I know we’re living in an either/or world these days: Either you’re liberal or conservative; either you think abortion is OK on demand whenever or you believe it’s never justified; either you’re completely pro-gun or anti. Now, in Jeffco, everyone is talking about whether the district is considering rebuilding Columbine High School because of security issues or because the building is in bad shape. Just like all those other either/ors, the answer is both. Just like all those other either/ors, it deserves more nuanced and complex treatment.
Because the school district sent out an email that addresses the security issue, let’s start there.
Back in 1999, as we were all reeling from the shooting, simply trying to figure out what the hell had just happened to us, there was some talk of demolishing the school building and constructing another. There was talk of changing the school’s name. There was a lot of talk, among we survivors and those on the outside—talk among the groups, but not much between them.
I was one of the survivors who felt very strongly that we should keep our building and our name. In fact, one of Jeffco’s school board members was also a member of my church, so I opened my church directory, called him at home, and made an impassioned plea: The boys had planted bombs. They’d tried to bring the building down. They tried to destroy everything Columbine was. Please don’t give them what they wanted!
While many other survivors agreed, mine was not the only view held by those in our group. Many wanted it gone, the painful reminder erased. This was not, by the way, the “wrong” reaction. In our world of neat little either/ors, both views were utterly valid.
In the end, though, the side in favor of keeping the building won, with one exception: The library where the majority of children died was demolished. It had been above the commons area, so over the next year or so, the floor of the library was removed, creating an atrium, and a new library was built off the back of the school in honor of those we lost. Even this decision was not without controversy, but it seemed the best compromise. At the beginning of the ‘99-2000 school year we held a huge “take back the school” rally and tried to get back to the business of teaching and learning.
I don’t think anyone, at the time, was really thinking, “What will we do with all the looky-loos and mentally ill people who will be drawn to this building in the coming decades?” Sure, we went back that year to tour buses pulling up in front of the building (located just a few yards from the street), so tourists could hop out, walk around campus, and take pictures. Yeah, people wanted to come in and burn sage, open churches, perform exorcisms, and do all manner of other things, and while we were taken aback at first, we figured everyone would lose interest.
Anyway, we had bigger fish to fry—mainly not losing our individual and/or collective shit at any given moment.
Only people didn’t lose interest. We had no way of knowing that our tragedy would create a cult. We didn’t know that disaffected teens the world over would become fascinated by the two boys who had left us all so angry and sad and utterly bewildered. We knew there would be others; we didn’t want there to be, but we weren’t totally naïve. What we didn’t predict was that our name would become the synonym for a school shooting. We would never fall into the obscurity the schools before us had found. (That obscurity is also, by the way, a mixed bag.)
Every year, year after year, Columbine has dealt with threats to the school. They go on all year, usually peaking in April. One of the reasons Columbine has never again held regular school on April 20 is to keep people from targeting it on the anniversary, hoping to “finish what the boys started.” If you are not part of Columbine, you probably have no clue how often that phrase gets used, though it usually includes the boys’ names. I’m choosing not to, here. Once, a full seven years after the shooting, we evacuated the building and fled the grounds completely because of a bomb threat that included another threat that someone was in the park next to the school with a gun, waiting to mow us down. (We evacuated on the opposite side of the school.) We have routinely held lockouts where we go about our daily routines inside the building, but no one is allowed in or out while law enforcement evaluates yet another threat.
This is probably a good time to mention that, if you think it sounds like fun to pull this kind of thing, number one: It is devastating to the staff who lived that day. (Some were staff at the time, some were students who have come back to teach.) They are real people who care a great deal about kids and teach their hearts out. They do not deserve the agony your nonsense causes. Number two: Jeffco law enforcement is very, very good at finding these people. They’ve had a lot of practice. When they find them, the perpetrators are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. A number of them have gone to jail. Columbine High School does not fuck around with this.
Once, our staff resisted wearing our ID badges, because it was a change we knew would not prevent another shooting. Then we wore them gladly, because badges make it easier to distinguish new student teachers and substitutes from all the random strangers who feel free to try to walk into the school. They want to see where IT happened. Usually, we catch them quickly. Sometimes they get far enough to ask students, who by now weren’t even born in 1999, where exactly everything happened. People peek in the library windows. Now this next thing is really important: As soon as someone explains that this isn’t the library we had in 1999, that that library has been demolished, the looky-loos’ shoulders droop a little in disappointment, and they lose interest in the library.
This matters because right now, as we talk about possibly tearing down the existing building, the biggest factor cited by the district is the security issues created by this cult of fascination. Lots of comments online revolve around the idea that as long as there is a building called Columbine High School, people will be drawn to it. But the reactions people have when they discover that the current library is not the library belie this assumption. These people don’t want to see just any old library, just as they don’t want to see just any old Columbine. They want to see the exact place where murderers walked and innocents died. Don’t understand this? Good for you! You are probably a healthy human being. You have no idea how many disturbed individuals are out there.
On to the next objection I keep reading: It doesn’t make sense to raze a “perfectly good building” now because of this. A) So the safety and security of the current nearly 2,000 kids in there is not worth a couple of bucks a month on a $500,000 home? B) Perfectly good?
