School Climate & Safety

Colorado District Copes Amid Grief, Fear

By Jessica Portner — May 05, 1999 9 min read
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With their school still a crime scene, Columbine High School students were to return to classes this week at a neighboring high school--without their textbooks, backpacks, or 14 of their classmates.

Police said last week that Columbine would be closed indefinitely as they scour the building and its contents for clues about the April 20 shootings that left two young gunmen, 12 other students, and a popular teacher dead.

“I’m hoping someone will wake me up soon and this nightmare will be over,” Frank L. DeAngelis, the principal of Columbine High, said last week after a funeral for one of the students.

But the veteran administrator has had little time to dwell on the tragedy. Under the powerful microscope of the national and international media, he has been organizing crisis-response teams, preparing Columbine’s students and staff members to attend another Jefferson County school, and helping law-enforcement officials in their investigation.

Columbine students will attend nearby Chatfield High School for the remainder of the school year. Chatfield’s 1,900 students will attend classes during the day; Columbine’s nearly 2,000 students will attend in the afternoon.

The two schools are rivals in both athletic and academic performance, but Chatfield students last week prepared to welcome their competitors by displaying silver and blue ribbons, Columbine’s school colors, across the campus.

Heavily guarded by police, Chatfield’s teachers cleared off counter space and desks in classrooms to make room for the second shift; district leaders tried to assess supply needs.

Other police officials, meanwhile, continued to interview witnesses in an attempt to find out who, if anyone, may have helped seniors Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, plant more than 50 explosives in the Columbine High cafeteria and library before fatally shooting 13 people and then turning their guns on themselves.

As of late last week, seven of the 21 students injured in the attack remained hospitalizedtwo in serious condition, four in fair, and one in good condition.

Offers of support began flooding the Jefferson County school system the day of the shootings, said Barbara Monseu, the district’s area administrator.

The district has its headquarters here in Golden; Columbine High, which has a Littleton mailing address, is actually located in an unincorporated area of Jefferson County.

Ms. Monseu said organizations in Canada and France had called the district to offer assistance. Colorado Gov. Bill Owens promised $1 million to repair and renovate the school. Local restaurants dished out free food to school employees who have been working around the clock, and community members have offered everything from loaner cars to teddy bears.

“We have been inundated with offers from people and businesses,” Ms. Monseu said last week. For now, she added, Columbine teachers should have enough materials to get started in their temporary quarters at Chatfield High.

“Teachers aren’t just going to break into a lecture mode,” Ms. Monseu said. “It’s not going to be, ‘Magic, back to normal.’ People will have emotional needs,” she said.

Mr. DeAngelis has encouraged Columbine’s teachers to make certain accommodations on grading students in borderline cases this spring as an acknowledgment that students may have difficulty concentrating on Shakespeare or quadratic equations.

Counseling and Support

To attend to the students’ emotional needs, teams of federal, local, and state crisis-response teams and “victims’ advocates” quickly descended on Jefferson County. Crisis workers, who have compared the massacre and its likely aftereffects to the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, have been manning the halls of every school in the district for days, talking with grief-stricken and fearful teenagers and children.

At Leawood Elementary School last week, a counselor from the National Organization for Victims’ Assistance chatted with a 1st grader who had left class feeling nervous and queasy. This tidy school--the closest in the county school system to Columbine--turned into a command center for police the day of the shootings.

Many school staff members also have been shaken by the tragedy and are holding daily group-therapy sessions.

Kathleen Coldwell, the school nurse at both Columbine and Leawood, was visibly shaken last week as she described how thousands of people--students, parents, and crisis workers--swarmed into Leawood after the shootings. In the space of minutes, she learned from police that a student she worked with had sustained broken ribs in the incident and that another student had been shot in the head.

Then, a parent frantically searching for his child went into cardiac arrest in front of her. The 56-year-old nurse found a doctor in the crowd, called 911 for emergency medical help, and the man survived. “This was a day from hell,” Ms. Coldwell said.

In addition to the students left physically injured in the attack, many of the district’s 11,000 staff members and 89,000 students are showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, mental-health workers say.

“This was a war zone, and we were in the trenches,” said Kathy Sievering, a school psychologist at Little Elementary School who is helping to counsel students.

Added to that anxiety is the fear here that Mr. Harris and Mr. Klebold may have had accomplices who are yet to be identified.

Mr. DeAngelis, the Columbine principal, said that he believes others must have helped the two seniors plant a propane bomb found inside the kitchen the day of the shooting. “If you tell me there was a 20-pound propane tank with bombs in the kitchen sitting there for two days, you’re wrong. We would have noticed,” he said in an interview last week.

