Columbine High School shut down

In the wake of new chat room threats and the release of the killers' videotapes, wary school officials cancel the last two days of class.

Published December 17, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

The combination of a chat room threat and fallout from the release of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's videotapes shut down Columbine High School Thursday for the last two school days of the year. Students were to have completed finals Thursday, with make-ups Friday.

On Friday, the FBI arrested 18-year-old Michael Ian Campbell in Cape Coral, Fla., after he confessed to making the threat in an AOL chat room under the user name Soup81. Late Wednesday night, Soup81 warned 16-year-old Columbine student Erin Walton not to go to school Thursday. According to sheriff's spokesman Steve Davis, Soup81 then said to her: "I need to finish what begun (sic) and if you go I don't want your blood on my hands."

Walton's parents quickly notified authorities, security swept the school and officials met frantically throughout the night. At 5:30 a.m., still unaware the threat came from out of state, they decided to close the school down.

Later Thursday, FBI and sheriff's deputies executed a search warrant against AOL. They determined that the messages came from an out-of-state account, minimizing the chances that the author ever intended to carry out the threats. Officials are currently assessing whether the account holder was the person who actually made the threats. Thursday evening deputies announced they had determined Soup81 was probably a student.

Denver ABC affiliate KMGH reported that Soup81 also said: "Time magazine brought more chaos and I need to strengthen this ... I'm a nobody and soon everyone will know who I am ... Goodbye. Good to evil and evil to good."

The chat room threat is the latest event in an emotionally wrenching week for the school and its community. On Sunday, Time magazine revealed the contents of videos shot by Harris and Klebold shortly before massacring their peers. The five tapes confirm and graphically illustrate the picture investigators have painted of two angry teens seeking fame and indiscriminate revenge.

Just Tuesday, another Columbine student pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges for threatening in October to "finish the job" with a car bomb on the six-month anniversary of the massacre. Prosecutors said the 17-year-old boy had no weapons and posed no threat to himself or others. He agreed to a year of continued counseling and community service.

Eight students have been expelled from the district for making threats this fall, but this was the first time the school was shut down. School officials chose not to close Columbine on the six-month anniversary in October, when the last serious threat was made, but by the end of the school day most of the student body had fled.

From the first statements early Thursday morning, school officials indicated the closure decision had more to do with emotional trauma during final exams than with physical safety. "You need to know that a lot of people have been shaken to the core by just another horrendous week," said district spokesman Rick Kaufman. "It was a tremendous amount of emotional turmoil for the students and staff and certainly the community."

Last night's threat was considered credible, but somewhat unlikely because of major security measures already in place for a large concert which went ahead Thursday evening in the school parking lot. Kaufman said eight security guards had covered all entrances to the building since Wednesday afternoon. "No one breached the school yesterday after students left," he said. District spokeswoman, Marilyn Saltzman, said 30 security personnel were already present at school by 8 a.m., with 90 by noon, under existing plans. The free concert for 15,000 was planned as a thank you to the community for supporting the school through the crisis.

Officials immediately drew public criticism for playing into the hands of the perpetrator. "People have said, 'Are we being held hostage by the individual?'" Kaufman said. He acknowledged the lose-lose dilemma. "We always run the danger of inciting copycat incidents and feeding the perpetrator's intentions in making a threat -- and that's what many threats are, truly to see what kind of disruption they can create."

But students and staff were already at the breaking point when the latest threat emerged, he said. And staff from within the school questioned how students could possibly be expected to earn their semester grades in that environment. "When you look at what's happened this week -- the release of the suicide videotapes, the Time magazine pictures, the holiday season, it's finals week -- it would have been pretty unfair to expect the students to do their best," Kaufman said.

"If you go back to Maslow's hierarchy, safety is your first concern," Saltzman said. "If you're not feeling safe, you're not very well equipped to get an A on your exam."

The past week's trauma may seem like the calm before the storm once Dylan and Eric finally hit the airwaves bragging about their planned exploits next month.

Sheriff's officials announced this week that Colorado's open records law requires full release of the videos since the content was leaked through Time magazine on Sunday. Authorities plan to hold onto the videos through the holidays, release them shortly after the first of the year. It will be up to the television networks to determine whether it is appropriate to air them -- viewers can expect to see the footage shortly after the second of the year.

The only foreseeable obstacle to full TV bombardment lies with the Harris and Klebold families. As defendants in the $250 million civil action being pursued by the family of victim Isaiah Shoels, they may have legal standing to block the release to limit the effects of pretrial publicity. The Klebolds' attorneys have indicated they are exploring options for such a motion. Attorneys for the Harrises did not respond to inquires from Salon News.

District officials complained bitterly about the release of the suicide videos, particularly the timing and lack of warning. They have carefully avoided direct reference to the sheriff's department, with whom they've worked closely the past eight months, but the implication is hard to miss. "We are extremely upset that we were not notified ahead of time to alert our students, staff and families," Kaufman said.

Sheriff John Stone has come under increasing pressure to resign this week, following months of reported friction within the department over inflammatory statements he repeated for months before finally retracting them. As late as July Stone told reporters before a Florida Sheriffs Association meeting that he believed third parties were involved in the massacre, much to the dismay of his investigative team. This week he conceded that Harris and Klebold definitely acted alone.

Victims' families have been vocal over their outrage at his decision to show the videotapes to Time after promising for months that they would see them first. He apologized repeatedly for the decision, but unequivocally refused to resign.

In the wake of the controversy, several families renewed charges of cowardice against the SWAT teams who took over four hours to reach the library. Stone said his officers would be completely exonerated by the details released in the final report, now expected late next month.

By mid-week, several prominent Jefferson County law enforcement officials publicly joined the chorus of dissent against Stone, but stopped short of calling for a resignation.

Wednesday's threat came the very night principal Frank DeAngelis made public statements about school security, following a meeting with parents on the issue the previous night. The parents had circulated a letter asking for tighter controls and quicker notification of threats

By Dave Cullen

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

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