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Columbine High shooting survivor: Social media is giving Parkland students the voice we never had

Mike Wright
The Parkland students are able to make their voice heard in a way that previous mass shooting victims couldn't, according to a survivor of the Columbine High shooting  - AP

A survivor of the Columbine High School shooting has said the reaction of the Parkland victims has renewed her hope of meaningful action finally happening on gun control.

Anne Marie Hochhalter said social media had given survivors of mass shootings a platform to call for change that the teenagers of Columbine never had.

In recent days students from the Florida school have held emotive rallies and are planning further marches calling for tighter gun regulations after 17 people were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine's Day.

Ms Hochhalter was left paralysed when she was shot during the 1999 massacre that killed 13 at the Colorado high school.

Yet social media has also provided a breeding ground for a perverse subculture that valorises mass shooters, according to the 36-year-old

The Telegraph found numerous posts on Facebook and Tumblr glamorising the shooters of Columbine, with people even sharing tattoos they had of the killers stalking the school’s cafeteria during the massacre.

Anne Marie Hochhalter   Credit: Anne Marie Hochhalter  

Ms Hochhalter said she fears such social media posts could help inspire other shooters by holding out the prospect of gaining a form of warped fame.

Facebook has since deleted a number of pages flagged to it by this paper.

'Social media gives survivors a voice'

Ms Hochhalter had long since given up on the idea that the continued mass shootings in the US would lead to meaningful action on gun control. Yet the sight of Parkland students organising rallies and marches calling for legislation has given her renewed optimism.

“Seeing these kids - my heart bursts with pride,” she said . “They are speaking up and calling for action from lawmakers and parties. I hope so badly there will be change.

David Hogg a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School speaks at a rally calling for more gun control in Fort Lauderdale Credit: Reuters

“They can now set the agenda themselves, they have the power and they have a voice. These kids are not going to give up.”

President Donald Trump is now preparing to ban bump stock devices that modify semi-automatic rifles and is considering other gun control measures in the wake of the tragedy in Florida.

In 1999 the narrative around Columbine quickly coalesced around the two shooters being part of a sinister group called the Trenchcoat Mafia, about whether video games and goth culture had desensitised them to violence and whether the attack was two outcasts taking revenge on more popular 'jocks'.

It is a narrative that has been debunked in the years following the attack. For instance the Trenchcoat Mafia was group of computer game enthusiasts who met to play the fantasy tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Members said the shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, were rejected from the group for being too strange.

The initial explanations for the shooting didn’t tally with the experience of many at the school, but Ms Hochhalter said they did not have a platform to challenge them.

She said: “We didn’t have social media. I did some [media] interviews, but they wanted to focus on the shooters. The focus wasn’t on what it should have been.”

Infamy motive

Ms Hochhalter is clear in her mind as to what motivated the Columbine shooters - notoriety. It is the same conclusion that the FBI working with psychiatrists and psychologists came to five years after the shooting.

Columbine was not a rash act by two teenagers with ready access to guns. It was calculated operation, methodically planned over a year and the aim was clear. The pair hoped to inflict "the most deaths in US history", as Klebold boasted in one a video.

Mass shootings have become more frequent in the US

It wasn’t even planned primarily as a shooting but as a staggered bomb attack that would kill students during the crowded lunch-rush and then later emergency workers rushing to the scene. Only the shooters' ineptitude as bomb-makers stopped Columbine turning into a slaughter in the hundreds.

The FBI concluded that pair's motivation was not just want fame, they wanted posthumous infamy.

Perverse online subculture

If notoriety was their true aim then Klebold and Harris succeeded to some degree. A measure of their success is the perverse subcultures that have sprung up around them on social media.

The Telegraph has seen multiple pages on Facebook glamorising the Columbine shooters and praising their actions.

One with more than 2,000 likes described its “mission” as to “never forget and always honor these heroes”. The page has shared CCTV stills of the shooters rampaging around the school, as well as fan art of them clutching their sawn-off shotguns, and even tattoos a fan has of them mid-shooting spree.

Comments on the page talked of posters “admiring” the shooters, praising their looks, describing them as “idols” and accusing the victims’ families of trying to “bury their memories”.

Some Facebook commenters accused the families of the Columbine victims of trying to "bury" the shooters' memory Credit: AP

Facebook has since deleted a number of the pages after being alerted to them by the Telegraph. In a statement the company said: “We condemn the terrible tragedy that took place in Florida and our thoughts are with the families of the victims and those who are injured.

“There is absolutely no place on our platforms for people who commit such horrendous acts. We thank The Telegraph for bringing these pages to our attention, which have been removed for violating our Community Standards.” 

On the social media site, Tumblr, which is popular with teenagers, a quick search turned up scores of posts about the shooters, showing quotes from them, gifs from their homemade videos and even a post advertising T-shirts printed with CCTV stills from the massacre.

Tumblr is yet to respond to a request for comment.

No Notoriety campaign

Ms Hochhalter fears that social media pages and posts that valorise mass shooters could help inspire the next tragedy.

She said: “The motivation is different for each shooter but these people are in some sort of emotional pain. They want to inflict that pain on others and they want to go out in a blaze of glory”.

