How much mourning is enough?

As Columbine High goes back to school, parents and students wrestle with how to remember while also trying to move on.

Published August 17, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Amid a triumphant atmosphere at Columbine High School Monday, nearly 2,500 exuberant students, parents and alumni gathered on the first day of school for a Take Back the School rally. The celebration took place less than four months after students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire and killed 12 students and a teacher before turning the weapons on themselves.

But not everyone was cheering.

As the rally progressed, 16 parents and siblings of the victims seethed in silence. An hour later, they staged a group press conference in nearby Clement Park to express their anger at the school district. Several lashed out bitterly, particularly the parents and stepfather of Daniel Rohrbough, one of 12 students killed in the library last April 20.

"I've never been so disgusted in my life," said his mother, Sue Petrone. She said they expected a moment of silence, or some similar gesture, and was astounded that they were ignored completely. "I think the rally was insulting from the perspective of someone whose son was murdered," said Brian Rohrbough, Daniel's father.

Monday's backlash was the latest and harshest incident in a growing rift between the school district and families of more than half the victims, who have formed a loose confederation called the Parents Group. The chief dispute had concerned the ultimate fate of the school's library, but Monday's incident established a wider pattern of dissent between a majority of officials and students wishing to put the past behind them and a small group of families insisting on acknowledgement of the past.

Area administrator Barbara Monseu said the rally was designed to help the school move on and return a sense of normalcy to Columbine, but many of the victims' families took it as a slap in the face, accusing the district of trying to sweep its problems under the rug. "You've got to acknowledge that something happened," Rohrbough said. He claimed he's seen four months of "poor responses, poor attitudes" from district officials. "People turned their heads away from it."

District officials were completely blindsided by the uproar. At a press conference right on the heals of the Parents Group's statements, Monseu said the question of whether to address victims at the rally had never come up during the planning process. After incredulous inquiries from reporters, she conceded that she hadn't been to all the meetings, and it might have been discussed. Later, district officials were extremely apologetic. "In retrospect, we should have taken a moment of silence," said Rick Kaufman, district communications director. "I feel really bad that the parents were upset. We're trying to balance so many interests."

The harsh reality is that the vast majority of the Columbine students really don't want to dwell on the 15 killed. They complain that they've thought about nothing else for the past four months, and have gradually begun to turn against the media for reminding them of it. But today, they seemed finally eager to forget.

Most of the 2,000 students and 500 parents, faculty and alumni appeared energized and invigorated by what was otherwise a typical suburban pep rally. At one point in his speech, Principal Frank DeAngelis paused before wiping tears from his eyes with the back of his hand. But otherwise it was every bit the suburban high school pep rally: piped-in pop music, screaming pompom girls and ecstatic chants of "We are ColumBINE!"
They danced on the asphalt, cheered wildly at every opportunity and screamed, "We love you Mr. D!" when their principal appeared.

DeAngelis spoke at length about the social challenges facing the school, but always in proactive terms. "It is essential that you have respect for your fellow students who may have different opinions or ideas," he said. "At Columbine High School, we will have zero tolerance for cruelty, harassment, excessive teasing, discrimination, violence and intimidation."

And, as always, he told them he loved them.

Today, a new wall of lockers seals off the old school library, which has been gutted and stripped down to bare concrete and ceiling-tile frames.

"The only things in there are the lights, sprinkler system and the fire-alarm system," a building spokesman said.

A temporary library is housed outside the school in two large trailers.

Though the old library is concealed, its symbolic weight remains too much for many families of the victims.

"The overwhelming presence of this crime scene is too intense and cannot be overcome with new interior finishes," said Dawn Anna, mother of Lauren Townsend. "It will always be the site of the massacre."

Late last week, the Parents Group released an open letter repeating their demand that the current structure must go. The group has commissioned the University of Denver to perform a survey to help decide the fate of the library. The Parents Group has not endorsed any single plan, but generally favors removing the library floor to create a two-story atrium. They say a large corporate sponsor has made an offer to fund the reconstruction.

Announcement of the new survey comes as a clear rebuke to the district. In early June, a design-review board, which included students, was assembled to decide the library's fate. That group recommended the library undergo some cosmetic changes like new paint, carpeting and layout. District officials met with the group in June and agreed to hold focus-group meetings, followed by a comprehensive survey of parents and students to decide the library's fate.

Again, the victims' parents appear to be headed into conflict not just with the school district, but with the majority of the student population. Students have been adamant that their school remain standing; most seem to favor fewer changes rather than more. They have generally applauded the renovations, which included $1.2 million of cosmetic overhaul with almost no structural changes. Many say they consider any significant renovation as conceding victory to the killers.

Ironically, Kaufman said, the Parents Group has not met face-to-face with students, because very early on, they foresaw the prospect of their needs conflicting with the majority. "They didn't want the community pitted against them," Kaufman said.

It's become a continuing refrain at Columbine: Life is great for the mainstream majority, but often problematic for those on the fringes.

By Dave Cullen

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

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