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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Did You All See the 10-Years-On Report on Columbine?

I Ask Because One that I Read Seemed a Perfect Focus of Teaching About History

This is based on an interview with two reporters whose book on the tragedy has just come out: Here we have an event that took place in America just ten years ago, and which has changed security rules in high schools everywhere. As the local sherrif notes, it unfolded just as cell phones were becoming a necessary part of our lives. People who were directly involved could be contacted right away, and their versions of events spread. Indeed some of those stories took on lives of their own, and became canonical truths about the killings. And yet, as the authors and the sherrif explain, many of those stories were not true.

The killers were not total outsiders; they were not part of a "trench coat mafia"; they did not target blacks, or jocks, or popular kids. And yet that image of the shootings is so popular it has become a received truth. My point is not to tut tut about rumors and media. Just the opposite. This intense recent tragedy is a perfect object lesson in the study of history. First person on the scene accounts may be wrong, or half wrong. They may contain a mix of powerful immediate reaction amd misinformation. The way to dig out the truth is not necessarily by going to a primary source, but, rather, by comparing sources. The story becomes clearer as we get distance from it, not as we go closer to the original accounts. 

As Monica said in one of our exchanges, the sources are useful when students and their teachers have developed a critical sensibility. Here is a great example — the patient research done years later by the authors is the model for students. This seems like a great opportunity to teach about separating truth from rumor, about how investigative journalism takes time, takes patience, and is different from on-the-scene reporting. The larger truth is about time — we need to slow down in order to understand.


  1. Columbine also changed law enforcement response forever, but as we’ve seen, of course it hasn’t stopped other school shooting horrors. I find discussion of that one particularly disturbing because of the planning and subterfuge the two boys orchestrated – the diversionary fire across town, etc. This was not a couple of angry kids who had quick access to weapons.

    I wonder how many school libraries will be allowed to carry the book.

  2. From what I see in the reports Amy’s point is exactly what the book stresses — the image of the black trench coat loner made into popular culture, but is not true of the actual killers.