Ten Years After Columbine

For young people it just gets worse. Ten years after the Columbine tragedy, the debate over school safety has clearly shown that educators, parents, politicians, and the mainstream media  have created the conditions in which young people have increasingly become the victims of adult mistreatment, indifference, neglect, and violence. The tragic shootings at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 seem to fix in time and space an image of children as violent, a threat to public safety, and increasingly in need of surveillance, policing, and containment. How children experience, resist, challenge, and mediate the complex culture, politics, and social spaces that mark their everyday lives did not seem to warrant the attention such issues deserve, especially in light of the ongoing assaults on minority youth of color and class that have taken place following the Columbine killing spree. Rather than giving raise to a concern for young people, Columbine helped to put into place the development of a youth control complex in which crime has become the fundamental axis through which kids lives are  both defined and monitored while the militarization of schools became the order of the day.

One major effect of the Columbine tragedy can be seen in the increasingly popular practice of organizing  schools through disciplinary practices that closely resemble the culture of prisons.1  For instance, many public schools, traditionally viewed as a nurturing, youth-friendly spaces dedicated to protecting and educating children, have become one of the most punitive institutions young people now face—on a daily basis. Educating for citizenship, work, and the public good  has been replaced with models of schooling in which students are viewed narrowly either as a threat or perpetrator of violence, on the one hand, or as infantilized potential victims of crime (on the Internet, at school, and in other youth spheres) who must endure modes of governing that are demeaning and repressive, on the other. Jonathan Simon captures this transformation of schools from a public good to a security risk in the following comment:

Today, in the United States, it is crime that dominates the symbolic passageway to school and citizenship. And behind this surface, the pathways of knowledge and power within the school are increasingly being shaped by crime as the model problem, and tools of criminal justice as the dominant technologies. Through the introduction of police, probation officers, prosecutors, and a host of private security professionals into the schools, new forms of expertise now openly compete with pedagogic knowledge and authority for shaping routines and rituals of schools. … At its core, the implicit fallacy dominating many school policy debates today consists of a gross conflation of virtually all the vulnerabilities of children and youth into variations on the theme of crime. This may work to raise the salience of education on the public agenda, but at the cost to students of an education embedded with themes of “accountability,” “zero tolerance,” and “norm shaping.”2

As New York Time’s op-ed writer, Bob Herbert, points out, “school officials and the criminal justice system are criminalizing children and teenagers all over the country, arresting them and throwing them in jail for behavior that in years past would have never have led to the intervention of law enforcement.”3  Young people are being ushered “into the bowels of police precincts and jail cells” for minor offenses, which Herbert argues “is a problem that has gotten out of control … especially as zero-tolerance policies proliferate, children are being treated like criminals.”4  The sociologist, Randall Beger, has written that the new security culture in school comes with an emphasis on “barbed-wire security fences, banned book bags and pagers … ‘lock down drills’ and ‘SWAT team’ rehearsals.”5  As the logic of the market and “the crime complex”6 frame a number of social actions in schools, students are subjected to a number of offensive practices, including harsh zero tolerance policies, a growing security apparatus in which youth are increasingly treated as criminals, and a culture of fear, surveillance  and social control which undermines schools as sites of critical learning and spaces of safety.7

Once seen as an invaluable public good and laboratory for critical learning and engaged citizenship, public schools in the aftermath of Columbine have been  increasingly viewed as sites of potential violence, increasingly redefined as security sites and containment centers–when not simply warehousing  poor youth of color who are too often considered utterly disposable.  Consequently, students have been redefined through the optic of crime as populations to be managed and controlled primarily by security forces.  In accordance with this perception of students as potential criminals and the school as a site of disorder and delinquency, schools across the country since the 1980s, but especially in light of Columbine and the Virginia Tech massacres,  have implemented zero tolerance policies that involve the automatic imposition of severe penalties for first offenses of a wide range of undesirable, but often harmless, behaviors.8

Based on the assumption that schools are rife with crime and fueled by the emergence of a number of state and federal laws, mandatory sentencing legislation, and the popular “three strikes and you’re out” policy, many educators first invoked zero tolerance rules against kids who brought firearms to schools. In the aftermath of Columbine, exacerbated by a number of high-profile school shootings in last decade, and an increase in the climate of fear, the assumption that schools were dealing with a new breed of student—violent, amoral, and apathetic—began to take hold in the public imagination.  Moreover, as school safety become a top educational priority, zero tolerance policies were broadened and now include a range of behavioral infractions that encompass everything from possessing drugs or weapons to threatening other students—all broadly conceived. Under zero tolerance policies, forms of punishments that were once applied to adults now applied to first graders.  The punitive nature such policies are  on display in a number of cases where students have had to face harsh penalties that defy human compassion and reason. For example, an 8-year-old boy in the first grade at a Miami Elementary School took a table knife to his school, using it to rob a classmate of $1 in lunch money. School officials claimed he was facing “possible expulsion and charges of armed robbery.”9

