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There Ought to Be a Law

Ten questions for the legislature's Columbine committee.

Such glaring investigative lapses are only part of what troubles victims' families. While being stonewalled on information they believe they should have, they've also been blindsided by leaks of materials that were supposed to be safely tucked away in Jeffco's evidence vault, including the gunmen's "basement tapes" and Harris's journal writings. Crime-scene photos have also made their way to reporters and other parties, although none have been published yet.

Jeffco's handling of the evidence has been a sore point for Don Fleming, the lead plaintiff in the families' open-records battle. "I don't see why these people should have immunity for fabricating and lying and destroying evidence," says Fleming, whose daughter, Kelly, was killed in the library. "If they did nothing wrong on April 20, what they did afterward was criminal."


9. WHAT ARE THE POLICE STILL HIDING?

See questions # 1-8, above.


10. WHAT CAN THE LEGISLATURE DO?

Last fall, Don Lee found himself on a panel at a youth-violence summit in Oregon alongside administrators involved in responding to the shooting at Santana High School in Santee, California, last spring. Lee was struck by how much had been accomplished in Santee in a few months compared to what has happened in Colorado over the past three years.

"It's just incredible how the community and the stakeholders got together and really made some changes in how they deal with things," Lee says. "We have done some things, but it's frustrating to try to get all the stakeholders together here and get the information on the table. It's been difficult for us because of the lawsuits."

Yet the impasse over Columbine began long before the lawsuits were filed. It began with half-truths and stall tactics, boobytraps that didn't exist and search warrants that were never mentioned.

"When we started out, we never thought of any kind of lawsuit," says Joe Kechter, Matt Kechter's father. "But then all the lies started, and holding back information, and it makes you wonder. If we could have got the information we needed, I don't think any of us would be here right now."

Lee says he doesn't know yet what sort of legislation might come out of his probe, but he does have some sense of the general areas that need to be addressed. The Columbine experience could prompt proposals to put some teeth in the state's open-records act, for example, so that bureaucrats who suppress important documents might receive more than a wrist slap for ignoring the law. It could lead to strengthening victims'-rights laws, making it easier to obtain information once an investigation is concluded; to protect the privacy of victims' families; and to lower the boom on officials who provide false information about the circumstances of a loved one's death.

Some progress has already been made in clearing the barriers that keep schools and law enforcement from sharing information about possibly dangerous students. But several Columbine families say that much remains to be done about threat assessment and prompt notification of parents, about training police for rapid deployment situations and organizing a proper command-and-communication structure for such major emergencies as a school rampage.

Re-establishing trust in law enforcement in Jefferson County may be the most formidable challenge of all, one the legislature has little ability to address. For the Browns and for many of the families of the injured and the dead, the task may be impossible.

"It's been almost three years," notes Judy Brown. "People call us about their kids being threatened at school, and they ask us what they should do. I honestly don't know what to tell them. Would I go to the police now? It sounds terrible, but I think I'd handle it myself."

Several families, including the Kechters, still have children in Jefferson County schools. "If anything like this ever happens again, I won't stop this time from going in," says Joe Kechter. "No way. They'll have to shoot me."

To read related stories, see our Columbine Reader

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