The Columbine Memorial was dedicated to the public in September 2007, nine years after 13 people were shot and killed at Columbine High School.

When a young student picks up a weapon and murders other youth, his parents and other adults in his family become part of the violent equation in his life. When one of these incidents occurs, they loudly trumpet deep familial dysfunction. Borrowing from Tolstoy: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I say this because I believe children need wise parental guidance and counsel. The relationship between children and parents is sacrosanct. In general, loving families eschew murder.

But reality belies what we say. Violence both by guns and other means, is a more common occurrence in this society than in any other developed nation. We have more guns than any other nation — 120 guns per 100 people; a whopping 46% of the world’s civilian gun cache. But this isn’t about the NRA, the 2nd Amendment or American gun culture, or the belief in our freedoms, that often blinds us to other people’s liberties.

For reasons that are not clear to me, Colorado tops other states for massacre counts. The Columbine High School massacre of 1999 was the first, deadliest mass shooting at a K-12 school in US history. 12 students and a teacher were murdered by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who then committed suicide in the school library where the majority of their victims were located. How two seemingly healthy young men, from good families plotted and planned such a destructive act, without raising their parents’ suspicion, is puzzling. Then, undiscovered by prying eyes, they successfully executed their diabolical acts. It is said that Eric was the psychopathic mastermind and Dylan more of a follower and that most of the organizing and building of bombs took place at Eric’s home. Suffice it to say that I doubt their parents had no idea of what their children were doing at home, at school and away from school. Their run-ins with law enforcement — they had a few — should have given society a window into their activity. But it didn’t happen.

In the past, I have written of parents serving as valuable sources of information about their killer kids’ thinking. Without being accused, parents could describe their children’s state of mind and wellbeing, before the murders. My thinking was, all information, including what set the youth off, why they were vulnerable to murderous inclinations; everything, no matter where it came from, was useful. A scientific compilation of data — by social scientists, psychological healthcare providers — could proactively identify possible killers, and divine what might be the best management in the future. The point is, most would-be killers have mental pathologies or grudges that can be remedied. According to Dwayne Fusilier, the FBI psychologist, of the Columbine duo, Eric was a full-blown psychopath, incapable of experiencing empathy for other human beings.

Hewing to the notion that you don’t blame another person for what someone else does, I haven’t suggested parents bear responsibility for their children’s murderous acts, even when their negligence could be proven. Many think Eric’s father should have known bombs were being made in his garage and the bedrooms. Parents need to know these things.

Last week, an Oxford, Michigan jury verdict found Jennifer Crumbley guilty of manslaughter. As we recall, their son, Ethan, aged 15, gunned down and killed four of his classmates. It was shown that his parents bought him a firearm ignoring many bright warning signs about his disturbing behavior in the lead-up to the deadly assault at school. In December, Ethan was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

That the prosecutors considered Ethan’s parents culpable, was historic. No parent had ever been charged, tried and convicted for their offsprings’ murderous acts. From now on, prosecutors will have to weigh what evidence exists about parental culpability in future massacres. This is an apt warning to parents, teachers and guardians about those under their care: parents must be vigilant of their children’s behavior, therapists and others can’t avoid calling authorities when confronted by homicidal patients; teachers will have to report emotionally dangerous youth.


Pius Kamau, M.D., a retired general surgeon, is president of the Aurora-based Africa America Higher Education Partnerships (AAHEP); co-founder of the Africa Enterprise Group, and an activist for minority students’ STEM education. He is a National Public Radio commentator, a Huffington Post blogger, a past columnist for Denver dailies, and is featured on the podcast, “Never Again.”