After a decade now, “Columbine” has become synonymous with bloodbath
For a decade now, “Columbine” has been synonymous with bloodbath.
Two gun-brandishing students killed a dozen classmates and a teacher at
Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, then killed themselves.
The outbreak of violence in a suburban Colorado school in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains shocked a nation that was still reeling from the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which left 168 dead.
Columbine was a different mass killing, though, in that it was an inside job.
The killers had walked the halls as students. They had lockers and books, and they had spoken with — and sometimes bullied — many of their victims as classmates.
Lanc Sellden, a Columbine High graduate who was coaching football at the school, was teaching seventh-graders at a nearby middle school when it was locked down. The lockdown lasted an hour, then two, then longer, said Sellden, now an assistant principal at Central High School in Grand Junction.
Eventually, news trickled in that shots were fired at Columbine, then that there were people
“Was it 100 dead, a thousand dead? We didn’t know,” Sellden said. “It was almost surreal.”
Closed up with a band of frightened adolescents, Sellden said he also experienced “one of the best teaching moments.” The students discussed bullying in school and anger, subjects that might never have come up otherwise, he said.
Through it all, though, he said, “I’m thinking, I should be there right now.”
It was only by dint of a schedule gone awry that Sellden was teaching at a middle school and not Columbine that day, he said.
A decade later, Columbine has become a byword, he said.
“It’s become the thing to say,” Sellden said. “School violence, it’s a Columbine situation.”
Life, and classes, have since resumed at Columbine High School, but, like the taproot that anchors columbines to inhospitable, rocky, alpine soils, Columbine is deeply imbedded in the American culture.
A generation of students is growing up with the Columbine killings as a backdrop to the experience of going to school.
“The things that we believed as a culture were always going to be safe no longer are safe,” Palisade High School Principal Matt Diers said. “That whole perception in our culture has changed. Columbine changed public education.”
A whole assault on bullying “came directly out of Columbine,” said Tim Leon, for 15 years a school resource officer in the Grand Junction Police Department and now the safety coordinator for School District 51.
Since Columbine, students and administrators have absorbed a new set of terms, such as lockdown, shelter in place, threat assessment and incident command. School-resource officers themselves are all the more wanted in the wake of Columbine, he said.
The differences go beyond that mere terminology.
Last November, Principal Jon Bilbo ordered Grand Junction High School evacuated because of a bomb threat. The reaction was drawn directly from the experience of school and law enforcement authorities after the Columbine killings.
Events such as the 2004 arrest of a student in Fruita for taking a gun to school and the attack this year on a student at Montrose High School have driven home the point that isolation is not the same as safety.
Fruita and Littleton might seem worlds apart, one a fast-growing community with a strong rural history on the Western Slope, and the other a well-heeled archetype of suburbia on the Front
Yet Fruita brushed disturbingly close to a Columbine-like incident on Nov. 19, 2004, Leon said, when a Fruita Middle School student and five friends drew up a “hit list” with 34 names, and one took a gun to school.
Authorities were called in, and no shots were fired, but Leon said he still is haunted by the thought of what might have happened.
“The hair on my arms stands up when I think about it,” Leon said.
Bri Castellini remembers only bits and pieces about the day of the Columbine killings, but the Fruita Middle School incident is burned into her memory.
“I had friends on that list,” said Castellini, now a Fruita Monument High School junior, 17.
It’s not as though she fears school, Castellini said. She went to class even in the wake of the events in middle school.
But, “It’s definitely on your mind,” Castellini said.
Columbine, said Fruita Monument junior Kate Schwenke, 17, “is closer because of Fruita Middle School. I’m definitely more aware of who is around me. I look around in the halls.”
The Fruita and Montrose incidents are more immediate reminders of how quickly the illusion of safety can evaporate, said Central High School seniors Rachel Romine and Mandy Johnson, both 18.
The Fruita Middle School hit list contained the names of a cousin of Romine and a friend of Johnson.
