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April 20, 1999. Prior to 1999, it was a normal day. But in 1999, April 20 was transformed into one of "those" days: a day that one remembers clearly, recalling exactly where they were when they heard the news. That news, on April 20, 1999, was about the shootings at Columbine High School. Yes, I remember clearly where I was when I found out: It was during my last clinical experience of nursing school, and I was in the Intensive Care Unit of one of the Denver Metro Area's hospitals. The Charge Nurse of the Unit received a call from the Nursing Supervisor inquiring about available beds. No one knew yet how many were injured, or even if the rampage was over, but the query was going to all the area hospitals to find out where casualties could be taken.
Upon hearing about a shooting in the south Metro Area, I phoned home, as my husband is a State Trooper and at that time was on the Special Operations Response Team (SORT), which was similar to a SWAT team. Sure enough, he had been called out and by the time I got home at the end of my shift, he would be at Columbine. He was there all night. The hospital I was at did not receive any of the casualties, as they went to higher level trauma facilities, places better equipped to take care of victims of such traumatic violence.
Larkin's book is obviously the result of a great deal of research. He has read various articles and books written previously about Columbine and the teen shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. He has interviewed various people that were there and/or that have studied it. The book opens with a very thorough, as well as verbally graphic account, of the events of April, 20, 1999. This recording of the events is the result of several interviews, tapes and documents from students and teachers that were there as well as police and other emergency response personnel that were there soon after the shootings.
Following the account of the rampage is historical and geographic background of the area, then cultural background of the area and schools. This includes insight into behavior in public schools, including a right-wing, born-again Christian slant particular of that area, as well as discussion of favoritism towards athletes and bullying within schools, including Columbine. Also of interest are those students who are not of the "upper caste" of athletes and their hangers-on, those who represent the "lower caste" of the school, the recipients of bullying.
Larkin also provides interesting history and details of both the perpetrators of this horrendous shooting, Harris and Klebold. Some background of their families, their mental state, behavior, interests, and activities are included. Apparently both boys, but especially Eric Harris, were players of violent video games, most mentioned being Doom. Harris was even skilled enough to write new layers to the program. This book presents the Harris-Klebold duo as leader and follower.
Larkin focuses a great deal on the born-again Christian population of the area around Columbine. While the book is presented as a report of facts and figures, there is an element of criticism within the pages. Present is specific criticism of certain representatives of some of the churches as well as some coaches, teachers and administrators of the school. Even more focus is upon the bullying and the unequal (favored) treatment of athletes and their social group. This seems to be quite well documented, and is not unique to that area or that school, but exists all over the country. While Larkin includes many interviews, with people of all social levels, including students, teachers, administrators and researchers, I think it would be interesting to hear from "the other side" in a more unbiased fashion. I suspect many of the conclusions within this book as far as the favoritism surrounding sports, is accurate.
There is however, also a flavor of political angle, including perhaps Larkin's own distaste or discomfort with firearms, and his probable leanings towards liberalism, as some of his comments indicate. Sometimes these comments are entirely fitting but there are some occasions where the comments seem to be on a personal level, rather than entirely relevant to the discussion at hand. One of Larkin's conclusions is, "Sadly, America prides itself on its violence. It has a whole mythology of gunfighters ..." (p. 228). More recently than Columbine, in another area with a high population of born-again Christians and right-wing political tendencies, Colorado Springs, Colorado, indeed at a evangelical Christian church, a rampage shooting was brought to an abrupt end by a security guard that happened to be armed.
Comprehending Columbine is an interesting book. Obviously a great deal of time, research and thought has gone into it. There is some repetition that could perhaps have been avoided, as some discussions (e.g. sports and related favoritism, evangelical Christianity, high school cliques, video games) are discussed several times, and in a very similar fashion each time. Sometimes this is in a context different enough to be valuable, but sometimes it seems like a discussion of topics already discussed thoroughly. It was never boring, but there were points at which I thought what I was reading had already been covered, and the book could have been shortened.
© 2008 Margaret Riley
Margaret Riley, M.S., R.N. -- has been a Critical Care nurse in a highly acute ICU in the Denver Metro Area since graduation from nursing school. She continues to work occasionally in that setting, but now works full-time as a faculty member at her Alma Mater.