crimes" (as cited in Marsh, p. 79).
In this scenario, Rational Chioce theory clearly crosses that line from property offense to a very violent crime. In the case of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the reward in their crime was revenge against anyone they thought had ever done them wrong in school. Lilly, Cullen, and Ball (2007) agreed with Felson's idea that "they [criminologists] also have a point when they claim that offenders' conduct is purposiveâ€¦and that in any crime situation offenders 'seek to gain quick pleasure and avoid imminent pain" ( as cited in Lilly, p. 278). Klebod and Dylan's actions were definitively purposive in the fact that Klebod and Harris had planned their revenge for approximately one year by designing bombs, purchasing firearms, plotting diversion tactics, and creating a '[s]hit list' of those the pair thought should pay. Most of the planning could be seen by way of Harris' personal journal.
"I hate the fucking world!" This was the first entry in Eric Harris' personal journal (Cullen & Ball, 2004). According to the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, (n.d.) evidentiary documents showed that Harris wrote about guns, killing, and hatred (pp. 567-8). In researching Harris' diary, it would appear that he and Klebold had been planning their revenge for at least a little over a year (JCSO, pps. 84-99). In one of Harris' essays written on December 10, 1998, titled Guns in School, it appeared as if Harris was mocking authority by writing about how simple it is to get a gun is school. In it he writes "students can use their backpacks, purses, or even projects to bring weapons into school" (JCSO, p. 861). This scenario proved to be prophetic (albeit outright planned) when the JCSO recovered files from the school's server, they found a description of what Klebold and Harris planned to do on (what the pair referred to as the day of the attack) NBK [Natural Born Killer] day. It stated:
(We will) get totally prepared and during Alunch we go and park in our spots. With sunglasses on we start carrying in all of our bags of terrorism and anarchism shit into our table. Being very casual and silent about it, its all for a science/band/english project or something (p.942).
Other entries reported by the JCSO (n.d.) included lists of their itinerary for NBK day (pp. 74, 389, and 423); hit lists for both Klebold and Harris (pps. 425, 454, and 934); essays telling of murder ending in suicide (pps. 567-568); sketches of and bomb making instructions (pps. 78, 260, 434, 445-49, and 584-86); and receipts for nine 9mm magazines purchased at Green Mountain Guns for $135.00 (p. 444). There were so many obvious signs that had gone unnoticed by school officials and of course the parents of the two boys. A couple of them, in particular are pictures drawn in one of the boys' school calendars. The JCSO documents showed that on April 20th, 1999, a drawing of a militant figure had been crossed out including a list of supplies that had also been crossed out (p. 391) and re-drawn (minus the list of supplies) on April 23, 1999 (p. 392). This was a strong indication that the original date was planned for April 20th, then the 23rd, and back to the 20th. There was another entry in the calendar that simply read "20th 11:10" (p. 74).
A fact that makes Rational Choice theory applicable to Klebold and Harris is when they planted a bomb three miles from Columbine High School as a diversionary tactic to distract police and fire from responding quickly to the massacre occurring at Columbine at the same time as the diversionary bomb. The following is an excerpt from 11 (n.d):
Jefferson County Dispatch Center receives the first 911 call from a citizen reporting an explosion in a field on the east side of Wadsworth Boulevard between Ken Caryl and Chatfield Avenues. The explosion is actually a timed diversionary device. Two backpacks with pipe bombs, aerosol canisters and small propane tanks had been placed in a grassy open space three miles southwest of Columbine High School. Only the pipe bombs and one of the aerosol canisters explode but the explosion and subsequent grass fire are enough to get the attention of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office and the Littleton Fire Department. The bombs exploding in the field along Wadsworth Boulevard are intended to divert the attention of law enforcement away from what is planned to be a much more devastating scene at the school (11:19 section).
It is hard to understand why Klebod and Harris' family and teachers did not foresee the events that were about to unfold given all of the documentation and essays that the boys had turned in. Today, we know that there is no precise way of predicting events such as Columbine, but many researchers have given society indications in what to look for and know the signs of a troubled adolescent. The results, if not detected early, are what are described by the United States Secret Service [USSS] (2002) as targeted violence. "Targeted violence is a term developedâ€¦to refer to any incident of violence where a known (or knowable) attacker selects a particular target prior to the act of violence" (p. 11).
Prediction and Prevention
Each year, one in 12 high school students are wounded or susceptible to violence with a weapon (American Psychological Association [APA], 2002, p. 1). The APA continued by stating that people who are at risk of becoming victims of violent crimes are between the ages of 12 and 24 (p. 1).
Heck (2001) stated that since school shootings are infrequent and prevalent only in the fact that they are perpetrated by juveniles and young adults (in even more rare instances, a spouse will show up at a school and shoot/kill their partner), there is no actual distinctive profile for school shooters (p. 9). Heck acknowledged that a study conducted by the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) reported that:
When the incidence of any form of violence is very low and a very large number of people have identifiable risk factors, there is no reliable way to pick out from that large group the very few who will actually commit the violent act. At this time, there is no research that has identified traits and characteristics that can reliably distinguish school shooters from other students" (as cited in Heck, 2001, p. 9).
