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SUNY Canton Forum Featues Columbine Case Study

A series of high profile criminal cases are being used as learning tools for students in the SUNY Canton criminal investigation program. A forum tomorrow will examine the lessons of the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado two years ago. As Jody Tosti reports, the community is invited to this lecture which will include a panel of experts talking about what North Country residents can learn from Columbine and other violent incidents across the nation.

Wednesday night's lecture takes place in the Multi-Purpose Room of the SUNY Canton Campus Center at 7 and is free and open to the public.

The scene was grisly - 13 students and 1 teacher killed and 21 others wounded after a shooting rampage by two teens armed with an arsenal. The gunmen who entered the Littleton, Colorado School on April 20th, 1999 had contemplated the attack for a year. But it took only an hour to complete their mission. Three pages of scrawled plans, says SUNY Canton Criminal Investigation Professor Steve Gilbert, outlined how to kill as many students and faculty as possible.

"The first one is just a list of notes. What they're going to do, how the they're going to start there attack. And it says, 'Walk in, set bombs at 11:09 for 11:17. Leave. Drive to Clemente Park. Gear up. Get back by 11:15. Park cars. Set car bombs for 11:18. Get out. Go to outside hill. Wait. When first bomb goes off, attack.' And this is underscored, 'Have fun.' That was their basic plan."

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold would end their so-called "fun," by committing suicide in the school library, where they had killed and wounded 22 students. It's graphic material, but using video and audio tapes as well as photographs and reports from Jefferson County police in Colorado, Gilbert will try to shed some light on what prompted the two boys to execute such a chilling plan.

"I'm kinda using this as a step through. Who the assailants were, how they planned it. What happened, but more importantly for us is how they investigated it. And one of the big questions was why did it take SWAT so long to get into there and stop it."

Stopping such a well executed plan is not easy, says Gilbert, but he hopes his students can learn something from Columbine. An ad-hoc SWAT team first on the scene faced several problems. There were contradictory reports on the number of gunmen, smoke-filled halls from explosives and, not unlike the September 11th attacks, there were countless other variables.

"The first thing they did was ask students who left the school, who ran, what's going on? And they had stories like there are eight armed gunmen, there are 17 hostages in the cafeteria, uh, they are trying to sneak out with the other students. There was conflicting information. So the SWAT team didn't know where it was happening, how many there were, who they were, what it looked like."

Police were also tripped up by an outdated blueprint of the building, which had been renovated, changing the location of the cafeteria. The communication breakdown at Columbine prompted many institutions to revisit their emergency plans, including SUNY Canton. Here's University Police Chief Tim Ashley.

"Many organizations that have emergency plans, as a result of Columbine and/or the most recent incident in New York, have taken out those plans, dusted them off, reviewed them and tried to think of ways to make them better."

Ashley is one of five panelists who will lend their experiences and opinions on Columbine and other violent incidents across the country. He'll address how SUNY Canton police officers would respond to an emergency on campus. And he'll talk about what law enforcement can take from the terror at Columbine High that could help stop other crimes.

"We too, have learned things over the past few years, and the way that police organizations respond to active shooters has to change. A number of things have been published and a number of new techniques and tactics are now suggested to do a better job than what was done at Columbine. Not that there was a bad job done there."

The audience will follow the 10 different federal, state and local agencies through there investigations and learn how 7 teams reconstructed the crime scene, including examination of hundreds of bullet holes, explosives and more than 1400 student backpacks. Professor Gilbert hopes to continue the lecture series on high profile criminal cases each semester. He's hosted 2 other lectures for SUNY Canton Criminal Justice students; one was a forensic reconstruction of Custer's last stand, the other was research of the JFK Jr. plane crash in 1999.

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