When Ohioans woke up the morning of April 20, 1999, they had no idea that school culture was about to change.

That was the day two high school seniors carried out a massacre at Columbine High School near Denver, killing 12 students — some begging for their lives — and one teacher and injuring 21 others. Ten of the victims died in the school library.

The two boyish gunmen, who also had planted bombs and exchanged gunshots with police, then killed themselves.

Panic swept a shocked and horrified nation and started an unprecedented effort to fortify schools in ways that would minimize casualties should such an attack be carried out again. Most students today probably have little idea why their school is the way it is, or that for earlier generations the atmosphere was very different.

"It changed the culture of schools," said Kip Greenhill, 67, who at the time was principal of Upper Arlington High School. "Schools started locking their doors down, checkpoints in school, security cameras throughout the building, armed police in the schools."

The new environment that Columbine spawned was "not ideal," Greenhill said.

"I get it: You've got to reduce the anxiety," said Greenhill, who retired in 2012 and is now president of the Upper Arlington City Council. But "when you put security cameras up, and you have a feeling of someone watching you all the time, that's different. When all the doors are locked and people can't come and go all the time, that's different."

There is no evidence that the methods used to harden the nation's schools and protect children from gun violence over the past 20 years have worked, according to a new report from researchers at the University of Toledo and Ball State University.

Some research suggests that the measures might increase students' fears and are negatively correlated with their sense of safety at school, according to the National Association of School Psychologists.

Still, as school shootings continue, educators face pressure to take action to subdue panicked communities, experts say.

" 'Do something, do anything, do it fast, do it different,' that's the mindset," said Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services consulting firm based in Cleveland.

 

Mixed messages

Superintendents, most of whom have assumed their roles since Columbine, are flooded with conflicting messages, from security firms looking to expand their multibillion-dollar industry and political activists pushing agendas, Trump said.

Safety consultants contacted by The Dispatch said preparing and empowering educators to react to a variety of emergency situations is important. Many also suggested focusing on preventive measures, such as threat assessment teams and emotional and mental-health supports for students who might be struggling.

But when parents are understandably emotional, it's easier for educators to point to something tangible, such as security cameras, armed guards, secured vestibule entrances or the latest bulletproof gadgets, Trump said.

"In many ways, the conversation is much more convoluted than after Columbine," Trump said. "There is such a skewed focus on hardware and target-hardening that we're missing the area where there is the most vulnerability: people, policies, procedures and systems."

All schools are required by law to submit an emergency management plan to Ohio Homeland Security every three years. Emily Mayfield, who oversees the team that reviews the nonpublic documents and helps schools stay compliant, said all of Ohio's more than 5,000 schools have submitted one.

Though it sometimes seems mass shootings inside schools might be commonplace, they are relatively rare, and statistics show the number has not increased substantially since 2000.

A school shootings database maintained by The Washington Post, which marks any time a gun was fired during school hours since the Columbine tragedy, estimates that 143 children, educators and others have been killed and 294 injured since Columbine. More than 226,000 children at 233 schools have been exposed to gun violence. There were 25 shootings in 2018, the most since 1999.

In Ohio, there have been 10 incidents in the past 20 years.

One resulted in deaths: at Chardon High School in Northeast Ohio in 2012, when three students were killed and three injured when a 17-year-old boy opened fire in a cafeteria. Overall, 5,790 Ohio students have been exposed to gun violence in that period.

Teachers are left wondering whether their school will be the next target, but frequently feel excluded from conversations about what should be done to prevent it, said Becky Higgins, president of the Ohio Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

Higgins was a first-grade teacher at Copley-Fairlawn City Schools in 2012, when a gunman killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and seven other people. She recalled contemplating how many kids she could conceal in her tiny classroom bathroom.

"I know I wasn't the only teacher or educator in the state of Ohio thinking those exact same thoughts," Higgins said.

She said student support, as well as modern buildings, should be a priority.

 

More funding

In his budget proposal, Gov. Mike DeWine included $550 million for wraparound services such as counseling, mentoring and after-school programs and other support, which he said could help reduce violence.

"It's not the whole picture, when you look at school security, but it's an important part of it," DeWine told The Dispatch.

Last year, as attorney general, his office distributed $12 million in grants for school safety and security improvements, made possible by bipartisan legislation. All districts were eligible to apply for a grant, with its size based on student enrollment.

Gary Sigrist, a former South-Western teacher and police officer and now president of Safeguard Risk Solutions, said some advancements in the years following Columbine give him hope, especially conversations and training focused on prevention and mental-health initiatives for students.

It's a different environment than when he was a teacher, when meetings were spent "talking about school pictures and candy bar sales," he said.

"What I remember more than being stunned on that day was the conversations with my students the days after," recalled Sigrist, who was teaching eighth grade. "There were so many unanswered questions."

One student's comments about being prepared still resonate, he said.

The girl told him that because he had been a police officer, she felt safe.

"I reminded her that I never brought my gun to school," Sigrist recalled. "She said, 'I know. But if anything bad ever happened here, you would know what to do.'"

 

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.