Back to School

The bullet in the backpack and other Columbine mysteries.

Why was the bullet never tested against the Harris and Klebold firearms? Was there something about it that told investigators that it came from a police weapon? If so, why were only four cop guns tested? Why not the six other non-shotgun firearms discharged by police that day -- including several weapons used by officers firing into the library area?

The sheriff's office and the Jefferson County attorney declined to answer questions about the bullet in the backpack. The DePooters are not parties to any of the nine lawsuits filed by Columbine families against the sheriff's office, but they say they're frustrated with the lack of information they've received from the county.

"I gave up on getting a straight story from them," Patty DePooter says. "It changed every time we talked to them."

 
Hadley-Hooper
 
Harris and Klebold planted two propane bombs in the cafeteria; had they exploded, the bombs could have killed more people than the explosions in Oklahoma City.
Harris and Klebold planted two propane bombs in the cafeteria; had they exploded, the bombs could have killed more people than the explosions in Oklahoma City.

Details

Read related stories in "The Columbine Reader"

Brian Rohrbough knows the feeling. "I have said over and over that we would drop the lawsuit," he says, "if they would show me evidence that proves no police officer shot Dan. They don't have it. It looks like going to court is the only way we're going to find out what happened."

The Fire Next Time

So it begins again. The funerals. The grief counselors. The ribbons. The fundraisers. The signs and the vows. Never forget. Never again.

But we do forget. Tragedies mount. Compassion fatigue sets in. The world changes, and yesterday's horror can't compete.

Two years ago we were told to beware the terror next door: the overlooked teenage malcontent, armed to the teeth, who dreams of going out in a blaze of glory. Now it's the terror from across the world, global yet intimate, invading our skies, our offices, our homes.

The families who are still grieving over Columbine, still battling in a courtroom to find out what happened, are told to "get over it." But there are compelling reasons to remember the attack and to continue to ask questions about it. Just as the attacks of September 11 have changed the world of air travel, Columbine changed the world of high school -- in some ways, for the better.

The shootings sparked a wave of outreach efforts and "bullyproofing" programs designed to make school more tolerable for the most disaffected students. Both the FBI and the Secret Service published extensive studies of school shooting incidents in a quest to build safer schools. From Florida to California, several copycat plots have been foiled -- and lives saved -- by alert teachers, by students who have learned not to keep silent about troubled classmates, and by quick police work.

The Columbine investigative files themselves offer countless examples of the heightened vigilance about school violence. Police spent hundreds of hours running down possible threats that surfaced in the wake of the shootings, scrutinizing anonymous Internet chatter and tracking offhand rumors that somebody knew somebody whose girlfriend's ex-boyfriend used to hang out with the Trenchcoat Mafia. One ex-girlfriend of Harris's, who at one point was investigated for making threats in a chat room, had a seeming fleet of FBI agents at her disposal when she reported a threat against her life. If a fraction of the resources devoted to her complaint had been used to investigate the Browns' 1998 report on Eric Harris's cyberspace spewings, the entire tragedy might well have been averted.

Everything has changed. Across the country, police agencies are training patrol officers in rapid-deployment techniques so that they can respond quickly to "active shooter" situations like Columbine rather than wait for the SWAT team. More schools are implementing the kind of threat-assessment policies that the Jefferson County School District was supposed to have in place in 1999 but which the administration at Columbine all but ignored, according to former school district security officials interviewed on 60 Minutes II.

Everything has changed. But the change may be less noticeable in Colorado than elsewhere. To admit change is to admit the old ways failed, and lawyers might take that as an admission of liability. So while the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office quietly trains in rapid deployment methods, preparing for the next unthinkable event, the shift in priorities isn't reflected in the office's operating manual, which still instructs patrol officers to set up a perimeter and wait for SWAT. The rules for stopping a shooting rampage inside a large, suburban high school have been rewritten everywhere but in Sheriff Stone's book.

Over at the Jefferson County School District, administrators continue to wrestle with the threat-assessment question. Bomb threats are rarely reported in the media or even to oblivious parents and students, since to do so might encourage copycats. The district is, however, spending $10,000 to make an instructional video encouraging parents to stay away from school the next time a real crisis hits, in order to avoid getting in the way of rescue efforts.

The idea of such a video incenses Randy Brown. He says the most bitter lesson he's learned from Columbine -- from the day he contacted the sheriff's office about Eric Harris to the bungled police operation during the attack a year later -- is that parents shouldn't naively rely on law enforcement, school officials and other professionals to protect their children.

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