In another instance that took place in December 2004, “Porsche, a fourth-grade student at a Philadelphia, PA, elementary school, was yanked out of class, handcuffed, taken to the police station and held for eight hours for bringing a pair of 8-inch scissors to school. She had been using the scissors to work on a school project at home. School district officials acknowledged that the young girl was not using the scissors as a weapon or threatening anyone with them, but scissors qualified as a potential weapon under state law.”10

It gets worse. Adopting a rigidly authoritarian zero tolerance school discipline policy, the following incident in the Chicago Public School system signals both bad faith and terrible judgment on the part of educators implementing these practices. According to the report Education on Lockdown,

in February 2003, a 7-year-old boy was cuffed, shackled, and forced to lie face down for more than an hour while being restrained by a security officer at Parker Community Academy on the Southwest Side.  Neither the principal nor the assistant principal came to the aid of the first grader, who was so traumatized by the event he was not able to return to school.11

Traditionally, students who violated school rules and the rights of others were sent to the principal’s office, guidance teacher, or another teacher.  Corrective discipline in most cases was a matter of judgment and deliberation generally handled within the school by the appropriate administrator or teacher.  Under such circumstances, young people could defend themselves, the context of their rule violation was explored (including underlying issues, such as problems at home, that may have triggered the behavior in the first place), and the discipline they received was suited to the nature of the offense. Today, as school districts link up with law enforcement agencies and private security agencies, young people find themselves not only being expelled or suspended in record rates but also being “subject to citations or arrests and referrals to juvenile or criminal courts.”12   Students who break even minor rules, such as pouring a glass of milk on another student or engaging in a school yard fight, have been removed from the normal school population, handed over to armed police, arrested, handcuffed, shoved into patrol cars, taken to jail, fingerprinted, and subjected to the harsh dictates of the juvenile and criminal justice systems.  As Bernadine Dohrn points out:

Today, behaviors that were once punished or sanctioned by the school vice-principal, family members, a neighbor, or a coach are more likely to lead to an adolescent being arrested, referred to juvenile or criminal court, formally adjudicated, incarcerated in a detention center, waived or transferred to adult criminal court for trial, sentenced under mandatory sentencing guidelines, and incarcerated with adults.13

The fears that the Columbine tragedy legitimately produced when mediated through the culture of fear defined in large part through the war on terror worked against rather than in the interests of kids, especially poor youth of color.14 This legacy is obvious today in the way in which educators and policy makers think about children.  What we have seen in the last ten years is a shift in discourse and policies from  from one of  hope to punishment, a shift most evident in the effects of zero tolerance policies, which criminalize student behavior in ways that take an incalculable toll on their lives and their future.  For example, between 2000 and 2004, the Denver Public School System experienced a 71 percent increase in the number of student referrals to law enforcement, many for non-violent behaviors. The Chicago School System in 2003 had over 8000 students arrested, often for trivial infractions such as pushing, tardiness, and using spitballs. As part of a human waste management system, zero tolerance policies have been responsible for suspending and expelling black students in record high numbers. For instance, “in 2000, Blacks were 17 percent of public school enrollment nationwide and 34 percent of suspensions.” And when poor black youth are not being suspended under the merger of school security and law and order policies, they are increasingly at risk of falling into the school-to-prison pipeline. As the Advancement Project points out, the racial disparities in school suspensions, expulsions, and arrests feeds and mirrors similar disparities in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

…in 2002, Black youths made up 16% of the juvenile population but were 43% of juvenile arrests, while White youths were 78% of the juvenile population but 55% of juvenile arrests. Further, in 1999, minority youths accounted for 34% of the U.S. juvenile population but 62% of the youths in juvenile facilities. Because higher rates of suspensions and expulsions are likely to lead to higher rates of juvenile incarceration, it is not surprising that Black and Latino youths are disproportionately represented among young people held in juvenile prisons. 15

The city of Chicago, which has a large black student population, implemented a take-no-prisoners approach in its use of zero tolerance policies and the racially skewed consequences are visible in grim statistics which reveal that “every day, on average, more than 266 suspensions are doled out … during the school year.” Moreover,  the number of expulsions has “mushroomed from 32 in 1995 to 3000 in the school year 2003–2004,”16 most effecting poor black youth.

