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"Comprehending Columbine": Book Summary and Examination

Elyse has taught middle school for five years. She majored in middle-grade education and minored in both English and psychology at UNCW.


Violence in Media

There is no end to the amount of violence in the media today; including within the music industry. Songs on the radio include everything from abusive relationships to suicide, and they often top the charts.

One popular selection is “Pumped Up Kicks,” by Foster the People. Misleadingly mellow in its sound, the lyrics tell the story of a boy, Robert, getting ready to go shoot some other kids with a gun that he found in his dad’s closet.

The scenario portrayed in this song brings to mind the school shootings that have happened over the years. One of these, the first known mass school shooting in the United States, was at Columbine High School in Colorado. In his book Comprehending Columbine, Ralph W. Larkin attempts to analyze the shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and the environment in which they seemed to go crazy.

The Environmental Factor

Larkin begins by examining the area in which the shootings occurred, noting the demographics and accepted values of the residents.

In Chapter 2, appropriately titled “God’s Country,” he first addresses the overwhelming emphasis put on religion in Columbine. “Columbine is openly and sometimes aggressively religious,” he says (Larkin 17).

While the school itself is obviously very successful in many different ways—Larkin spends around 10 pages listing its many academic and athletic achievements—its student’s social structure is hinged on the form of Christianity that reigned supreme in the general area, as he describes extensively in the following chapter.

“They didn’t want to hear what you thought about God, or the world. All they wanted to hear was “Jesus Christ is my Saviour”—and if we didn’t agree we weren’t worth associating with,” said former student Brooks Brown about the most influential social group within the high school, the evangelical “born again” Christians (55).

The alienation that came with not conforming to this group was described by many as being intense, and it was evident that Harris and Klebold also suffered from it. In the videos they made before the shootings, the two went on extensive and violent rants about the “tyranny” and abuse of the evangelicals.

Columbine Memorial Garden

Columbine Memorial Garden

The Social Factor

Aside from the ever-present issue of religion, the social structure of the school itself, when examined closely, was incredibly disturbing. At the bottom of the food chain were a small group of outcasts, including the self-proclaimed “Trench Coat Mafia,” which was the group Harris and Klebold associated with.

At the top were the “jocks”—a separate entity from the regular athletic students, who Larkin labels “The Predators.” These boys were often evangelical, but also incredibly abusive. They would target younger students, or the outcasts, and bully them physically and emotionally.

Video evidence proves that Harris and Klebold had been subjected to both of these forms of bullying at school, under adult supervision, without anyone intervening.

Another factor that made the halls hell for outcasts like the shooters was the fact that the teachers were generally on the side of the Predators. One of the worst bullies, Rocky Wayne Hoffschneider, was a star wrestler and his behavior was rarely curbed by his teachers.

He was permitted to park his Hummer in a 15-minute parking space all day, for example, and cheered on by his coaches when he picked fights in the halls (100). Similarly, a star football player missed the bus for an important football game because he had been arrested. The football coach personally bailed the player out of jail and drove him to the game to play (111).

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In these first few chapters, Larkin shows that the very students that were initiating violence in the halls and practicing intolerance were the ones that were being encouraged and protected by most of the teachers.


The Shooters

Another thing analyzed by Larkin was the shooters themselves. Harris and Klebold, in an obvious desire for celebrity, documented their preparations and beliefs very well. They left behind videos, websites, and journals that all gave a fairly extensive glimpse inside their minds. Both shared interests such as German industrial tock bands and explosive devices.

Dylan Klebold, who Larkin describes as a follower, was much shyer than his friend, and displayed many symptoms of depression. He seemed to try to adopt Harris’s beliefs, which was very anti-Semitic and homophobic.

There is evidence, however, that Klebold may have just been trying to go along with Harris on these views, as he himself was half-Jewish and he had mentioned in a chat room months preceding that he considered himself bisexual (147). Already insecure due to his social ineptness at school, he kept these things from his friend.

Eric Harris left behind much more documentation than Klebold, as he wrote almost ceaselessly. Because of this, his writings have provided psychologists enough material for them to come up with a tentative diagnosis.

Harris had been taking medication for OCD for years; however, given his writings and actions, it is widely thought that Eric Harris was a psychopath and, perhaps, schizophrenic. “HATE! I’m full of hate and I love it,” Harris wrote in his journal prior to the shootings (135).

Thought to be smart, funny, and good-looking, Eric Harris had the potential to be very socially successful in his school career, but his obsessive hatred of those around him made him dangerous. These individual issues combined with the environment created a situation that was nothing short of explosive.


First Mass School Shooting

This event was undeniably significant in American history, as it was the first mass shooting at a school in the United States. The incident sparked a few copycat killings throughout the country, as well as school bombings, hinting that, until that time, violence had been bubbling just below the surface.

Ralph W. Larkin did a good job painting a picture of who the boys were individually, as well as the toxicity of the environment they were growing up in, which all comes together to convey a little deeper understanding as to why the Columbine shootings may have happened, yet he neglects to address why it was the first.

“Sadly, America prides itself on its violence,” he comments (228). However, these sorts of mass shootings didn’t begin until 1999, and have happened intermittently and with increasing frequency since.

As this book seems to be useful towards telling teachers how to create a safer school environment, it would be helpful to perhaps examine how culture has changed to make such a thing more likely to happen, when it had not before. Certainly hazing and depression had existed before, but Larkin neglects to identify any factor separating nonviolent 1998 from the shootings in 1999.

Perhaps exploring that question could bring us a step closer to preventing it from ever happening again.

Works Cited

  • Larkin, Ralph W. Comprehending Columbine. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007. Print.
  • Foster The People. Pumped Up Kicks. Columbia Records, 2009.

© 2018 Elyse Maupin-Thomas


Liz Westwood from UK on September 26, 2018:

So very sad. Each time another shooting hits the news it signals more sadly wasted lives.

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