Who owns the Columbine tragedy?

As reporters swarm on the first day of school, students will try to "take back" their high school and put the massacre behind them.


Dave Cullen
August 16, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

A battle for "ownership" of the Columbine High School tragedy will commence
Monday morning as reporters descend on the scarred high school for the
back-to-school media bonanza. Ironically, the main story will likely be a
giant choreographed ritual, where students symbolically "Take Back the
School" from the media, who they believe have turned their home into a
national symbol of mass murder and youth violence.

Even as they gleefully report that story, of course, hundreds of reporters
will work feverishly to disprove it, undermining its veracity by their very
existence here.

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Monday's event will wrap up a week of bitter wrangling between the media
and Columbine officials over how to cover the back-to-school
event, and over the general issue of how the media dealt with the killings.
Last Monday about 40 media representatives sat down with half a dozen
school district officials, flanked by victims' advocates and social
scientists, in a Holiday Inn just west of Denver, for an event billed as
"Media Guidelines Summit." Both national and local media were well-represented, including the network affiliates, local papers, the New York
Times, Washington Post, NPR, CNN and the Associated Press.

The invitation and agenda were filled with conciliatory phrases like
"balance the interests," "exchange ideas" and "discussion." But the
meeting quickly degenerated into ultimatums and ended with major national
print media reps huddling in the back plotting legal action.

Columbine officials tried to explain why the media coverage to date was
harmful to students. University of Colorado Professor Donald Bechtold told
reporters that students are still in the early stages of bereavement and
post-traumatic response, and the constant repetition of the same images --
SWAT teams, bloody students, crying parents -- is damaging. Students'
recovery depends on changing destructive images, he said. Victims' advocate
Robin Finegan, who worked with survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing, agreed.
"With mass tragedies, there comes a point where victims need to have
ownership of their tragedy," she said.

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So far, the media has owned the Columbine tragedy. Most resentment has
focused on the national media, which swarmed in the days and weeks after the
killings, and still occasionally descends for the odd story. The local media
has been more respectful, but it's continued to work the story
relentlessly. Three months after the tragedy, the Denver Post and Rocky
Mountain News were still running several stories a day. In July alone, the
two papers ran a combined 120 Columbine stories, for an average of nearly
four a day. By late last week, the impending back-to-school peg
had them ratcheting back up to a combined average of 10 a day.

So Columbine officials have designed an event to let students "Take Back
the School." At the media summit, it was announced that students and staff
would gather at 7:30 a.m. Monday for a rally. After a rousing speech from
Principal Frank DeAngelis, the half-mast flag will be raised full-staff for
the first time since April 20, symbolically ending the period of
mourning. A ribbon around the school will then be cut, and DeAngelis will
lead students and faculty in to retake their school. The controversial part
was a plan to put the students inside a safe zone surrounded by an enormous
human chain of parents and alumni.

"What's the human chain for?" asked a reporter.

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"To shield the students from you folk," said Rick Kaufman, district
communications director. He added that a small media pool -- two fixed TV
cameras, one print reporter, one print photographer and one radio reporter
-- would be escorted into the interior to transmit the story to the
hundreds of reporters huddled outside.

Reporters quickly protested, insisting that even the White House doesn't
limit its pool that tightly. But Kaufman stood firm: "This is what it is."
And he told them the press pool itself was a bargaining chip, designed to
ensure compliance with the district's next set of demands: no helicopters,
no rooftop photographers and no breach of school grounds. "If we can't get
agreement then there's no pool," he said.

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Media folks were outraged at the limited pool access. "You've gone to great
lengths to create a wonderful image of opening day," a senior national
print correspondent said. "If you want to change the image of your school,
you need to let us see and hear that so that we can describe it to our
readers." He argued that a pool would produce "a very flat, a very
one-dimensional kind of projection, which I think is antithetical to what
you're trying to achieve."

Kaufman acknowledged the problem, but explained that his back was to the
wall from angry parents who objected even to a media pool. "Parents and
faculty, they have really hit the wall with you folks. They're saying,
'We're done! Enough is enough.'"

Media reps were undaunted. "As long as parents understand that by saying no
to everything, again it's going to be a situation where we're coming out of
rocks and stuff in order to get sound and pictures," a TV executive said.
"And I wonder if the parents really understand, if they think they control
us by just saying no, they're really not, they're forcing us to go in other
directions."

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By Thursday, the district had agreed to a compromise, borrowed from
media-weary survivors of the Oklahoma City explosion: A press "bullpen"
will be set up within the planned human shield, between the parking lot and
the rally point. Reporters will be cordoned off within the bullpen
throughout the day, where interested students can stop to talk on their way
to and from school. The press pool was also expanded by two members. In
return, participating press organizations have agreed not to approach students for
interviews on school grounds, or to photograph any of the injured students.

