How a writer from Elk Grove ended up writing a book on Parkland shooting
With his critically acclaimed best-seller "Columbine," author and Elk Grove Village native Dave Cullen examined the shock, the why and the how in the wake of the deadly school shooting in 1999. Two decades later, Cullen's "Parkland," which goes on sale today, focuses on the movement in response to the Feb. 14, 2018, slaughter of 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Cullen spent a decade reporting and writing about the two killers, the 12 murdered students and the one slain teacher in Columbine, a suburb south of Denver. By the time he finished, Cullen became such an expert on the subject that he says he became the "go-to mass-murder guy" for television interviews.
"America was suffering from collective post-traumatic stress disorder when I started that book," Cullen says, noting that he also was still struggling with his own secondary PTSD from covering Columbine. "I knew it was horrible, but I didn't know it was a precursor of things more horrible. Even 10 years out, when I finished Columbine, we couldn't imagine the trajectory."
He wrote dozens of articles and went on the air to talk about shootings that killed 32 students in 2007 at Virginia Tech University, or 20 children and six teachers in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. "I looked like one of those president's before-and-after photos where I aged in five days," Cullen says, recounting the frustration, the grind and the weariness that followed Sandy Hook.
He thought, "I'm never doing this again," but by the time of the Parkland shootings, things were different.
"There were no vacant stares from the Parkland survivors," Cullen writes. "This generation had grown up on lockdown drills -- and this time, they were ready."
The morning after the shooting, Cullen was at CNN headquarters in New York. He watched a live feed where 17-year-old student David Hogg "called out Adult America for letting our kids die," Cullen says. "The uprising had begun."
A few days later, Cullen was in Parkland, meeting with Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, Jackie Corin, Cameron Kasky, Alfonso Calderon, Alex Wind, Delaney Tarr, Ryan Deitsch, Sarah Chadwick and other students, who were all over social media with #NeverAgain and a call for action.
"'Wow! Something is going on here,'" Cullen remembers thinking. "These kids are so articulate and so amazing. … Are they really doing this themselves?"
The kids received a $500,000 donation from George and Amal Clooney and other donations from Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg and other celebrities, and they were blasted by critics as "crisis actors" and pawns for some gun-grabbing agenda. They were the subjects of nasty tweets, mocking memes, outright lies and death threats.
Cullen says he went to Florida suspecting that some adults might be pulling the strings but soon discovered that the teenagers were in charge.
"They put this together," Cullen says, explaining how the kids, smart and eloquent speakers, collaborated and came up with the best tweets or messages before sharing them.
"The professionals would be lucky to be this good," he says. "These refreshing kids are being themselves and being sincere, and that's why they're succeeding. They know their strengths and weaknesses."
While Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg became speakers for the group, Jackie Corin and others handled the production and scheduling end of things, he says. They organized a nationwide school walkout on the one-month anniversary of the shootings. They bused supporters to Tallahassee and got new laws banning bump stocks, raising the gun purchase age to 21 and adding a three-day waiting period for most long-gun purchases.
Within six weeks of the shooting, they organized a massive March For Our Lives in Washington, with similar marches across the country.
Using Martin Luther King Jr.'s Six Principles of Nonviolence, they quickly learned that "nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people" and launched a massive Road To Change bus trip to meet with black and Latino students victimized by gun violence in Chicago and concerned students in Naperville, and throughout areas typically resistant to changes in gun laws, including stops in Texas, Alabama, Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, Utah and North Dakota. They registered voters and got credit for increasing young-voter turnout in Florida by 68 percent.
Traveling, visiting, calling and texting with the students throughout 2018, Cullen watched the movement unfold and has hopes for a safer America.
"It did recharge me, because now I can talk about solutions and kids doing something," says Cullen, who is doing plenty of media appearances this week to mark the anniversary of Parkland and discuss his second book about school shootings. "My worst nightmare is that I will have to write a third one. I want to be done with this. I want America to be done with this."
Book signingWhat: Author Dave Cullen signs copies of his new book, "Parkland," and talks about his two decades of covering mass shootings
Where: Anderson's Bookshop, 123 W. Jefferson Ave. in Naperville
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22
Cost: Free, but the book sells for $27.99
For details: Call (630) 355-2665 or visit andersonsbookshop.com/event/dave-cullen