School shootings have become all too common for the 21st century student — and stopping them is the students’ goal.
The 2020 election won’t be about the wall or health care or sex trafficking. It will be about gun violence, according to Dave Cullen, New York Times best selling author who has written extensively about school mass murders.
Cullen visited the Hudson Library and Historical Society April 2 to discuss his latest book, “Parkland: Birth of A Movement.”
Cullen wrote the bestseller “Columbine,” and was recently chosen by Apple as one of the 10 authors to read in 2019.
When Cullen said he completed his story about the April 1999 killing spree at Columbine High School in Colorado that took the lives of 13 and wounded more than 20 others, he said he was never going to write or discuss mass murder again.
“I meant it,” Cullen said. “But it keeps sucking me back again. I wrote Parkland as a way out of this ending.”
To understand how much students have changed in the 20 years between Columbine and Parkland, Cullen revisited his Columbine experience. He was in Denver on April 20, 1999, and heard reports of gunfire at a suburban school.
“I thought it was a prank, but it could be serious,” Cullen said. “As a journalist I got in my car and went.”
He said he knew it was serious when he saw a helicopter circling like a vulture.
“My stomach clenched, and I realized something horrible was happening,” he said.
The first day was chaotic with kids running around sobbing — but the next day was completely different.
“No one cried. They had blank faces like zombies. It freaked me out,” Cullen said. “I stopped focusing on the 13 murdered and focused on the 2,000 alive. Would they get over it or be scarred for life? That’s the story I had to tell.”
Both Columbine and Parkland are about tragedy, coping and recovery. Each had different answers.
Because he wrote about Columbine, Cullen said he became the “mass murder guy.” But he said he’s been deeply affected by the survivor stories — and has to limit what he covers for his own mental health.
“Columbine was like a martian attack,” Cullen said. “It shattered their perception of the world.”
Students thought they were safe attending school, he said. Why were they in danger?
Students in this area have grown up with violence with the Chardon High School shooting Feb. 27, 2012; and the country itself has known the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting Dec. 14, 2012, in Connecticut; and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting Feb. 14, 2018, in Parkland, Fla.
In the latter, a former student who had been expelled began shooting an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle at 2:30 p.m., killing 17 and injuring 17 more before he escaped among students and was arrested at 4 p.m.
By the time Parkland occurred, students were regularly engaged in lock down drills, but afterward survivors posted their feelings on social media and wanted to do something more. They wanted the violence to end.
“I went back to Parkland even though other reporters refused,” Cullen said.
He had watched Parkland survivor David Hogg face the public and say, “We’re children. You guys are the adults. You need to take action.”
Cullen said Hogg and others did not act like day-one survivors.
“I felt like it was a punch in the gut,” Cullen said. “They were rejecting thoughts and prayers and wanted people to do something. I had to go and see what these kids were up to.” The high school students were able to organize the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C., to fight against gun violence in five weeks, which ranks in the top four of one-day protest in the United States, he said. Students across the United States protested by walking out of class for 17 minutes.
Cullen wrote about the birth of their movement and how it originated and blossomed.
“It’s the kids themselves who are speaking,” Cullen said. “It remains to be seen how the revolution will go, but I’ve captured the first year.”
Mothers also support the students, Cullen said. How can parents send their children off to school, knowing they may not return, then do nothing to stop the violence? Cullen asked.
Erin Dickinson of Broadview Heights attended the talk. She is the Akron group leader of “Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America” with 300 active members in Akron.
“We are a grassroots organization working for gun sense legislation,” Dickinson said.
They oppose some laws but advocate “red flag” laws to prevent domestic abusers from gaining access to guns.
Laura Lewis of Cleveland Heights is the state co-leader of the organization and said members will be going to Columbus April 10 to meet with legislators.
“We want to encourage them to take action with the safety of all Ohioans in mind,” Lewis said. “I’m curious about a book where kids effect change. We need loud, powerful voices. We need more people to register to vote and affect what is going on in politics.”
Many of those who attended were teachers or librarians.
Joe Kelleher, a Hudson resident and librarian at Revere High School, said kids and staff are concerned.
“The library is a target,” he said. “It’s a fact of life that we deal with it.”
In addition to schools having monthly fire drills and tornado drills twice a year, they have a lock down twice a year with an active shooter drill.
“We talk about where to go and what to do if you hear noise like a gunshot,” Kelleher said. “The kids take the drills seriously and are well aware of the situation. This is their world.”
Melissa Lindley of Hudson teaches English at the Aurora High School and said students attended an assembly to support the Parkland walkout against gun violence.
“The currency of this is so relevant,” Lindley said. “We have drills that students take seriously.”
Michael Cox of Akron said he read Cullen’s book on Columbine and was glad to see him visit Ohio.
“He started out covering Columbine and it was interesting to see the differences between the two massacres and his comments on them and the different reactions.”
Jen Peterson and Loretta Heigle of Columbus drove to Hudson to hear Cullen speak.
“We came to hear more of the insights about the kids and survivors,” Peterson said. “We’re trying to find solutions to help our communities. It’s inspiring to see what Parkland kids have as solutions.”
Cullen has written for The New York Times, Vanity Fair, BuzzFeed, Politico, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and many other media outlets. He is an Ochberg Fellow at Columbia University’s Dart Center For Journalism and Trauma and a board member of The Academy for Critical Incident Analysis at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.