In the aftermath of Columbine, a  culture of fear, crime, and repression has come to dominate American public schools, just as the culture of schooling is reconfigured through the allocation of resources used primarily to hire more police, security staff, and technologies of control and surveillance.  In some cases, schools such as the Palm Beach County system have established their own police departments.  Saturating schools with police and security personnel and in some cases actually creating militarized models of schooling have created a host of problems for schools, teachers, and students–not to mention that such policies tap into financial resources otherwise used for actually enhancing learning.  In many cases, the police and security guards assigned to schools are not properly trained to deal with students and often use their authority in ways that extend far beyond what is either reasonable or even legal.

Rather than using Columbine for a national dialogue on the declining state and welfare of young people and what it might mean to make their lives more secure, the United States government expanded use of domestic terrorism and young people and schools became a prime target in that ongoing war. One example of the war-on-terror tactics used domestically and directly impacting schools can be seen in the use of the roving metal detector program in which the police arrive at a school unannounced and submit all students to metal detector scans. In Criminalizing the Classroom, Elora Mukherjee describes some of the disruptions caused by the program in New York City:

As soon as it was implemented, the program began to cause chaos and lost instructional time at targeted schools, each morning transforming an ordinary city school into a massive police encampment with dozens of police vehicles, as many as sixty SSAs [School Security Agents] and NYPD officers, and long lines of students waiting to pass through the detectors to get to class.17

Under such circumstances, schools begin to take on the obscene and violent contours one associates with maximum security prisons:  unannounced locker searches, armed police patrolling the corridors, mandatory drug testing, and the ever present phalanx of lock-down security devices such as metal detectors, X-ray machines, surveillance cameras, and other technologies of fear and control. Appreciated less for their capacity to be educated than for the threat they pose to adults, students are now treated as if they were inmates, often humiliated, detained, searched, and in some cases arrested.  Randall Beger is right in suggesting that the new “security culture in public schools [has] turned them into ‘learning prisons’ where the students unwittingly become ‘guinea pigs’ to test the latest security devices.”18

Poor black and Latino male youth are particularly at risk in this mix of demonic representation and punitive modes of control as they are the primary object of not only racist stereotypes but also a range of disciplinary policies that criminalize their behavior.19 Such youth, increasingly viewed as a burden and dispensable, now bear the brunt of these assaults by being expelled from schools, tried in the criminal justice system as adults, and arrested and jailed at rates that far exceed their white counterparts.20

While black children make up only 15 percent of the juvenile population in the United States, they account for 46 percent of those put behind bars and 52 percent of those whose cases end up in adult criminal courts. Shockingly, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, “[a] jail or detention cell after a child or youth gets into trouble is the only universally guaranteed child policy in America.”21

Public debate has consistently ignored the most pressing questions to be raised post-Columbine, preferring the superfluous and colorfully carnevalesque accusations against a host of alleged villains, from working mothers to rock icons, the Internet and video gaming.  As David Sirota points out, why are we “surprised that Columbine-like shootings are still happening, or even that our national discussion about violence hasn’t yet matured past gun control and video games?”22

Why is it that there is almost no connection being made  between Columbine-like shootings and the values and practices of an economy that operates off a winner-take-all ethos, produces massive inequality in wages and wealth, disinvests in schools and health care, destroys the welfare state, supports torture as state policy, rules society through a culture of fear and insecurity, and turns violence into commodified spectacle.  Most importantly, what is it about the nature of American society that in the face of such a tragedy produces policies and practices that further punish rather than aid young people?  Given the horrible suffering experienced by young people at Columbine High School, how was it possible for politicians, school officials, and law enforcement to react in ways that vilify future generations by viewing them as a threat to society rather than asking what is about larger economic, political, and social forces in the fabric of  American life  that subject so many young people to various forms of violence, abuse, and hatred.   Sadly, what we have  learned in the wake of the Columbine tragedy  is that children have sunk to our lowest national priority, most evident in the social policies that have shifted from one of  social investment to a politics of containment and criminalization.23

