School Climate & Safety

Suits, Memorials Mark Columbine Anniversary

By Jessica Portner & Alan Richard — April 26, 2000 3 min read

Amid memorial services last week marking the one-year anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings, parents of some of the victims filed lawsuits claiming that local authorities had failed to protect their children.

Parents of 14 students who were either injured or killed in the April 20, 1999, massacre filed nine lawsuits last week against the Jefferson County, Colo., sheriff’s office. The suits were filed just before the anniversary of the tragedy, which claimed the lives of 14 studentsincluding the two gunmenand one teacher. More than 20 students were injured.

Meanwhile, a resurgence of the threats and bomb scares that plagued schools nationwide last year in the weeks after the incident forced scattered school closings last week. Schools in Colorado, New Hampshire, and California, among other places, were affected.

The legal actions in Colorado came as school officials in Jefferson County, a Denver suburb, held low-key memorial ceremonies honoring the dead.

The anniversary marked a deadline for the families of victims to bring legal claims, and the suits came soon after a federal judge allowed the families and their lawyers access to documents from the investigation.

While the lawsuits sought damages from the sheriff’s office, a deadline for filing claims against the Jefferson County school system came and went.

“We have a great sense of relief and a sense of pride in the way things were handled,” said Cindy Stephenson, the deputy superintendent for the 89,000-student district.

While none of the parents who had lost children in the shootings sued the district last week, parents of injured students still have a year to file claims.

‘Friendly Fire’ Alleged

The lawsuits accused the sheriff’s office of several missteps before the shootings and on the day of the tragedy.

The most startling claim was that a law-enforcement officer, and not the two teenage gunmen, killed Daniel Rohrbough, one of the first students to die that day.

Several suits accuse Sheriff John P. Stone and senior officers of failing to stop the killers. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were left “at large to roam the school, firing weapons, throwing bombs, and shooting innocent children and teachers,” one suit claims.

The lawsuits also charge that officers did little to help students and employees who were trapped for hours in the school’s library, where 10 were killed.

In their lawsuit, the parents of Isaiah Shoels, one of the 12 student victims, also named the parents of the two killers. Their lawsuit also claims the sheriff’s office acted negligently by failing to act on information on a World Wide Web site that Mr. Harris and Mr. Klebold had threatened to kill their son and that the students were amassing weapons.

“We plan on holding the police accountable,” Michael Shoels, Isaiah’s father, said in a statement last week.

The sheriff’s office declined to respond to specific allegations in the lawsuits. But in a written response, Frank Hutfless, the Jefferson County attorney, dismissed the charges of negligence as unfounded. “We are confident that the claims are without any legal merit, and we will defend them vigorously,” he wrote last week.

And in local news reports, sheriff’s officials denied that any of the victims were shot by officers.

The parents of the two gunmen did not respond to the suits and were unavailable for comment.

At the school itself, which has struggled to overcome the tragedy, only half the students were present on the anniversary.

Those who did attend classes gathered at a ceremony at a nearby park and released balloons into the air in honor of their fallen classmates. “It was a difficult week,” said Ms. Stephenson. “Everyone handled this with grace and dignity.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2000 edition of Education Week as Suits, Memorials Mark Columbine Anniversary

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