Littleton: A Case of Mistaken Geographic Identification

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Columbine High School sits just three miles from the office of Superintendent James A. Weatherill of the Littleton, Colo., public schools.

But while Columbine's mailing address is Littleton, the school actually sits across county and school district lines in an unincorporated area of Jefferson County. Both the Littleton school district and the town of that name are in neighboring Arapahoe County.

News reports about the April 20 shootings at Columbine have routinely identified the Jefferson County high school as being in Littleton, however. As a result, Littleton district and city officials have been inundated with thousands of phone calls, faxes, and e-mails about the deadly incident from across the country and around the world.

"Within 30 minutes of it happening, it was broadcast around the world as taking place in Littleton," said Kelli D. Narde, a spokeswoman for the Littleton mayor's office. "Every single office in the city has been deluged, from the library to the police department."

But, Mr. Weatherill said last week, the fallout from the geographic mix-up has been a small price to pay compared to the magnitude of the tragedy that unfolded in a neighboring community that was--and remains--inextricably linked with Littleton.

Columbine High is just a mile outside the Littleton school district's western border. The district's high schoolers date students at Columbine. Littleton district and city employees have children, friends, or relatives who attend or work at Columbine.

Such links mean the Columbine incident has taken a heavy toll on both the town of Littleton and its 16,000-student school system.

On the day of the shootings that left 14 Columbine students and one teacher dead, five of the Littleton district's 27 schools were sealed in a lock-down because they were located near Columbine. Under that procedure, no one was allowed in or out of the schools until police determined that the situation at Columbine was contained.

The Littleton schools have remained open since the incident, but the district has substantially boosted security and made counselors available to students and staff districtwide, Superintendent Weatherill said.

'Normal' a Long Way Off

Arapahoe County, with Littleton as its county seat, is home to 314,000 people. Jefferson County has a population of 515,000; its school district, Colorado's largest, has 89,000 K-12 students.

Although Littleton has become a Denver suburb as the city has boomed to the south, residents of the solidly middle-class community of 40,000 say it has retained a small-town feel, with tack shops selling harnesses and horse feed in its historic downtown.

The town's law-enforcement officers were among the first on the scene at Columbine and remain involved in the investigation, Ms. Narde said. The city's fire-protection unit covers Columbine High and was called out for the crisis.

When the chance arises, Littleton officials try to clarify the geographic confusion, Ms. Narde said, "but it's not our priority. We're trying to respond to the citizens of Littleton and help Jefferson County in any way we can."

Mayor Pat Cronenberger even received a condolence call from Vice President Al Gore the night of the shootings.

"She told him that she very much appreciated his call and his words of condolence, but that they most appropriately ought to be directed to Jefferson County," Ms. Narde said. "He said he was very sorry he had disturbed her, and he went on his way."

Bit by bit, signs of normalcy are returning to the Littleton schools. The flags still fly at half-staff, but absenteeism among students is down and, for now, senior graduation ceremonies are still scheduled for the end of the month.

"But I don't think 'normal' is ever coming back," Mr. Weatherill said. "We're playing under a new set of rules now. And we're not even sure what they are yet."

Vol. 18, Issue 34, Page 13

Published in Print: May 5, 1999, as Littleton: A Case of Mistaken Geographic Identification
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