School Climate & Safety

Reeling Under the Collective Media Lights

By Jessica Portner — May 05, 1999 2 min read
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It’s tough to check out a book at the Columbine Public Library these days.

FBI and local law-enforcement officers are manning phones at the main desk. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials are camped at reading tables in the entryway. The communications staff of the Jefferson County school system is ensconced in makeshift cubicles in the reference section behind the encyclopedias.

As traumatized Columbine High School students drifted over to the library after the April 20 shootings that left 15 dead, it became the de facto communications hub for law-enforcement, school, and emergency workers. They gathered about a mile from the school, amid the library’s volumes, to coordinate strategy and get their message out to the world media.

Less than 24 hours from the time Columbine seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 12 students, a teacher, and themselves, dozens of television trucks and vans had squeezed into a parking lot near the school.

Kristy Loghry, a secretary at Leawood Elementary School, about a block from the park that has become a media compound, said that when she left work the night of the shootings, “their trucks were lighting up the park like it was daylight.”

So many eager reporters flooded the doors of the library for updates and interviews the next day, that district officials recruited library employees to act as bouncers.

Volunteers Answer the Call

Communications workers for the the Jefferson County district, more accustomed to churning out press releases on the suburban school system’s stellar achievement scores than reporting how many pipe bombs were found in a school cafeteria, put out a call for help.

With the aid of the National School Public Relations Association, volunteers from school districts in numerous states--including Maryland, Missouri, Virginia, and Wisconsin--showed up at their Colorado colleagues’ doorstep.

A spokesman for the local teachers’ union, the Jefferson County Education Association, also lent a hand.

Communications-staff workers in the district nearly tripled, from seven people to 20. Last week, the new recruits wired the library with extra phone lines, coordinated schedules, arranged meetings, and wrote “talking points” for district officials.

“I don’t think any district has seen anything of this magnitude in terms of media. It’s overwhelming,” said Marilyn Saltzman, the manager of communications services for the Jefferson County schools. Ms. Saltzman says the public relations professionals still answer an estimated 200 calls each day from members of the media.

So far, the district has spent $10,000 on plane fare, other transportation costs, and overtime pay for communications personnel. Local auto dealerships have provided cars free of charge, and many businesses and restaurants have provided the communications center with everything from free lunches to hotel rooms for the out-of-towners.

Many school workers are weary of the attention. “We are all just waiting for the media to leave,” Ms. Loghry, the secretary at Leawood, said.

Ms. Saltzman said it’s often difficult to provide journalists with the answers they are looking for. “The biggest thing is people are looking for the whys, and I don’t know the answer to the question. People are trying to make sense of a senseless act.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 1999 edition of Education Week as Reeling Under the Collective Media Lights

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