16 School Shootings That Took Place Before Columbine

On April 20, 1999, teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold gunned down their classmates and teachers at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, killing 15 people and wounding 24. This tragedy sent shock waves through the nation as communities struggled to understand what could cause students to carry out such violence at school.

While we often consider Columbine to be the first school shooting of the modern era, there were a shockingly large number of school shootings before that tragic event. From the very first school shooting in the 18th century, to sniper Charles Whitman, who enacted the actual first school mass shooting in modern US history, to Brenda Spencer, a female shooter who not only defied the "loner white male" stereotype but also inspired a pop song by the Boomtown Rats. Here's a look at some terrifying school shootings that happened before Columbine.


  • The Enoch Brown School Massacre
    Photo: Smallbones / Wikipedia Commons / CC0 1.0

    The Enoch Brown Massacre is thought to be the earliest known killing to occur on school property in what would one day become the United States. On July 26, 1764, a group of Lenape American Indians entered a schoolhouse near Greencastle, PA, and clubbed and scalped schoolmaster Enoch Brown and killed 9 or 10 of his children (precise numbers vary). Only two children survived.

  • St. Mary's Parochial School

    St. Mary's Parochial School
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    On April 9, 1891, elderly James Foster fired his shotgun at a group of children playing in front of St. Mary's Parochial School in Newburgh, NY. None of the children were killed, but many were injured. Foster's motivations were unclear

  • South Pasadena Junior High School

    South Pasadena Junior High School
    Photo: Wehwalt / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    On May 6, 1940, Verlin Spencer, the 38-year-old principal of South Pasadena Junior High School, shot three school officials, killed five of his colleagues and left another seriously injured. Spencer had a long history of clashes with faculty and staff and was forced to serve a three-week involuntary leave of absence the year prior.

    When cornered by police, he shot himself in a suicide attempt but survived and served 30 years in prison.

    Three years later, Spencer learned the blood sample taken after his arrest was found to have high levels of bromide, a popular painkiller he took for headaches. While the amount was high enough to render him legally insane at the time of the shooting, he did not receive a retrial.

  • Swarthmore College

    On January 12, 1955, Robert B. Bechtel slipped into the dorm room of a sleeping student at Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College. Bechtel shot the student in his sleep, killing him, before walking through the dorm randomly firing shots into the walls. Bechtel stopped shooting before anyone else was killed.

    Bechtel claimed he had been repeatedly harassed by his victim. Bechtel was acquitted on murder charges when he was found not guilty by reason of insanity.