Attendance down at Columbine after threats

A "suicidal" senior was arrested after vowing to "finish the job" on the eve of the six-month anniversary of the massacre.

Published October 22, 1999 2:00PM (EDT)

The 17-year-old Columbine High School senior arrested for threatening to "finish the job started by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold" on the eve of the six-month anniversary of the massacre will likely be charged as a juvenile, prosecutors said Thursday.

School district spokesperson Marilyn Saltzman said rumors of the threat began swirling through the school Monday, and were quickly reported to faculty. The school worked closely with the sheriff's office, and by Tuesday evening, parents of the 17-year-old agreed to questioning by sheriff's deputies.

Investigators discovered an incriminating "note" during that process, and the boy was arrested on suspicion of "inciting destruction of life or property," a low-level felony. He was also arrested for theft of a microphone from the school, a misdemeanor, and remains in custody on $500,000 bond. If tried as a juvenile, he could be incarcerated for a maximum of two years.

Presiding Magistrate John DeVita ordered "a mental pre-screen" of the student during a brief court appearance Wednesday. He told Salon News Thursday that the boy had expressed suicidal tendencies, both to investigators and in the note.

Since the April massacre, rumors and threats of a repeat attack have preceded each calendar milestone, and apprehension was already running high in the school in anticipation of Wednesday's six-month anniversary. Attendance dropped dramatically Wednesday, with 25 percent of the student body missing. It rebounded somewhat Thursday, with only 14 percent absent, Saltzman said. Typical absenteeism at the school runs around 5 percent.

Thursday's Denver Post reported that detectives found a 12-page document outlining a violent plot comparable to the April 20 massacre, but that a search of the family's Littleton home turned up no weaponry to actually carry out the threat. They also cited unnamed investigators saying they believed the boy was friends with Harris and Klebold.

Tight-lipped sheriff's department spokesmen refused comment on the document. Spokesmen for the prosecutor and school district have been similarly restrained, because of confidentiality restrictions imposed by state law on low-level felonies by minors. But some details began emerging Thursday afternoon.

John DeVita confirmed the discovery of an incriminating note to Salon News late Thursday: "He had a note that was the basis for the allegation," DeVita said. "I can't go into specifics because it's sealed." The boy's name has also been withheld.

And while Jefferson County's chief deputy district attorney Mark Pautler had initially said he might request court authority to charge the boy as an adult, on Thursday D.A. spokesperson Pam Russell said: "It does appear that this case will remain in juvenile court." Prosecutors will formally charge the student in DeVita's courtroom Friday afternoon in a "detention hearing/receipt of charges."

School officials had been preparing for the six-month anniversary and had stepped up security. "We were told by mental health advisors that we were going to get these kinds of threats," Saltzman said. "It's not unexpected, but it's not acceptable." Seven other students in the district have faced expulsion proceedings for bomb and gun threats since April, but this is the first significant threat from within Columbine High.

The school sent home advisory letters about the threat with all students who attended Wednesday, and placed automated phone messages to every student's home. School officials said there were no indications that any other students were involved.

District officials were disturbed by the incident but pleased that it seemed to demonstrate progress on a key goal: the school's ability to head off another disaster. In an interview with Salon News this summer, principal Frank DeAngelis said his "greatest downfall" had been a failure to create an environment where students felt comfortable confiding dangerous problems to faculty and staff. He said changing that environment would be a top priority for the fall, and a series of pilot measures have been implemented.

Saltzman said the current scare provided the first real test of an improved climate. "We feel that students are coming to staff with rumors, and that's a good thing," she said. "That's something we wanted to happen, so we feel good about how the process worked."

By Dave Cullen

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

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