The aftermath of the Columbine tragedy does not simply reflect the loss of social vision, the ongoing privatization and corporatization of public space, and the inevitable erosion of democratic life that results, it also suggests the degree to which children have been “othered” across a wide range of ideological positions, unworthy of serious analysis as an oppressed group– posited no longer as at risk but  as the risk to democratic public life.  Fear, indifference and demonization share an unholy alliance in the willful refusal to foreground the increasing precarity–materially, economically, socially–of children’s lives as well as the role that young people can play in shaping a future that will not be simply a repeat of the present, a present in which children increasingly count less as  valuable resources than as a financial drain and pervasive danger to adult society. Maybe the time has come to stop simply replaying the heart pounding video footage that is tragically reduced to spectacle in the absence of any thoughtful critique.  Instead, ten years after the fact, let’s ask ourselves about the failure of American society to take responsibly and seriously what it might mean to protect and nourish young people rather than treat them as a generation of suspects.

HENRY A. GIROUX holds the Global TV Network chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. His most recent books include: “Take Back Higher Education” (co-authored with Susan Searls Giroux, 2006), “The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex” (2007) and “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed” (2008). His newest book, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?” will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2009.


1.  For an excellent analysis of this issue, see Christopher Robbins, Expelling Hope (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008); William Lyons and Julie Drew, Punishing Schools: Fear and Citizenship in American Public Education  (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006); HENRY A. GIROUX, The Abandoned Generation (New York: Palgrave Press, 2004).

2.  Jonathan Simon, Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 209

3.   Bob Herbert, “School to Prison Pipeline,” New York Times (June 9, 2007), p. A29.

4.  Herbert, “School to Prison Pipeline,” p. A29.

5. Randall R. Beger, “Expansion of Police Power in Public Schools and the Vanishing Rights of Students,” Social Justice 29:1 (2002), p. 120.

6.  This term comes from David Garland, The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002). See more recently, David Garland, “The Culture of Control after 9/11*”, Cosmopolis, No. 2. (2008). Online at: http://www.cosmopolisonline.it/20081215/garland.php

7. See especially Kenneth Saltman, Education as Enforcement: The Militarization and Corporatization of Schools (New York: Routledge, 2003).

8.  Some of the best books analyzing all aspects of zero tolerance policies are See Christopher Robbins, Expelling Hope ; HENRY A. GIROUX, The Abandoned Generation; William Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, and Rick Ayers, eds., Zero Tolerance (New York: New Press, 2001).

9. Yolanne Almanzar, “First Grader in $1 Robbery May Face Expulsion,” New York Times (December 4, 2008), p. A26.

10 Advancement Project in partnership with Padres and Jovenes Unidos, Southwest Youth Collaborative, Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track (Chicago: Children & Family Justice Center of Northwestern University School of Law, March 24, 2005), p. 11.

11. Advancement Project, Education on Lockdown, p. 33.

12. Advancement Project, Education on Lockdown, p. 7.

13. Bernadine Dohrn, ‘”Look Out, Kid, It’s Something You Did:’ The Criminalization of Children,” in Valerie Polakow, ed., The Public Assault on America’s Children (New York: Teachers College press, 2000),, p. 158.

14. See Paul Street, Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America (New York: Routledge, 2005). Also, see HENRY A. GIROUX, Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or disposability? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

15.  Advancement Project, Education on Lockdown, pp. 17–18.

. Advancement Project, Education on Lockdown, p. 31.

17.  Elora Mukherjee, Criminalizing the Classroom: The Over-Policing of New York City Schools (New York: American Civil Liberties Union and New York Civil Liberties, March 2008),  p. 9.

18. Beger, “Expansion of Police Power,” p. 120.

19. Victor M. Rios, “The Hypercriminalization of Black and Latino Male Youth in the Era of Mass Incarceration,” in Manning Marable, Ian Steinberg, and Keesha Middlemass, eds. Racializing Justice, Disenfranchising Lives (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 40–54.

20. For a superb analysis of urban marginality of youth in the United States and France, see Loic Wacquant, Urban Outcasts (London: Polity, 2008).

21.  Children’s Defense Fund. America’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline. (Washington, D.C.: Children’s Defense Fund, 2007), p. 77.

22. David Sirota, “Columbine Questions We Still Don’t Ponder,” CommonDreams.Org (April 17, 2009). Online: www.commondreams.org/view/2009/04/17-6.

23. For an informative analysis of history and struggle over youth since the 1970s, see Lawrence Grossberg, Caught In the Crossfire: Kids, Politics, and America’s Future,  (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2005).

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Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013) and Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014). His web site is www.henryagiroux.com.

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