School Climate & Safety

Columbine High: Five Years Later

By Marianne D. Hurst — April 14, 2004 15 min read
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A few weeks before the fifth anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings, Principal Frank DeAngelis settled into his office chair to reflect on how his school has changed over the past five years.

Most of the teachers and administrators who staffed the school before the killings here have left. The building has undergone an internal makeover. New security cameras track the movements of people in the building. And there is a heightened awareness, among everyone, of the potential for violence.

Mr. DeAngelis, the only administrator who remains from five years ago, said he has tried to keep the school focused on the present and the future, not the past. Yet, the principal said, he still struggles with the memories of what happened at the Colorado school on April 20, 1999.

“People don’t realize—there’s not a date it will return to normal,” he said. “It will never be the same at Columbine High School. I will never be the same.”

Much like “9/11"—the shorthand for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States— “Columbine” carries a chilling meaning that resonates across the country. That meaning runs even deeper here in the 85,000-student Jefferson County, Colo., school district.

But now, with a mostly different set of teachers, and an enrollment made up of students who were not at Columbine High the year of the shootings, the school—at least on the surface—has changed in some important ways since two student gunmen shot 24 people, killing 12 students and one teacher, before taking their own lives.

Education Week was allowed to visit the school during its March spring break. School officials said they did not want students present during the visit because they wanted to protect the teenagers from the intense media attention the school has continued to experience.

Internal Makeover

Columbine High School was one of three schools Jefferson County built in the early 1970s for about $9 million each. Mr. DeAngelis, a 49-year-old with short black hair and a weathered expression who has been on the school’s staff for 25 years, contrasts the building then and now. Initially, it had a very open floor plan, he says. The classrooms had no doors, and the walls could be opened into several rooms.

Then, in 1992, a bond paid for upgrades, and the building was gutted, leaving only the four outside walls, before being redesigned. By the time the renovations were completed in 1995, the school was two sweeping levels with wide hallways and a sea of dark-blue lockers.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1999 shootings, while Columbine students attended nearby Chatfield High School, workers removed the carpets in the main hallways, repaired the bullet- riddled walls, lockers, and classrooms, and moved the library to a trailer on school grounds.

In addition, the school installed a security system that Mr. DeAngelis described as “second to none.” Now, more than 18 security cameras dot the hallways, an automated gate system can seal off sections of the school if an intruder enters, and a computerized identification-card system limits access to the building outside regular school hours.

Although many people also called for metal detectors, student-tracking systems, and security guards, district and school administrators resisted those measures. The officials said they didn’t want to make the school feel like a prison.

Still, the physical changes to the building didn’t go far enough for many parents.

In 2000, Healing of People Everywhere, or HOPE, a private, Denver-based organization formed by the families of the students and teachers who were killed or injured at Columbine, raised nearly $3.5 million and ripped up the old library floor, which was above the cafeteria. HOPE then built a vast atrium in that spot, with a mural on the ceiling depicting a swirl of trees underneath a beautiful blue sky.

“The parents felt [the library] needed to be opened up,” Mr. DeAngelis said. “It would have been too difficult for staff and students to go in” the old library again. Ten of the student victims were killed in the library, and that is where the gunmen, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, committed suicide.

HOPE also covered the construction cost of a new 13,900-square-foot library, which opened in April 2001, on the southwest side of the building.

Columbine parents worked with an architect to design the new library, which displays low book stacks, glass-enclosed cubicles for special activities, a 400-gallon salt-water fish tank, and a “smart classroom” containing a big-screen plasma TV where students can gather to use videoconferencing technologies or make PowerPoint presentations.

One wall of the library, made up almost entirely of glass, makes the room feel as if it is spilling open beneath the black shadows of the Rocky Mountains in the distance.

Teacher Turnover

In Mr. DeAngelis’ office, the eyes in a trim little picture frame seem to stare around the room, following those who enter. The face of the man in the picture is serene, delicately detailed in pastels that highlight his full, appraising expression— a small smile, receding grayish-brown hair, and black-rimmed glasses.

Dave Sanders, the 48-year-old business and computer teacher who died from a gunshot wound in the 1999 shootings, is always on Mr. DeAngelis’ mind.

“I was talking to a staff member [the day it happened],” the principal recalls. “My secretary ran in and said that there was gunfire downstairs. As I walked out [of the main office] I saw [one of the students] firing.”

Suddenly, Mr. DeAngelis was in a rain of gunfire. The glass windows of the administrative wing shattered behind him and sprayed shards. His secretary, who dived for cover, thought he was dead.

All that saved him from standing there paralyzed by shock, Mr. DeAngelis said, were two girls who were getting ready to walk out into the hall. “I stopped them and went to another part of the building,” he said. At the time, he wasn’t sure why the gunmen didn’t hunt him down.