O'Toole (n. d.) reported that the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime [NCAVC] designed a four-pronged assessment model that included "Prong One: personality of the student; Prong Two: family dynamics; Prong Three: school dynamics and the student's role in those dynamics; and Prong Four: social dynamics" (p. 10). Prong one, which refers to the students personality traits and behaviors, is perhaps the most important prong in assessing the threat that Klebold and Harris possessed while in school. Prong one describes what is known as "leakage." According to O'Toole:
Leakage occurs when a student intentionally or unintentionally reveals clues to feelings, thoughts, fantasies, attitudes, or intentions that may signal an impending violent actâ€¦.involves efforts to get unwitting friends or classmates to help with preparations for a violent act, at times through deception (for example, the student asks a friend to obtain ammunition for him because he is going hunting)â€¦.[leakage] can be a cry for help, a sign of inner conflict, or boasts that may look empty but actually express a serious threat. Leakage is considered to be one of the most important clues that may precede an adolescent's violent act (p. 16).
O'Toole (n.d.) continued by giving examples of leakage which included an obsession violence, hatred, isolation, nihilism, hopelessness, despair, and loneliness. Other manifestations of violence may come in the form of artwork of writing assignments in school. O'Toole emphasized:
The themes may involve hatred, prejudice, death, dismemberment, mutilation, of self or others, bleeding, use of excessively destructive weapons, homicide, or suicide. Many adolescents are fascinated with violence and the macabre, and writings and drawings on these themes can be a reflection of a harmless but rich creative fantasy life. Some adolescents, however, seem so obsessed with these themes that they emerge not matter what the subject matter, the conversation, the assignment, or the joke (pp. 16-17).
All of these signs were evident in Klebold and Harris' life. As mentioned previously, they had plotted to kill fellow students and teachers for over a year. They had manipulated a friend into getting them weapons by telling her that they were just going to use them for target practice. Klebold and Harris had displayed many violent themes in their writings and drawings, created 'rooms' for a violent video game Doom, turned in writing assignments that depicted violence and suicide, and so on. The only question that remains is why didn't anyone see this coming?
The United States Secret Service (2002) agreed that there is no exact profile for a school shooter. Social characteristics and personalities varied greatly. Each shooter came from different socioeconomic backgrounds, ages varied from eleven to 21 years, each shooter came from diverse families, some unbroken, others, not. Grades were also variable ranging from above average to failing, and "few had been diagnosed with any mental disorder prior to the incident, and less than one-third had histories of drug or alcohol abuse" (p. 13). In the case of Klebold and Harris, as noted previously, both had good academic records and both came from structured families.
According to the USSS (2002) as reported by the National Institute of Justice [NIJ], it is extremely important that people pay attention and listen to the younger generation in America. There are scores of people that can have a positive impact on our nation's youth including law enforcement, counselors, teachers, school administrators, parents, and coaches if we simply stay involved in our youth's lives. The NIJ continued by stating that young adults do not keep it a secret when they feel they need help. Warning signs are exhibited in the form of remarks or behavior, particularly when they are having problems, voicing feelings of persecution or being bullied and signs indicative of desperation or depression (p. 11).
Vossekuil, Fein, Reddy, Borum, and Modzeleski (2002) offered two suggestions that school, law enforcement, and other officials consider in determining when there is a threat of targeted violence and planning a strategic targeted violence prevention plan:
Developing the capacity to pick up on and evaluate available or knowable information that might indicate that there is a risk of a targeted school attack; and,
Employing the results of these risk evaluations or "threat assessments" in developing strategies to prevent potential school attacks from occurring (p. 18).
Many of the warning signs that a student is planning targeted violence were mentioned previously. But, once the crime has been carried out, the dead have been buried, the wounded triaged, and the scene has itself been returned back to its original state, we are left with the daunting task on how best to prosecute the offender. In the case of Klebold and Harris, there was no one left to take the defendant's stand other than the numerous lawsuits that were filed against the parents of Dylan and Eric. For example, "Bradley and Misty Bernall, the parents of murdered student Cassie Bernall, recently became the twenty-fifth family to settle out of court with the gunmen's parents" (Akre, 2002).
In this scenario, it will be assumed that Klebold and Harris had ended their rampage by surrendering and not committing suicide in order to serve as an example on how best to prosecute perpetrators of our nation's newest crime, targeted violence.
Recommended Criminal Justices Responses
There are two areas that should be explored when deciding whether punishment under Rational Choice theory applies in this situation. The first is as a juvenile, are their minds developed enough to make a cognitive decision based on all the information available; second, as a criminal, are they able to distinguish between rational thinking and drug/alcohol induced thinking?
