There Ought to Be a Law

Ten questions for the legislature's Columbine committee.

"My kid was labeled a 'problem child,' and he couldn't sneeze without something being reported," Velasquez says. "It was like a daily phone call: If he knocked over a chair, I'd get a call. I don't understand how these two boys can make these videos and write these violent essays, and the school doesn't know anything about it."

Velasquez says she had to fight numerous battles to get Kyle into the special-education program at Columbine, which included an agreement that staff would supervise him at lunchtime so other kids wouldn't get him into trouble. ("He'd do anything for anybody if he thought they were going to be his friend," she says.) And while the school was quick to notify her of any problem behavior, she says she was never told that he was being allowed to leave the cafeteria at lunch and go on his own to the library, where he was killed.

"The teachers said they were trying to let him 'spread his wings,'" she recalls. "That's fine, but I was never notified that they were doing it. That's the way Jefferson County treated us the whole time."


3. WHO WAS IN CHARGE OF THE POLICE RESPONSE?

The problems police encountered in setting up command and communications to respond to the attack was a fundamental concern of the Governor's Columbine Review Commission. Unfortunately, because Sheriff Stone and other key commanders refused to testify, "much remains unclear about the command center's operations," noted the commission's report, released in May 2001.

The sheriff's own report describes how, as ranking officers arrived on scene, they coolly made assignments and pulled together to organize an efficient response to the evolving crisis, battling radio glitches, pesky media types and witnesses' hysteria the entire way. An incident command post was established minutes after the attack began, the report states, and quickly branched out to encompass tactical command, perimeter control, evacuation and investigation. But this portrait of a battle-ready, level-headed corps of commanders bears little resemblance to the disarray and conflicting orders encountered by officers from other agencies who rushed to assist with the emergency.

In theory, Deputy Neil Gardner, the first officer on scene, was in charge during the first fifteen minutes of the attack, until command officers started to arrive. Stone's report implies that Gardner was the one who started to deploy responding officers in perimeter positions around the school. But dispatch tapes and Gardner's own statements to investigators don't indicate that he ever gave such an order; apparently, the arriving deputies simply defaulted to their training for a potential "hostage" situation, which was to set up a perimeter and wait for SWAT teams to arrive. Meanwhile, Harris and Klebold were executing students in the library -- a situation indelibly impressed on the dispatchers at Jeff-co's headquarters in Golden, who had a phone link to a teacher in the room and could hear the shots and the screams.

Lieutenant Terry Manwaring, Jeffco's SWAT commander, was the first member of the agency's command staff to arrive; Manwaring quickly assumed the role of tactical commander. But he was soon embroiled in a rescue effort that took him on a very slow ride around the school in a fire truck, during which he lost communication with the command post. (The time-consuming ride had other consequences as well; see Question #4, below.) Arriving officers from Littleton and Lakewood found so much confusion at the Jeffco command post and so little direction in the way of a SWAT command that they decided to form their own tactical command post closer to the school.

The Jeffco commanders "were not yet ready to provide a specific mission," wrote one Lakewood SWAT officer in his report. "In the interim, we had received reports...that there were many victims both inside and outside of the school who were wounded and needed to be rescued.... I instructed our team to join up with Denver SWAT to begin rescuing wounded students."

One Littleton officer reported that he was told by Bob Armstrong, an Arapahoe County captain who was one of the first commanders on the scene, "that our SWAT unit was the closest and that 'It's your problem.'"

An Arapahoe County SWAT commander arriving at the tactical command around one o'clock found a Littleton sergeant in charge. Manwaring didn't return to the east side of the school to assume command until later that afternoon.

Several officers reported being sent to one location by Jeffco commanders, then another by their Denver counterparts, or being assigned to commands they couldn't contact by radio and couldn't find in the swelter of traffic and evacuees. Many SWAT teams, bomb teams, paramedics and other rescue personnel spent the day "standing by," waiting for orders or wounded victims who never arrived.

"This was the most difficult day of my career," one paramedic wrote. "To sit in staging five hours listening to calls for more medics and medical equipment was unbearable, and we did nothing."


4. WHY DID IT TAKE THE SWAT TEAMS FOUR HOURS TO REACH THE LIBRARY?

Stone's office has cited numerous potential and real hazards that hampered rescue teams as the afternoon dragged on: smoke, shrieking fire alarms, radio problems, locked doors, a lack of maps, unexploded bombs, reports of multiple shooters, and so on. But the confusion within the command structure certainly contributed to the delay, and the sheriff has never explained why the library and the science area -- the rooms that contained critically wounded victims, from which 911 operators had received desperate phone calls seeking help -- were the very last places the SWAT teams reached.

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