Continuing Investigation

Several details released by investigators in the county sheriff’s department last week helped reconstruct the crime. Authorities said that Mr. Klebold’s 18-year-old prom date had purchased two shotguns and a rifle at a recent gun show that were used in the attack.

The young woman was questioned last week and released from custody, officials said, adding that she was not currently a suspect.

“There are 600 leads on suspects and evidence that we are working on right now. We know [the two gunmen] didn’t work alone,” Jefferson County Deputy Sheriff Wayne Holverson said.

The sheriff’s office also released details of a diary that authorities said Mr. Harris had kept. The entries began in April of last year and included detailed drawings of the school. According to officials, the diary also outlined how the two boys routinely monitored rooms in the building and planned to situate the bombs to inflict the highest casualty rate.

“They wanted to do as much damage as they possibly could and destroy the school ... and go out in flames,” John Stone, the county sheriff, said at a news conference.

Warning Signs?

Some local residents continue to blame school personnel, police, and the gunmen’s parents for failing to respond to possible signs of Mr. Harris’ and Mr. Klebold’s capacity for violence.

On a Denver television news show, parent Judy Brown said she had submitted to police a transcript of Mr. Harris’ site on the World Wide Web in which the teenager threatened to kill her son. But police officials didn’t follow up, she said.

Ms. Brown, who is a neighbor of the Harris family, said: “The police had this handed to them on a silver platter, and they didn’t do anything. Because of that, people are dead.”

A spokesman for the sheriff’s office said the Browns had asked them not to approach Mr. Harris for fear that the teenager would retaliate against their son, who was not harmed the day of the attack.

While many people in this tight-knit community defended the parents of the two young men last week, an equal number said they seem to have ignored what, at least in retrospect, appeared to be warning signs that their sons were headed for serious trouble.

School officials also drew fire for a video that Mr. Harris and Mr. Klebold made featuring themselves involved in a mock shooting.

But Ms. Monseu said the boys had made the video at home, not at school, as some news reports have said. “The video teacher had clear rules about the content of the videos: no weapons or violence, and he enforced that.”

Ms. Monseu also responded to an allegation from a Columbine teacher that a dean of students at the school had informed school leaders that the two students had written graphically violent stories in class. Ms. Monseu confirmed that such stories were written, but she said she was still investigating whether the incidents were reported.

Even so, she added, writing a hate-filled essay for a class is not necessarily cause for disciplinary action.

Though Mr. Harris and Mr. Klebold were arrested last year after breaking into a car, they successfully completed a court-ordered diversion program just this spring.

The two students both had clean disciplinary records at school, Mr. DeAngelis said.

“We could have had the National Guard at our school on Tuesday, and they couldn’t have prevented this from happening,” the principal said.

Debate continues to rage in the news media and among academic experts about whether such influences as the violent video games the boys played or the music they listened to contributed to their actions. Those skeptical about such explanations note that millions of young people are exposed to violence-laden entertainment but don’t shoot classmates or try to blow up their schools.

Moving On

One thing Mr. DeAngelis said he would like to change is communication between the school and the community. For instance, the principal said he wished the Brown family had shown the material from Mr. Harris’ Web site to him as well as to the local police.

School nurses and mental-health workers here, meanwhile, are making a case for additional personnel. They argue that they are best equipped to defuse students’ emotional problems before they escalate into crises.

Currently, some 400 mental-health workers are employed in the Jefferson County schools. “We are stretched very thin,” Ms. Coldwell, the Columbine High nurse, said.

District leaders have not determined how they will spend the millions of dollars pledged to them in state and federal disaster relief. But bills, they say, are piling up: The district estimates that more than $50,000 has already been spent on emergency training, plane fares, supplies, and overtime pay. And the district will spend an estimated $300,000 beefing up security at schools through the summer.

Jane Hammond, the superintendent of the county schools, said she was reluctant to commit to adding additional security in the long term. “We don’t want to turn our schools into prisons,” she said last week.

Many students believe it would be a concession to their attackers if they didn’t all return to school.

But Christopher Fielding, a 15-year-old Columbine freshman who was eating a hamburger at a nearby McDonald’s restaurant when the student gunmen began their assault, says he is jittery about setting foot in any school.

At lunch, he usually sat at the same table with Steven Curnow, 14, who was shot multiple times and died in the attack.

“That’s where I would’ve been, right where he was,” Mr. Fielding said. “Maybe I won’t be so lucky next time.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 1999 edition of Education Week as Colorado District Copes Amid Grief, Fear

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