As well as calling on social media platforms to ban pages dedicated to lionising mass killers, Ms Hochhalter also backs the No Notoriety campaign, which has been set up by the victims mass shootings.

This calls for a media blackout on the names of mass shooters in an effort to dampen down the infamy they seek.

CNN anchor Anderson Cooper doesn't name mass shooters when reporting  Credit: Kevin Mazur

In the US, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper has backed such an approach by refusing to name shooters on air.

Other sections of the US media have argued that journalists have a duty to report the full story when such incidents occur.

Yet Ms Hochhalter sees the recent pattern of mass shooters not committing suicide, such as those of Parkland and of the Aurora theatre massacre in 2012, as evidence of them wanting to see the reaction to their crimes.

She said: “They are not killing themselves as much now as they want to survive and see the attention afterwards.

“So with Parkland with that photo of him being arrested he is looking right at the camera - that is exactly what he wants.”

April 20, 1999

As the debate over gun control and how to prevent the next mass shooting continues after Parkland, the small Florida community is just beginning to try and come to terms with what happened.

For Ms Hochhalter and dozens of other ex-students of Columbine High, it is a “rough road” they have been treading for nearly two decades.

Ms Hochhalter was sitting with her friends and enjoying the sun on a grassy knoll outside the school on April 20, 1999, when the first shots rang out. Initially the 17-year-old Ms Hochhalter assumed it was senior students playing a prank.

Columbine students and a police office taking cover behind a car Credit: AP

She said: “I was eating outside with friends and I heard the shots behind me. I thought they were paintball guns and as I didn’t want to believe what was happening.

“Before I knew what was happening I was shot in the back and that was the bullet that paralysed me.

“My friends had run away but came back and dragged me to relative safety then I was hit again. That bullet hit a bunch of internal organs and my friends had to leave me as there were bullets flying around everywhere.”

She lay bleeding for 45 minutes before paramedics reached her. They only go to her due to a mix-up in communications with police, who were holding back from the school due to confusion over how many shooters there were.

Swat police storming Columbine School Credit: AP

Had the paramedics held off with the police Ms Hochhalter would have been the 14th Columbine fatality. Klebold and Harris turned their guns on themselves before the police could reach them.

The aftermath

After she woke from surgery, Ms Hochhalter’s family tried to shield her from the full scale of the horror of Columbine by not telling how many had died and asking friends not to share details with her when they visited her in hospital.

It wasn’t until she was interviewed by the police a month after the shooting that she learned 13 had died, including a close friend.

Anne Marie Hochhalter as a teenage student at Columbine High

In the weeks that followed she threw herself into her rehabilitation, convincing herself she would one day walk again, despite what the doctors said.

But six months after the shooting Ms Hochhalter’s mother, who had a history of depression, committed suicide.

With the trauma of the shooting and tragedy of losing her parent, she said she went to "a daze".

For two years she had counselling but stopped and described lapsing into a process of repeatedly burying her feelings and the trauma deep down for the next 18-years.

Las Vegas

Over the years Ms Hochhalter learned to avoid certain sounds and sights that could trigger flashbacks of that day in April 1999.

She has since been unable to go to live firework displays and can be traumatised by other loud bangs such as cars backfiring. She also breaks down if she sees young people wearing trench coats - as the shooters wore.

When she saw news of other mass shootings she adopted a coping mechanism of suppressing her feelings. The mechanism worked for 18 years until October 2017 when Stephen Paddock opened fire with a modified semi-automatic rifle from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel on a country music festival on the Las Vegas strip, killing killing 59 and wounding over 400.

Victims fleeing from the Las Vegas shooting in October  Credit: Getty

Hours after the Las Vegas shooting happened smartphone footage was being broadcast around the world showing visceral scenes of the carnage.

Ms Hochhalter said: “The metaphor I use for all of us involved at Columbine is we shoved our emotions in a suitcase. With Las Vegas it was like ‘I will do my usual coping mechanism again and shove it in the suitcase’. But the locks broke and everything popped out.

“It was the vantage point, the shooter was up high and with Columbine they were up high. It was the screams and the sounds”.

Ms Hochhalter wasn’t the only Columbine survivor to be affected badly by Las Vegas, she said it caused a number to have breakdowns and seek counselling.

She says Las Vegas was the starting point of her resuming professional help and really starting to deal with the trauma of the shooting.

Parkland

A week has passed since 17 people were killed and 14 seriously wounded in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The quiet Floridan suburb of Parkland remains a focus of national and international attention as the political fallout over gun control continues.

But Parkland will still be dealing with the events of last week long after the tragedy has ceased to dominate the headlines.

Mourners grieving at a candlelight vigil for victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting Credit:  AFP

Ms Hochhalter said: “Now it seems that these shootings are becoming more common. People around the world will forget in two weeks and the people of Parkland will be left to pick up the pieces. It will be difficult and they will think ‘why have people stopped caring?’

“But not the people of Columbine. We will always be there, even when the whole world has moved on.”

She urged the teenagers now just starting to process the trauma they experienced that day not to take the same approach she and other Columbine survivors did.

“I would say to them don’t go through this alone,” said Ms Hochhalter. “It is going to be a rough road but it is imperative that you have a strong support network with friends and family.

“My advice would be don’t do what we did and shove it deep down. Don’t delay with counselling.”