The Atlantic

High School Was Different Before Columbine

The year 1999 is, for many, a bright line dividing two divergent teen experiences.
Source: Chet Strange / Getty

Jake Wakefield, who graduated from high school in Fort Collins, Colorado, in 2003, recalls that April 20 was the date of his Senior Ditch Day. One reason for the chosen date was “a tongue-in-cheek thing,” he told me; April 20 is an unofficial cannabis holiday. But he remembered students talking about another reason: “If someone wanted to re-create Columbine, the seniors wouldn’t be there, so we’d be okay.”

This second reason was sort of a joke, as far as Wakefield remembered—but it was still on seniors’ minds on Ditch Day. For Wakefield and many others who attended high school in the years shortly after the Columbine High School shooting, on April 20, 1999, the tragedy became a cultural touchstone, imprinting itself on teens’ minds and coloring their high-school years with nervous jokes, new fears, and new routines.

When I spoke with people who were in high school around the time of the Columbine shooting about how the school experience changed, one of the first things that came to mind for them was the introduction of school-shooter drills. Wakefield, who was in eighth grade at Lucile Erwin Middle School, in Loveland, Colorado, when the shooting occurred, underwent his first drills that same spring, which he. Wakefield went to a different middle school for ninth grade and then moved up to high school, where he said the drills were “more ironed out.” (The school districts mentioned in this story either did not have records of specific school policies or did not return requests for comment, so policies are described as the students remember them.)

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