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Back-to-School Day Comes to a Wary Columbine High

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Officials at Columbine High School have gone to great lengths to ensure Monday’s back-to-school ritual comes off just like a normal school day. Although normal hasn’t been seen here in some months, it’s the tranquil state this suburban campus yearns to return to.

To that end, the reopening of the once-crippled school will meld traditional welcome-back greetin

gs with a pep rally aimed at “Taking Back the School"--banishing images of the shooting and bombing rampage on April 20 that left 15 dead and catapulted Columbine into the international spotlight.

School officials insist they will set the tone for the year and do everything possible to respect privacy as they conduct the rally, flag raising and ribbon cutting.

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While the school may look the same to the students, much has been altered besides repairs to bullet- and bomb-damaged structures. There will be beefed-up security: four security guards instead of last year’s two. Even the sound of the school’s fire alarm, which blared for hours on the day of the attack, has been changed lest it conjure an unwanted memory.

Months of unprecedented media glare have left parents and officials weary but wiser in the ways of conducting themselves in public. Spotlight fatigue set in after endless media stakeouts and this summer’s stream of macabre tour buses.

Only two “pool” reporters will be allowed to view the back-to-school events and no one is to be interviewed. Photographs are restricted, and there is a ban on helicopters in the area.

A spokesman for the Jefferson County School District told a meeting of journalists that teachers, parents and school staff will form a “human shield” to further protect the arriving teenagers’ privacy by obscuring outsiders’ view of students walking along a sidewalk in front of the school.

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This most-scrutinized class of students seems most interested in being reunited with friends and getting back to the routine of classes and gossip.

“I’m looking forward to school starting, as weird as that sounds,” said 16-year-old Art Curtis. “I know it’s going to be different, but it’ll be the same, you know?”

Monday’s festivities will include the raising of the school flag, which has remained at half-staff, as it was after hundreds of students and staff fled the school during the lunchtime attack.

More than $1.2 million has been spent on repairs and renovations to the school, and the work is not yet completed. The bullet-pocked library has been sealed and will remain closed until officials determine its future. In the meantime, students will check out a limited selection of books from a trailer in the parking lot and borrow other materials from the public library.

A summer of introspection has yielded a raft of new security measures at the school, including identification cards, 16 surveillance cameras and doors equipped with key-cards.

To help soothe jangled nerves, two mental health counselors have been added to the staff, bringing the total at the school to eight. A “safe room” has been established, where distraught teachers or students may retreat.

Not everyone in the Columbine family will be at school Monday. A few students have transferred to other schools, although school officials say those losses have been more than offset by students who requested to transfer into the district. At least one teacher and an assistant principal will not be back.

All but one of the 23 students injured last April are able to return to school. The exception, Richard Castaldo, is still being treated for spinal injuries.

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