But when local police released a huge body of evidence to the public on Feb. 26 of this year, Mr. DeAngelis found out why. Among the piles of paperwork, shotgun shells, and gruesome physical evidence from the shootings, he saw a still video picture taken by one of the school’s security cameras. It showed Mr. Sanders running up a stairwell. The time stamp on the video picture read 11:26 a.m., just a few minutes after Mr. DeAngelis and the girls ducked out of the main hall to safety.

“Dave distracted their attention,” he says softly. “If Dave had not come up the stairs …"

Mr. DeAngelis suggests that memories such as this, in large part, are the reason many staff members eventually chose to leave Columbine behind them.

While nearly 75 percent of the teaching staff returned to the high school for the 1999-2000 school year, fewer than 30 of the 158 faculty members of spring 1999 remain in 2004, representing an 80 percent turnover in five years.

“We all struggle with why we survived,” said Mr. DeAngelis, who doesn’t fault anyone for deciding to leave. “They needed change,” he said of the staff members who have left. “It was very difficult to walk into this building without thinking” about the shootings.

‘Rebuild or Leave’

Mental-health experts agree that returning to a school after a traumatic experience there involving violence can be difficult. Who returns and who leaves depends on a variety of factors, including where individuals were in the building when the violence occurred, what they saw, their past experiences, and individual backgrounds.

“Their sense of safety is shattered,” said Marleen Wong, the director of school crisis and intervention at the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Duke University. She worked at Columbine in the aftermath of the shootings as a mental-health consultant.

According to district officials, because the staff at Columbine was largely a veteran group, many teachers who left simply opted for early retirement. Others moved to other schools in the Jefferson County district, and many of them chose middle schools where they could be close to their own children.

Only a few actually left the state for different teaching jobs, and a just a handful quit the teaching profession, district officials said.

Some teachers, like Lee Andres, still call Columbine home. Mr. Andres, a 41-year-old music teacher and a 1980 Columbine graduate, hid with his class in the school auditorium for 20 minutes during the shootings before leading the teenagers to safety.

He chose to stay at Columbine despite the strain of the experience. “When your house burns down, you can either rebuild or leave,” he said in an interview in March. “I decided to rebuild.”

He says, however, that the stress was too great for some, such as a colleague who was trapped in a closet while the gunmen wreaked havoc in an area nearby.

For the administrative staff, the upheaval also took a toll. Seven of the eight administrators who were here in 1999 have left the school.

Mark Townsend, the president of the Colorado PTA and a veteran high school teacher, isn’t surprised at the administrative turnover.

“The administrators were the ones who had to deal with it,” he said. “As a teacher, you have your own little kingdom. Teachers are more insulated. The administrators aren’t. It’s no surprise that they’re all gone.”

For faculty members who stayed, one change to come from the events five years ago has been improved communication among the staff. For example, a state law passed in 2000, spurred by the Columbine shootings, directs law enforcement to inform schools if any of their students have criminal records.

Before the shootings, information about criminal acts committed by students—such as arson, assault, vandalism, and shoplifting—were kept confidential to prevent a teacher from labeling a student.

Now, if a student is simply arrested for a crime, the police department automatically notifies the school. The two gunmen had a history of criminal activity.

Teachers, too, are a little more apt to look for red flags, Mr. Andres said. But he maintains that no one labels students, and that Columbine “is an average high school, where kids say ‘thank you’ and ‘please.’”

In fact, he said he’s distressed by what he sees as myths about the school that he believes were generated by the news media, including the idea that bullying jocks, and teachers who looked the other way, contributed to the motivation of the two gunmen. Many news reports quoted students as saying that was the atmosphere at Columbine.

Mr. Andres disputes those claims. “You could count the number of fights [at the school] on one hand—then and now,” he said.

‘Feelings Are Very Raw’

Still, many students and people in the community remain deeply troubled by what happened at the school—although they don’t like to talk about it, some district officials suggested.

The heavy emphasis on moving on has fostered a subconscious resistance to discussing “what has been learned” from Columbine, said Dexter Meyer, the director of communications for the 6,000- member Jefferson County Education Association and a former district middle school counselor.

Mr. Meyer was not surprised that students now attending the school, as well as Columbine teachers and parents, declined to speak to an Education Week reporter about the school.

The bigger problem, Mr. Meyer said, is that the community silence extends beyond media inquiries. Some district officials acknowledged that an element of denial has made conversations concerning student mental health and educational improvement difficult to engage in.

For example, the district doesn’t have an elementary school counseling program, an issue some district officials believe should be addressed.

All schools in Jefferson County have formal crisis-response booklets, and principals and staff members are trained in what to do if violent students or intruders enter a school.

But Mr. Meyer argued that the district made some miscalculations that have affected current attitudes. One big one, in his view, was not allowing people at Columbine and throughout the district time to mourn immediately after the shootings.

"[The district] kept schools open in the interest of continuity [for students]” Mr. Meyer said. “As a result, we didn’t spend enough time talking to the staff.”

