The culture of the American classroom changed as we knew it on April 20, 1999 when two gunmen entered Columbine High School and unleashed a hail of gunfire on unsuspecting students and teachers, killing 12 students and one teacher as well as injuring 24 additional students.
Though there had been school related attacks prior to Columbine, the events of this day sparked a national reaction that would continue to roller coaster for the next 20 years, affecting all communities nationwide from cities to small, rural towns.
“I was shocked and I know the rest of the school was too,” said Josh Pajak, a 2002 graduate of Southmoreland Senior High School.
“I remember my parents reactions being much more fearful than me or my friends. It seemed like we had so much freedom then all of a sudden this took it away,” said Mrs. Hixson, remembering her days in high school.
Since Columbine, there have been 240 school shootings in the United States alone (as of December). This translates to about 12 school related attacks each year for 20 years – one per month. These horrific events have led to serious changes throughout the United States.
In nearby Connellsville Area High School, metal detectors have been in use for some time now.
“We have metal detectors at the main entrance, kids get randomly selected sometimes to get searched.” said Josh Heller, a Connellsville senior.
According to besafe.net, 2% of elementary schools in the U.S. use metal detectors, 7% of middle schools, and 10% of high schools implement the use of metal detectors as of 2018.
Additionally, according to an article by thetrace.org, 43% of all public schools had an armed officer on school grounds during the 2015-2016 school year, a 12% increase from the 2005-2006 school year.
“Our head of security is a retired police chief and we have two other armed officers that walk around the school,” said J.J. Hutter, a senior at Mount Pleasant Area Highschool.
It’s even become a common talking point to discuss arming educators in the classroom as an additional safety measure.
“The education system is always looking to train educators on different methods of teaching; now they have added some safety measures,” said Mr. Josh Pajak, a 2002 Southmoreland graduate who is now a U.S. history teacher at Southmoreland. “I understand it has to happen, but I don’t want to be armed. I didn’t go to school for that; I am not comfortable with (being armed). But that is a personal preference. Even with training I wouldn’t be comfortable.”
School shootings ended up becoming normalized in American culture with major staples of popular culture involving school shootings. This includes movies such as 2003’s Elephant and 2009’s We Need To Talk About Kevin.
However, nearly two decades after the attack on Columbine High School, on Feb. 14, 2018, a gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL and murdered 17 victims in addition to injuring 17 more.
“It was very different from Columbine. Everything was on social media in minutes, whether it was accurate or not,” said Mr. Pajak. “We didn’t have to rely on cable news coverage of it.”
“It bred so much more fear now than it did when Columbine happened,” Mrs. Hixson said. “Columbine was an isolated instance. (Parkland) was as if reality was setting in, that this was the new normal.”
The Parkland shooting not only affected high schools but also on the middle and elementary school levels.
“I was in the eighth grade at the time. I just remember we did a lot of active shooter drills where we had to lock the doors, turn off the lights and hide,” said Erik Barber, a sophomore..
At Southmoreland Elementary School in the months that followed, teachers conducted several smaller-scale drills in order to prepare the students without frightening them.
“Being a parent now, I understand the fear my parents experienced 20 years ago when Columbine happened,” said Mrs. Hixson.
These events sparked a national outcry for changes in gun legislation as well as safety procedures. Protests were organized in several schools across America. These events were typically organized through the power of social media.
Southmoreland High School followed suit and held a walk out protest on March 14, 2018 at 10 a.m., exactly one month after the Parkland massacre. The protest was called “Walkout for a Reason.”
“The walk out was to recognize the 17 students killed at Stoneman Douglas,” said 2019 Southmoreland graduate Dakota Coffman, the organizer of the protest. “We stood in the commons area for 17 minutes in silence with pieces of tape over our mouths. On the pieces of tape students wrote what their reason was for walking out.”
The gesture of solidarity was organized entirely through a Twitter page created by Coffman called “SHSWalkout” with updates being posted frequently regarding the planning of the movement.
The outcry persisted for the following several months with there being a local panel for students joining students from schools in Westmoreland County to discuss school safety with one representative from seven schools participating.
Unlike previous events involving violence in schools, the attack on Stoneman Douglas remained relevant in the nearly two years following.
“People still speak out on gun control and remain activists today,” said Bri Demagall, a senior at Southmoreland and a participant in the “Walkout for a Reason.”
Students at all grade levels from elementary school to college utilize social media apps such as Twitter and Facebook in order to explain their political stances. Instead of writing a letter to their senators, they now “tweet” them.
“Things are different now,” said Mr. Pajak. “We don’t have that 24 hour news cycle where stories die the way they used to. Social media keeps people more informed.”
Mrs. Hixson agrees.
“Students are much more politically involved now than they were when I was in school,” she said. “Everyone is so opinionated, and social media gives everyone a voice for their opinions.”
“It’s good to see students getting vocal about politics” said Southmoreland history teacher Ms. Jennifer Tacconi. “I’m proud that they want to be involved.”
Young activists such as David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez and Cameron Kasky, all of Parkland, remain active on Twitter with over 3 million combined followers. They utilize their platform to organize different marches and protests.
Activism continues to thrive online, whereas prior to the advent of peer-to-peer online sites, interest would typically die off.
Topics related to gun violence and pleas for change are still continuing today in a way that would not be possible without social media’s existence.
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