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Residents Struggle for Closure After Columbine Carnage

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

For some, the memory of the horror has receded, and the heaviness of the grief. But for the community that embraces Columbine High School, what followed has in some ways been more challenging.

While the rest of the country struggles to comprehend the malfunction that sent two teenagers on a shooting and bombing rampage April 20, this suburb has spent the summer attempting, somewhat haltingly, to move beyond grief to self-examination and action.

In the classic suburban model of convening citizen committees and task forces, Littleton has thrown itself into problem solving, racing to implement change before school reopens a week from Monday. These groups have been seeking to decipher the meaning behind bomb-making in garages, trouble-free teen gun purchases, hateful language on the Internet and intolerance in public schools.

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The proposals for change focus on security and the social environment of the school. On Monday, the Jefferson County school board will review a draft report of a safety task force, which recommends identification badges for students and staff, stricter supervision of those who use the school after hours and expanding video surveillance of the school.

On Tuesday, another group will present its proposals to the board. The Columbine Community Citizens Task Force calls for establishing a harassment hotline and a new state law to allow parents access to the library records of their children. Other reforms to be considered include a stricter dress code (no baseball caps or camouflage clothing) and mandatory attendance by staff and students at a round of tolerance seminars.

By any measure, after the carnage that left 15 dead, it’s been a difficult summer. Introspection has taken a toll.

Rather than pedaling bikes freely through neighborhoods, an unusual number of teens have stayed close to home, parents report. Those who have ventured out are a hot property on the talk show/public speaking circuit. One group recently lobbied lawmakers in Washington for stiffer gun controls, and scores have traveled to symposiums on youth violence.

While some feel that talking about the tragedy is cathartic, others here have little patience for those still dealing with the aftermath of the massacre.

“Our well is getting a little dry for volunteers,” said Mary Shutts, who with two church friends has been preparing and delivering meals to a few families too overwhelmed or too strained by medical costs to feed themselves. “A lot of people in the community are saying, ‘Why are we still talking about this? Haven’t you moved on? . . .”

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Columbine Principal Frank DeAngelis said he’s talked with officials at other schools where there have been shootings, and they’ve all warned of the same thing: “They told me the biggest problem I’m going to have is dealing with people who are at different stages in the grief process. There was a split in the community between those who wanted to move on and those who weren’t finished grieving.”

Whether because of apathy or burnout, it’s evident that many have bailed out on the work of community repair.

“I think it’s sick and it’s sad,” said the Rev. Steven Poos-Benson of Columbine United Church, which like many other congregations has intensified its youth ministry. He said he still peppers sermons with Columbine references but knows many in his congregation don’t want to hear them. “The thing that no one is willing to come to terms with is that the high schools are no more than a reflection of ourselves. It’s nasty, dirty work to get to the bottom of this. It’s also grace-filled work.”

If the community seeks resolution, official closure will not come soon. The Jefferson County sheriff’s office said the final report it had hoped to release next month is not expected until early next year.

Much of Jefferson County presents itself as a kind of freshly waxed Stepford, with tidy subdivisions and curving streets lined with parallel-parked SUVs. But its apple-cheeked facade masks pervasive problems the task forces are trying to address.

The suicide rate in Colorado is 40% higher than the national average, according to state figures, and mental health officials say the rate among teenagers in Jefferson County is one of the highest in the country. Mental health workers report a marked increase in adults seeking assistance since the tragedy. Littleton’s family values are familiar: Eighty-seven percent of households are headed by a single parent or both parents work outside the home. Parents often commute to jobs in Denver and have scant time to spend with their children. Many have recently moved here and have no local extended family. Schools are in unincorporated areas that have no unifying government, city center or even a neighborhood hangout.

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“The suburbs can be a lonely place to live,” Poos-Benson said. “There’s no such thing as a downtown. There’s no such thing as a community center. There’s nothing.” Some community leaders are concluding that contemporary suburbia is a breeding ground for youthful alienation, if not violence.

“We’ve become a garage-door society. We come into our homes with a click of a button. We close the door and our porches are in our backyards,” said Lori Hoffner, executive director of a Parents and Community Connecting Together, formed five years ago. “As adults, we put up this front that all is well--our front yards are immaculate, but don’t look in the backyard.”

Much of the committees’ focus is on the environment at Columbine, which many students say was intolerant of anyone on the fringes. Gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were targets of taunting by athletes, who some say had special status at the school.

DeAngelis maintains there was not a “jock culture” at Columbine, but he has rededicated his staff to maintaining a “zero tolerance” policy for hateful language and taunting. “We need to stress respect for others, which is a problem in society. We know we are under the microscope.”

The school district has pumped up its code of conduct for students and added mandatory anti-harassment seminars for coaches.

For the new school year, district officials have hired a consultant to present anti-violence seminars and are preparing a video on tolerance aimed especially at athletes. High school athletes around the state will wear patches with the word “respect” in bold letters on their uniforms.

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“We have to give acknowledgment that there are kids who feel alienated at our schools,” said Cheryl Weaver, an elementary school teacher who is a member of one of Columbine’s task forces. “What I see is a lot of alienation, with adults too. It’s too complex to blame one thing.”

Asking difficult questions is one step, but answers are not coming soon enough for some. Weaver and her husband have decided to send their children to private school rather than to Columbine.

Even state Rep. Don Lee (R-Littleton), who founded the citizens’ task force, said he home-schools his two daughters. “I’m concerned about what I’m seeing in the schools,” said Lee, whose son graduated last year from Columbine. “We don’t want our girls at Columbine.”

School officials, however, say they see no signs of a significant exodus from the high school.

Katie Place, a 15-year-old Columbine sophomore-to-be, has spent a “weird” summer, staying home or hanging out with a few friends. The vivacious student has worked on two community groups seeking to make changes at the school and elsewhere.

“I wasn’t, like, way into people’s feelings,” she said of her attitude toward her classmates before the shootings. “I wouldn’t step on them or anything, but I wasn’t aware, I wasn’t awake. I think from now on I’ll listen to things more carefully.”

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