A Colo. Community Looks for Answers After Deadly Attack

By Jessica Portner — April 28, 1999 7 min read
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School officials, police, and local leaders in Jefferson County, Colo., worked round the clock last week trying to pick up the emotional pieces of a community torn apart by two students with firearms and an arsenal of explosives.

In the deadliest school shooting in the nation’s history, the two seniors at Columbine High School in suburban Denver killed 12 of their fellow students and one teacher April 20 before taking their own lives. More than 20 others were wounded, many of them seriously.

“We are still a little shell-shocked,” Jane Goff, the president of the Jefferson County Education Association, which represents 3,600 teachers, said late last week. “We are angry this thing happened. Everybody wants to know why. Everybody is grieving.”

Ms. Hammond assured parents that the district “is taking every step to ensure the safety and well-being of students, staff, and parents at the school.” But, she added, “it would be very difficult to prepare for what has happened.”

The Columbine High shootings brought inevitable reminders of a series of school slayings that shocked the country during the 1997-98 school year. A year ago last month, four students and a teacher were killed when two boys opened fire at a middle school in Jonesboro, Ark.; last May, two students were fatally shot and 22 were wounded at a high school in Springfield, Ore.

And there were scattered reports last week that school authorities in a number of states were dealing with threats of “copycat” incidents.

Grim Scene

Jefferson County police described last week’s scene at Columbine High School as gruesome: Officers combed through bomb damage and debris to find students’ bodies in pools of blood, a teacher shot in the chest at point-blank range, and the two teenage assailants dead in the cafeteria after apparently turning their guns on themselves.

Police continued to investigate how 18-year-old Eric D. Harris and 17-year-old Dylan Klebold had assembled an arsenal that included at least 30 bombs, in addition to two sawed-off 12-gauge shotguns, a 9 mm semiautomatic rifle, and a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol that were found at the scene. The authorities also were seeking to determine if the two had any accomplices.

Meanwhile, the district and local health and community centers opened their doors to the grieving and held all-day memorials in the days after the killings. Funerals began at the end of last week, though most were scheduled for early this week.

Kay Pride, a spokeswoman for the Jefferson County district, said school officials have started an investigation into what actions might have been taken to identify how troubled Mr. Harris and Mr. Klebold were before they went on their rampage.

At a Glance:
Columbine High School
Location: Jefferson County, Colo., a suburb of Denver
Grades: 9-12
Enrollment: 1,965
Student Population: 90 percent white
Columbine High School was built in 1973 and underwent a $13.4 million renovation in 1995. The school is noted for both its academic and its athletic records. Its students consistently score higher than state and national norms on the SAT and ACT college-entrance exams. Columbine has won numerous state champtionships in baseball, soccer, and basketball.
SOURCE: Jefferson County School District.

She said the district, which has one of the best academic-achievement records in the state, has had few brushes with violence and is “one of the real jewels of Colorado.”

District officials planned to increase security at all schools, Ms. Pride said, at least in the short term. Columbine High School currently has two unarmed campus supervisors and one armed officer from the Jefferson County sheriff’s department. Although the school has a Littleton mailing address, it is actually in an unincorporated area of Jefferson County.

‘Students Were Screaming’

Whatever the security arrangements, members of the Columbine High community may find it difficult to return to their campus.

As much as she loves her school, Sheryl Lucas, a veteran English teacher, said she’s not eager to go back.

Recounting the day of the shootings in a telephone interview, Ms. Lucas said she had just sat down for her $2 lunch in the cafeteria when she heard business teacher William D. “Dave” Sanders shout to the roughly 900 students there that an armed intruder was entering the lunchroom.

“Sanders yelled, ‘They’ve got a gun,’ and we all went down on our hands and knees. Nobody asked any questions. Everybody hit the ground,” Ms. Lucas said. “Students were screaming. It was too surreal.”

Mr. Sanders, 42, who was widely credited with having shepherded numerous students to safety, was later found shot to death. He was the only faculty member to die in the incident.

“I love teaching at this school,” Ms. Lucas said, “and it just took two lunatics to destroy so much.”

Profound grief often turned into anger last week as parents and teachers repeatedly asked why no one was able to predict--and prevent--the tragedy.

“Where were their parents when their kids were building pipe bombs in their own home?” said Heather Rosson, whose 9-year-old son attends an elementary school in the district. “It scares me that parents are so detached.”

The parents of Mr. Harris and Mr. Klebold issued statements expressing their sorrow. “Like the rest of the country, we are struggling to understand why this happened,” the Klebold family’s prepared statement said.

The portrait of the assailants that emerged in news reports last week was of two students, ridiculed by many of their classmates, who were part of a small clique called the “Trenchcoat Mafia.” Mr. Harris and Mr. Klebold, both from middle-class homes, reportedly shared an animus toward student athletes and a fascination with firearms and explosives, violence-related computer games, and Nazis. Their April 20 spree came on the 110th anniversary of the birth of Adolf Hitler.

Their student victims ranged from freshmen to seniors: eight boys and four girls, nearly all of them white. One boy was African-American; another had a Hispanic surname. About half the students had been involved in school sports.

“I don’t think people hated them,” Josh Ortwein, an 18-year-old senior, said of Mr. Klebold and Mr. Harris. “It was more of a general dislike because they were really radical in their actions and beliefs.

“People knew there was something kind of wrong with them,” he said in a phone interview.

Feelings of rejection and anger typically underlie the kind of violence seen at Columbine High, experts on youth violence say.

How Much Security?

Looking back, some staff members wondered whether the school might have missed certain warning signs.

Ms. Lucas, the English teacher, said that both Mr. Harris and Mr. Klebold had written stories in class “about war and killing that were horribly, graphically violent.” She said that the dean of students tried to have the two boys reprimanded but that “no action was taken.”

“In a free society, you can’t take action until they’ve committed some horrific crime because they are guaranteed freedom of speech,” she said.

Weighing individual liberties against concern for safety involves a sensitive balancing act for school leaders, some officials and experts noted last week.

Ms. Pride, the spokeswoman for the Jefferson County schools, warned against overreacting and relying too heavily on beefing up security. Do you “make a high school into an armed prison camp where there are metal detectors that make kids feel imprisoned,” she said, “or do you count on people’s basic goodness and put good rules in place?”

And despite the scale of the Columbine High shootings, Vincent Schiraldi, the director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute, warned against seeing school violence as the norm.

More than 3,000 U.S. children are killed each year, he said, but few of those deaths occur at school.

When a school shooting occurs, it gets saturation news coverage precisely because it’s so unusual, he said.

“My fear is people will start to overreact and kick kids out for telling a joke at school about killing Barney,” he said.

School health experts said a constructive way to deal with such horrific incidents is to promote conciliation.

“Instead of talking about crime and crises, maybe we need to focus on what we have to do to have a peaceful, harmonious experience,” said Judy Eigo, a professor of nursing at the University of Colorado in Denver, who was aiding crisis-intervention workers last week.

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 1999 edition of Education Week as A Colo. Community Looks for Answers After Deadly Attack


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