Columbine officials have also had to fend off criticism that they created a
climate of intolerance toward students on the fringes that helped lead to
the April massacre. In the first days after the killings came reports that
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had been teased and harassed by Columbine
athletes and taunted by rumors that they were
gay.
Then followed a series of scathing press reports that indeed
documented charges of abusive behavior by some of the jocks, whom many
students have characterized as "ruling the school." Many students have
criticized faculty and administration for looking the other way and
granting special privileges to athletes.

The school has also come under increasing attack from its few minority
members. Six families recently formed a group called Concerned Columbine
Minority Parents, circulating T-shirts, bumper stickers and letterhead with
the slogan "We Are Columbine Too."

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Leader Tammy Theus was radicalized into action when she visited the school
on June 2 and read the following graffito etched into a wall in the girls'
restroom: "I wonder why the niggers and Mexicans don't go back where they
came from -- the other side of the rock."

The group is concerned with graffiti, racial slurs and harassment, but
particularly with low expectations from teachers. She cites several
teachers telling minority students not to worry about their grades, because
it's easy for blacks and Hispanics to get into college.

Both DeAngelis and district officials initially responded to criticism of
the Columbine climate by denying a problem, arguing that their school was
no worse than any other in America. But by late July, the board of
education began to acknowledge the problem.

At a special session July 28 devoted to Columbine, several board members
questioned the rosy picture. School Board member Debby Oberbeck said she'd
gotten calls from parents at three different schools, who'd gotten the
message from principals that "'we know there are problems, but we're doing
OK.' It's not the message parents want to hear," she said. "We are not
doing OK in our own little world. Parents want to face the problem."

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So last week, the district kicked off a district-wide
anti-bullying program with a presentation to coaches by Jackson Katz,
founder of the Mentors in Violence Prevention program at Northeastern
University. The program will target athletes initially, and will be
gradually rolled out to include all students.

DeAngelis says he has made a campaign for respect and tolerance his first
priority in the fall. "The thing that we have here is zero tolerance for
any type of intimidation or discrimination," DeAngelis said in a recent
interview with Salon News. "Basically that means name calling or derogatory
statements. Derogatory statements made about people are not going to be
tolerated."

The pitfall in that policy is that students are clever enough to hold off
their attacks until adults are out of earshot, he said. DeAngelis is still
wracked by guilt that he was unaware of the lengthy feud between several
jocks and the Trench Coat Mafia in the spring of 1998. So this fall the
school will experiment with new techniques to root out undetected abuse.
First up are a hot line and anonymous mailbox, as well as verbal pleas to
students and parents to alert faculty to problem situations.

The school has agreed to increase surveillance of graffiti, and DeAngelis
will meet with minority members of Concerned Columbine Minority Parents
quarterly. Theus says she is happy with the school's quick response to
their concerns, but skeptical about follow-through. "I'm waiting for
school to start," she said. The group has scheduled its own periodic tours
of the school to monitor offensive material, and was stunned to discover
swastika graffiti still in a bathroom on its last visit two weeks ago.
"If we had not gone in there to check that, that would have been there when
those kids returned back to school," Theus said.

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Security has also been tightened, with panic alarms, restricted access, 16
new high-tech video cameras and additional personnel. Students, staff and
the rare visitor will be required to wear I.D. badges at all times.

Meanwhile, authorities are still months away from completing their
investigation into the killings. Jefferson County Sheriff's spokesman Steve
Davis said he expects work to wrap up late this fall, with a report to
follow perhaps next spring. To date, the department has analyzed more than
10,000 pieces of evidence with the assistance of the FBI and ATF. They have
tracked 3,600 leads, 93 percent to conclusion. The original crew of 80 has
been scaled back to 15.

The department is close to ruling out a wider conspiracy. "If there was any
major involvement, it seems like we would have already started to turn some
of that up," Davis said. "And we just haven't."

The most troubling questions revolve around the killers' motives,
particularly in light of the racist shootings that have followed in
the Midwest and Los Angeles. Immediately after the shooting, much was
made of Klebold's habitual racial slurs and Harris' Nazi philosophies, but no clear conclusions have been drawn about how much these views
motivated the massacre. "We don't have any indication that this
white-supremacist thing was really that much of their makeup," Davis said.

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Perhaps most puzzling is why so few students were killed, a question even
many of the students have been discussing. "They could have easily killed
many, many more people," Davis said. "Very easily."

Just as baffling is how they chose their victims. Davis confirmed that not
a single person on the hit list found in Eric Harris' house was among the
dead or injured.

"It seems like it was a very random choice as to who died and who didn't,"
he said. "There were a lot more kids in the library. Some kids they pointed
the gun right at them and didn't shoot, and then the next kid they did
shoot. Unfortunately, we may never know that, with both of our suspects
dead."


Dave Cullen

Dave Cullen is a Denver writer working on a memoir, "In a Boy's Dream."

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