That, plus the Montrose stabbing, illuminated an uncomfortable reality.
“It could happen anywhere,” Johnson said. “And that’s what’s scary.”
In Palisade, students take comfort in the small community and close-knit student body, though.
“Everybody knows everybody,” said Palisade High School junior Jaycee Kendall, 17.
Palisade has cliques, like any high school, but each one seems to have a member who mixes easily with other groups, thus moderating tensions, Kendall said.
Students have taken up the cause of security, said Diers, the principal, and have helped intervene in cases that might have resulted in a Columbine-like scenario.
At Grand Junction High School, students recognize they have to look out for themselves.
“You have to be prepared and aware,” said freshman Jerreon Davis, 14. “You have to watch your back.”
It also helps to seek out a lot of friendly faces, said Eric Gonzalez, a 17-year-old Grand Junction junior.
“You have to step up and introduce yourself to everyone,” Gonzalez said. “It’s just high school.
It won’t last forever. When you’re done, you’re done.”
Teachers have had to change in the wake of Columbine, Grand Junction Principal Bilbo said.
“It’s caused us to look closer at what kids are saying and why,” Bilbo said.
Grand Junction High has 50 cameras and a heightened sense of vigilance, and Bilbo said he’d like to have more ways of securing the campus, now more than 50 years old.
“It’s not like it’s hard to get away with stuff,” said 17-year-old junior Kendra Moody, who said to nods from her classmates at Grand Junction that most students have seen weapons, even
Airsoft guns, smuggled onto campus, “all for self-defense.”
Airsoft guns look like the real thing, but fire soft pellets and are fitted with orange rings at the end of the barrel so as to make them distinguishable from deadly weapons.
Striking a balance is difficult for teachers, the students said.
“A lot of them are really oblivious to what’s going on in class,” said Jamie Derrieux, a 14-year-old freshman.
At the same time, others are “overcautious and judgmental,” Gonzalez said.
In all, the recognition that high school isn’t necessarily a safe place has been a positive outgrowth from the Columbine horror, students said.
“It’s sad that it happened to one school,” said Veronica Shiflet, a 17-year-old junior at Palisade.
“But it’s helped so many other schools.”
One of the immediate results of Columbine was increased emphasis on zero-tolerance policies.
Zero tolerance stifled the ambitions of two Palisade wrestlers who were found playing with Airsoft guns at the state wrestling tournament this year. The offense, Palisade Principal Diers said, was clear, as was the punishment, which destroyed the wrestlers’ chance to compete at state.
He knew the students, he knew the situation, and he regretted that he had no chance to use his own judgment in the case, Diers said.
“It’s what we’re getting paid for,” he said.
Zero tolerance, on the other hand, “has resulted in more consistency and more safety,” said Fruita Monument Principal Jody Mimmack. “We’re trying to create a safe community. I’m OK with strict guidelines.”
School officials have greater latitude than ever in other areas, Grand Junction Principal Bilbo said.
In the case of searches or other measures, “We have more flexibility to protect students than the police have to protect the community at large,” Bilbo said.
Columbine ultimately “did for schools what 9/11 did for the rest of the country,” Sellden said.
The events of that day a decade ago are hazy at best, said Kole Bridge, 18, a Fruita Monument senior, who said he didn’t fully grasp what had happened. One message, though, was clear, and it hasn’t changed, Bridge said.
“Everything is different now,” he remembers his parents telling him.
Since then, something has faded, though.
Say Columbine to any student in District 51, and you’ll get a nod of recognition. Everyone knows about Columbine.
Yet mention the names Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the killers, and you’ll get mostly blank stares, except from Johnson and Romine of Central, who read the book, “She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall.” The book recounts Bernall’s confession of faith before she was shot to death at Columbine.
There is an incomplete but rough justice to the relative anonymity of Harris and Klebold, said Eddie Vial, 14, a Palisade freshman.
“They wanted fame,” Vial said. “Now, no one knows them.”