Now, it’s time for a history lesson. Once upon a time, in the early 1970s, three areas in Jeffco appeared poised for a growth spurt: one in Arvada, one in Lakewood, and one in unincorporated Jeffco near the Littleton border. The district built three identical buildings on the cheap, with an eye toward making them into places that could quickly be turned into warehouses if the growth didn’t pan out. The energy crisis was on everyone’s lips, and the plans for the schools included almost no windows. Walls were practically made of spit and paper, many of them temporary accordion-pleated affairs. Classrooms had no doors. All three buildings opened at the same time, designed to accommodate 1,300 students very snugly.
In Arvada, in 1973, my brother became one of the first freshmen to attend Pomona High School all four years. By my freshman year there in 1976, we had so exceeded the building’s capacity that we went on split-sessions—upperclassmen in the morning, underclassmen in the afternoon. In the winter, I walked home after dark. By my sophomore year, we had gone to year-round school, a schedule that had ⅔ of the kids in school and ⅓ on break at any given time. The boy I had started dating went to one of Pomona’s triplets, Green Mountain in Lakewood. They were still on split-sessions to accommodate growth. The third triplet, Columbine, was on Concept Six (year round) like Pomona.
I graduated from Pomona in 1980, went to college, and unable to escape that cave-like, harvest gold and burnt orange monstrosity, went on to start teaching at the identical Columbine in 1986. A new high school had been built to alleviate the crowding, so they were just going off Concept Six, but the student body kept growing. The building was sad, but the school itself was family. It was renowned for the warmth and love of the people who walked those dark halls.
In 1990, I was elected to be on the committee of staff, students, and architects tasked with designing a massive remodel. We were given three million dollars (a little more than 5.5 million today) to update the building, make it ready for turn-of-the-century state-of-the-art technology, and enable it to fit 2,000 students. We worked hard to get the biggest bang for our buck. We did nothing to one whole wing of the building other than to provide new cabinets, as well as new appliances in the foods lab and a new dark room for the photo classroom. We did nothing to the gymnasium. We gutted the old, windowless building and reconfigured as best we could. While we punched windows into exterior walls, there was nothing to be done for the interior rooms. They remain dark caves. We added a two-story addition that went down the side of the hill, not up on top of the existing level. At the time, since the upper-level science hall emptied into a main hallway at one end and a major stairway at the other, it didn’t occur to us to put in another exit, in case children and a bleeding staff member were ever trapped in the wing, unable to get to either hallway exit. The teacher who would one day bleed to death in that hall was on our staff during the renovation. The things you don’t know at any given time…
In the course of creating the addition, we came up with the cheapest way possible to build an auditorium that would fit almost an entire class of students—450 seats. We used the downward slant of the new addition to create the raked floor. It’s expensive to get rid of all that dirt, so our principal convinced the park next store to let us dump it there, seed it, and create a sledding hill. To this day, it is known as Rebel Hill. One day, it would hold 13 wooden crosses.
When the “new” building opened in 1995, there were problems from the start. The wing that had received minimal renovation still had old pipes, which we would later discover tested positive for low levels of lead (but still above that which is considered safe). The sewage system had problems that were never fully resolved and only got worse. Last year, raw sewage started seeping into classrooms from under the walls. It hadn’t really been possible to build an HVAC system that worked with the odd footprint we’d started with, so while some rooms are ice-cold, others are broiling. Students dress in layers year-round to accommodate the climate in every classroom as they move through their day. The gym has all the issues you would expect of a 45-year-old facility. A few years ago, the math wing, built on top of the 1973 foundation, started cracking off and siding downhill.
Now, this alone is actually not justification to raze and rebuild Columbine, for the simple reason that there are buildings in Jeffco with worse problems than ours. It’s shameful, really, but as one of an army of teachers who have knocked on doors fall weekend after fall weekend for years, begging for money for buildings and resources, I can tell you that Jeffco voters do not take care of their schools. They just don’t. Last year we finally passed pretty anemic (compared to all the needs) mill and bond issues. Pretty much anything is “good enough” in Jeffco. That’s how you get to the idea that a school building with all the issues I’ve talked about (and they are only the tip of the iceberg) is “perfectly good.”
So I get why people in other schools, ones in worse shape than ours, are less than enthused at Columbine getting a new building while theirs languish. All I can say to that is at least the money from the last bond that was supposed to go to putting a few new Bandaids on Columbine will become available for you.
And all the Bandaids in the world will not help with the looky-loos and mentally ill people who want to come see where it happened. A new building won’t deter all of them, but if reactions to the newer library are any indication, it will significantly decrease them. Nothing they see will look like any of the video footage of April 20 still available on YouTube. Bringing down a totally new building will not “finish” any job. That job will be done already. A building farther back from the road is harder for buses to pull up at for gawkers. Moving so the athletic fields are by the street and the building is set back allows security more space to intercept and assess those with ill intent or simple lurid curiosity.
And for those like me, who didn’t want the boys to win, well, perhaps we do let them win if we allow them to chain kids a full generation after them to a school that faces constant security and basic functional challenges. Maybe it’s time to let go for the sake of those there today, providing family and warmth for all the kids we never dreamed of in 1999.