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Doom Rules

Much of what we think we know about Columbine is wrong.

Jefferson County School District spokesman Rick Kaufman says he can't comment, for privacy reasons, on disciplinary actions taken against individual students. However, he acknowledges that eighteen students identified as "associates" of Klebold and Harris were offered other options, such as home-schooling, in lieu of completing the semester at Chatfield. Six accepted. After classes resumed, three students were removed from school in separate disciplinary incidents involving "comments" about the shootings.

"We take any such comments, whether they were made in jest or not, very seriously," Kaufman says, "and will do so again this fall. It's no different than someone walking through an airport and saying, 'I'm carrying a bomb.'"

Melissa Sowder says she wants to return to Columbine when classes begin August 16, but she has no idea if she will be allowed to do so. Frustrated with school officials' reluctance to meet with them, Steve and Diana Sowder have hired an attorney and are considering a lawsuit against the district over what they regard as the trampling of their daughter's rights. (Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that the Sowders' attorney is related to writer Alan Prendergast, who has no personal or financial interest in their case.) Yet their situation is hardly unique. Melissa says that several of her friends have been encouraged not to return to Columbine this fall, too. "I think it's because they're outcasts," she says.

Kaufman responds that he's unaware of any ongoing disciplinary process against any Columbine students. "We can't just tell anyone not to come to school," he says. "Not without following district policy."

Steve Sowder insists that the district isn't following its own rules, much less the law. "The school talks about tolerance and sensitivity, but here were these kids coming back after the shootings, and they weren't providing services," he says. "Instead, they were watching them. What they're saying and what they're doing are two different things."

But mixed signals and contradictory actions may become standard procedure when Columbine opens this month, as administrators try to come to terms with the bloody legacy of last spring. What makes someone so angry that they want to blow up their school? How do you distinguish a real threat from a cry for help? Would tough measures designed to monitor kids more closely--everything from dress codes and closed campuses to anonymous snitch lines and parental inspection of library records--prevent more violence? Or would they simply lead to more persecution of those who think and behave differently?

With Harris and Klebold dead, public outrage over their crimes has been directed at a number of convenient scapegoats: the killers' parents, the gun industry, a pop culture that celebrates killing and trivializes life. Increasingly, though, the wrath of many parents is turning to the school district itself. They, too, are wondering: What would make someone hate their school so much that they'd try to blow it up and everyone in it?

There are people who think that school officials ignored pervasive, intolerable harassment of many students by a small group of athletes and that the harassment pushed Klebold and Harris to murder. There are also people who think officials were entirely too permissive in letting violent, deviant groups like the killers and the so-called Trenchcoat Mafia take root in the hallways, spewing hate and threats of murder. Either way, they say, the school system should be held accountable.

"As time goes on, the picture becomes clearer," says Brian Rohrbough, whose fifteen-year-old son, Daniel, was among those killed by Harris and Klebold. "The kids were running the school. There was nothing short of murder that would be challenged. And after watching the school board's response, I'm not sure even that is being challenged."

"I hate the Jeffco schools," says Randy Brown, who went to the police about Harris's death threats against his son Brooks more than a year before the shootings. "The school board is made up of accountants. They care about money and budgets and lawsuits, but they don't care about our kids at all. They want to go on like this didn't happen. They're implementing a program to correct it, but they'll never say they had a problem."

Blasted from all sides, the school district is now trying to appease both the no-more-intolerance and the too-much-tolerance factions. They're scrambling to "bullyproof" the schools and provide what Kaufman calls "diversity-type training" for athletes and their coaches and at the same time vowing to purge the schools of disruptive elements. To date, their efforts have failed to impress their critics. "This isn't a question of love and understanding and everyone will get along," says Rohrbough. "This is a question about what are the boundaries and what happens when you cross them."

To find an effective cure, though, one must first have a grasp of the disease. Many of the proposals kicked around by the school board and a community task force formed in response to the shootings seem to derive from popular impressions of "what went wrong" at Columbine, with little effort to separate fact from media myth. Yet much of what we think we know about Columbine, much of what was reported in the frantic first days of coverage and repeated endlessly since, is wrong. It's a product of overreaching and often sloppy reporting, hysterical and sometimes unreliable sources, misinformation from official sources, or just plain tabloid luridness. Examples:

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