Mr. Meyer said district officials provided additional mental- health personnel, but a formal memorial service wasn’t held until almost a year after the shootings. Attendance at the memorial was low, he said, and anger about the way the aftermath of the shootings was handled by the district still ripples through the community.

“Feelings are very raw,” he said. “Almost everybody knew somebody who had taught in that school, … [so] even the new staff are very sensitive.”

Although school officials deny that a “gag order” exists on discussing the shootings—as one former student has alleged in an interview with Education Week—Mr. Meyer suggested that there is an informal consensus not to discuss the events.

For instance, the school district issued a teacher guide in the fall of 2002 concerning the Showtime release of “Bang!Bang! You’re Dead!,” a TV production of a play about Columbine-like violence. (“Acting on Impulse,” March 13, 2002.)

The cable channel also sent counselors to the school to discuss an advance screening of the show. But only four staff members, most of them mental-health professionals, and the principal attended.

“It’s the desire to put it behind them,” Mr. Meyer said. “There’s a resistance by teachers to talk about it. They just don’t want to.”

Enrollment Drops

Today, Columbine High School, along with many other schools in Jefferson County, is experiencing a decline in its enrollment and is struggling to maintain many electives and extracurricular programs and some full-time members of the teaching staff.

The school, which once enrolled more than 2,000 students, has a projected 2004-05 enrollment of 1,680, and those figures are expected to continue to drop.

School leaders say the declining enrollment has nothing to do with the shootings. They say the area—an established, affluent suburb of Denver—has simply reached its maximum building capacity and is no longer a starter community for young families.

But the struggle for normality at the school and within the community has left many people wondering if the declining enrollment is a result of the shootings.

As lawsuit after lawsuit was filed in the wake of the incident, and the desire to assign blame grew stronger, dissension spread across the community.

Much of the blame was directed at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, which was faced with 15 lawsuits. All were dismissed, with the exception of the action filed by Dave Sanders’ family, which argued that the teacher might have survived had the police department allowed paramedics to enter the building sooner. The family settled for $1 million.

Other families also eventually settled with the sheriff’s department for between $15,000 and $25,000 each.

Law-enforcement tactics have now changed. The “surround and wait” police tactics that were used at Columbine are now a thing of the past, said Stephen W. Wahlberg, a lawyer in Englewood, Colo., who represented injured students and their families.

“SWAT teams will now go in [to schools] instead of screwing around,” he said. “The notion that gunmen will have free range to go through shooting people is over.”

But the heightened awareness about the potential for violence has also led to an atmosphere of overreaction, Mr. Wahlberg said.

“A kid got expelled two years ago at an elementary school [in a nearby county] for threatening to beat someone up,” he said. “That wouldn’t have happened pre- Columbine.” Now, he said, “it’s like a one strike and you’re out at Columbine and other schools in Colorado.”

“I’m not discounting that threats can be bad and lead to violence,” Mr. Wahlberg continued, “but when you’re dealing with 5th and 6th graders?”

Divided PTA

Over the past five years, the school community has been divided by more than legal opinion.

The Colorado PTA found itself caught up in an angry tide of parents and community leaders associated with Columbine High School, who argued with each other over everything from how to run the school’s booster club to plans for fund- raisers. “You name it, they fought about,” said Mr. Townsend, the current state PTA president.

“It’s been an interesting transition,” he continued. “The culture [of the Columbine PTA] developed into, at first, one of: ‘Oh, dear God. What are we gonna do? What will happen?’ A large number of people wanted to assign responsibility.”

As the months passed and questions remained unanswered, parents began to disagree. When a new class of freshmen entered Columbine in fall 1999, an adversarial culture developed among the school’s parents, Mr. Townsend said. The parents of senior students, whose families had been at the center of the crisis, discounted the viewpoints of the newcomers, and communications broke down.

The atmosphere deteriorated so much that the state PTA, in an unprecedented move, stepped in and took over the day-to-day operations of the Columbine PTA.

State PTA officers, with the aid of Principal DeAngelis, worked to revive the lines of communication and stabilize operations. Finally, during the 2001-02 school year, operations grew less strained, and state PTA officials returned control to local officials.

‘A Place to Go’

For Frank DeAngelis, the decision to stay at Columbine was not an easy one. Over the past five years, he has witnessed the struggle—both among students and his colleagues—to move on.

He recalled last month, with vivid detail, an incident when he and the Columbine students were still at Chatfield High School. Some balloons that were curved to form a decorative archway inside the building suddenly popped, and several students ducked for cover.

Like some teachers who have remained at the school, the principal said he still feels troubled sometimes when he walks down the hall, and he tries not to flinch at the sound of police sirens.

But since that day in 1999, he said, time has helped heal emotional wounds.

“Columbine served as a wake-up call for the nation,” he said. “The biggest thing that needs to be done nationwide is making sure that kids have a place to go” to express themselves and seek help.

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