According to Lilly (2007) "offenders make a series of choices about whether to offend, which targets to victimize, how to complete the crimes effectively, and how to avoid detection" (p. 278). Klebold and Harris completed all the criteria listed above, including detection avoidance in the fact that they kept their plans a secret from everyone.
Developing on the rational choice theory, Marsh (2006) discussed routine activity theory and how three criteria need to be present in order to commit crime. "Firstly, the presence of a motivated offender (Klebold and Harris); secondly, a suitable and accessible target (classmates, easily accessible in the cafeteria); and thirdly, the absence of any capable guardian (in this case, Klebod and Harris did not care who was present)" (p. 80).
Klebold and Harris had the option to go to their parents, teachers, diversion supervisors, or any number of people who could have helped them. They simply chose not to. Under rational choice theory, Lilly (2007) stated that "a more promising approach to reducing crime is situational crime prevention" (p. 277). When all the elements that need to be in place for a crime to occur, as shown above, are removed, the temptation is removed, thus decreasing the chances that a person will commit a crime (p. 277). Had someone intervened in Klebold and Harris' path, Columbine could have been prevented.
Rational Choice theory draws heavily from the classical theory that, as noted by Lilly (2007), "the individual criminal as a person who is capable of calculating what he or she wants to doâ€¦.Accordingly punishment should be suited to the offense, not to the social or physical characteristics of the criminal" (p. 15). Therefore, the death penalty should have been imposed on Klebold and Harris had they survived. A major factor, however, should be considered when determining whether or not they should get the death penalty and that is the fact that they were considered juveniles. Snyder and Sickmund (2006) noted:
In Roper v. Simmons (2005), the U.S. Supreme Court noted that several states had abolished their juvenile death penalty since Stanford and none had established or reinstated it. The objective evidence of "consensus in this case-the rejection of the juvenile death penalty in the majority of states; the infrequency of its use even where it remains on the books; and the consistency in the trend toward abolition of the practice-provide sufficient evidence that today our society views juveniles, in the words Atkins used respecting the mentally retarded, as 'categorically less culpable than the average criminal'." Thus, the Court affirmed the Missouri Supreme Court judgment that set aside the death sentence imposed on Christopher Simmons, concluding that the "Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed (p. 240).
Since the death penalty for juveniles had been taken away from the forms of punishment available that would leave life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In conclusion, Klebold and Harris went on a shooting spree in Littleton, CO on April 20, 1999 inside Columbine High School. The events that led them to this were feelings of being ostracized by their peers, not being invited to do 'fun' activities, being ridiculed and ignored. For a little over a year they planned their attack. They practiced shooting firearms in the mountains, they made homemade bombs and compiled lists of who they wanted revenge against. Rational Choice theory is based on the premises that a person will make a rational decision to commit a crime no matter the 'cost.' In this case, there was no cost for them to consider, they committed suicide at the end of their killing spree.
We have learned that we should pay attention to what our children are doing. If parents feel like they are invading their child's privacy or risking their level of trust, parents should ignore those feelings. There are many signs to watch for including a change in appearance, change is social settings and friends, depression, obsession with death, overstimulation of violent video games, etc. When a child exhibits these behaviors, ask questions and be relentless. Seek professional intervention if necessary.
In this case, Rational Choice theory draws on the Classical theory in believing that the punishment should fit the crime, not the criminal. Klebod and Harris, had they survived, should have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The following is the final entry in Eric Harris' personal journal confiscated by the JCSO (n. d.). In Eric Harris' exact words, dated 4/3/99, it stated:
Months have passes. Its the first Friday night in the final month. Much shit has happened. Vodka (Dylan) has a Tec9, we test fired all of our babies, we have 6 time clocks ready, 39 crickets, 24 pipe bombs, and the napalm is under construction. Right now I'm trying to get fucked and trying to finish off these time bombs. NBK came quick, why the fuck can't I get any? I mean I'm nice, and considerate and all that shit. But nooooo. I think I try to hard, but I kinda need to considering NBK is closing in.The amount of dramatic irony and foreshadowing is fucking amazing, Everything I see and hear I incorporate into NBK somehow. Either bombs, clocks, guns, napalm, killing people, any and everything finds some tie to it. Feels like a Goddamn movie sometimes. I want to try to put some mines and (??) bombs around this town too maybe.Get a few extra flags on the scoreboard. I hat you people for leaving me out of so many fun things. And no don't fucking say "well that's your fault" because it isn't, you people had my phone#, and I asked and all, but no, no no no don't let the weird looking KID Eric come along, ooh fucking nooo (p. 99).
Perhaps Kelbold and Harris may not have committed this crime had they found an "out." Many teenagers today get so caught up in playing the tough guy that they have to keep up that appearance because they don't want to seem weak in front of their peers and don't feel that they have any choice but to continue with whatever plan they have schemed up. If someone would have intervened, and got them the help they needed, perhaps the outcome would have been extremely different.