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A Lasting Tribute

Finding the right words for a Columbine memorial.

Four Aprils ago, as investigators strung yellow crime-scene tape and boarded up bullet-riddled windows around Columbine High School, snow began to fall -- a wet, heavy spring storm that masked the carnage in merciful white.

But the snow couldn't quite obscure the spontaneous memorials that were already surfacing on and around Rebel Hill, just northwest of the school in Clement Park. Overnight, it seemed, the park became the focal point of public grieving for the attack on Columbine that left fifteen dead and two dozen injured -- the worst school shooting in American history. Rebel Hill was soon festooned with flowers, crosses, stuffed animals. There were Hallmark cards, long rolls of paper with scrawled messages from schoolchildren, placards that asked "WHY?" in foot-high letters.

Thousands of people trudged through the mud. Read the messages. Pondered the questions. And left without answers.

The impromptu tributes are gone now, collected and put in storage by the Colorado Historical Society and other area archivists. Last week, though, reporters and camera crews returned to Clement Park, amid sharp winds and swirling snowflakes, to tour the site of a future $3 million memorial.

The quest for a permanent remembrance of Columbine has consumed four long years, and like almost every aspect of the public debate over the attack and its aftermath, it has been, at times, a contentious process. "We've tried to do the right thing," says Bob Easton, director of the Foothills Park and Recreation District, who's spearheaded a 28-member committee that has worked with Columbine families to come up with a suitable design. "But with the passage of time, it's become clear that this is a journey without a clear start or end."

Yet the journey is almost complete. Easton's group has collected more than $600,000 toward the cost of the project and hopes to raise the rest from local businesses, foundations and individuals over the next few months. It hopes to break ground in August and complete the memorial by April 20, 2004 -- the fifth anniversary of the tragedy.

Along the way, the choices made have been surprising and revealing. They say a great deal about the determination of the victims' families to find a deeply personal way to honor their loved ones, to celebrate life rather than death. At the same time, the memorial will provide the community a place to reflect on what was lost one April day, and what must never be forgotten.

Consider, for example, the site chosen for the project. Jefferson County school district officials balked at the idea of a memorial within the school itself, for both practical and political reasons. A public exhibit would be "disruptive," the officials said, and the district had gotten crosswise with the families soon after the shootings by inviting them to paint memorial tiles, then refusing to display the ones that contained religious expressions. (The impasse triggered a federal lawsuit that ultimately cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.) So the high school, which now has few of the teachers and none of the students who were there four years ago, was quickly eliminated from consideration.

The obvious choice, then, was Clement Park, already the scene of so much public sorrow. The memorial will be tucked into an isolated area at the southeast corner of the park, flanked by Rebel Hill and a smaller slope -- a short walk from the west doors of Columbine, where the shooting began.

The site was selected almost three years ago, and Easton's group planned to have a memorial in place by mid-2001. But the project was put on hold at the request of the victims' families. It was too soon, they said, and many of them were already occupied by a more pressing project: raising millions in private donations to build a new school library. Budget-minded school officials had proposed a "renovation" of the existing library, the scene of most of the executions as well as the suicides of the teenage gunmen, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold; after the families objected and came up with the money on their own, it was razed and turned into an atrium.

The wait was worth it, says Brian Rohrbough, whose son, Daniel, was killed at Columbine, because it gave the families the opportunity to become more involved in the details of the project. "Memorials have a tremendous effect on people's emotions," he notes. "They give people a chance to examine what happened and come to terms with it. A bad memorial is about the most harmful thing that anyone could do to those of us who lost someone at Columbine."

The conceptual design for the site, developed by Denver's DHM Design and Oregon artist Tad Savinar, calls for transforming a bare hillside into a place of seclusion and reflection. Visitors will stroll past a waterfall to a grove of trees. Within the grove, a circular stone wall will feature thirteen stations of inscribed text -- one for each of the dozen slain students and teacher Dave Sanders. An outer wall will carry quotations from survivors about the impact of the massacre, based on Savinar's interviews with injured students, as well as teachers, parents and emergency-rescue personnel. Walkways will lead from the stone rings to hilltop areas with sweeping views of the Front Range, the school, the city and the plains.

Mindful of the tile debacle with the school district, the families of the dead insisted on having complete editorial control of the texts dealing with their children. The intent is to allow for each of the thirteen to be presented as individuals, in the words of those who knew them best. Media portraits and church sermons have tended to blur the distinctions, lumping them together, but it was individuals who died, and it is their glorious particularities that the families want to commemorate.

Two sample texts were presented at the unveiling of the conceptual design. One spoke of Kelly Fleming's shyness and resounding laughter, her crush on 'N Sync and efforts to be a "big kid." The other describes Kyle Velasquez's love of Coke and pizza and his eagerness to make friends: "He saw good in everyone, even some people that didn't seem to have any in them."

The victims' families will also review the comments destined for the outer wall, which Savinar plans to blend into an episodic first- person narrative, without annotation or identification of individual sources -- a sort of collective community voice. That will be no easy task, yet the memorial will be remarkable not only for its text-heavy content, but for what will not be found there. No mention of specific police agencies, for instance, or individual officer heroics and command failures, the source of so much controversy surrounding the rescue effort.

And no mention of the names Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

Ever since Rohrbough and others took down the crosses that had been planted on Rebel Hill for Harris and Klebold, as if the two were victims of a natural disaster along with the other dead, the killers have been quietly excised from any memorial plans. Their legacy lies elsewhere: in fading magazine covers and moribund Web sites devoted to their memory; in homemade videotapes and ranting diaries currently under court seal; in the pain and shrapnel still carried by the people injured in their rampage.

For those not directly affected by the shootings, does the tragedy still resonate? Raising funds for a Columbine memorial so long after the event may seem like a risky enterprise; after all, the world has moved on to fresh horrors. I remember standing on Rebel Hill two summers ago with a friend from New York. She wanted to see the school, to grasp the physical reality behind the terror she'd watched on television. A few months later, my friend was watching from a window in lower Manhattan as the World Trade Center's twin towers exploded and collapsed. Now New Yorkers are preoccupied with their own losses and memorials.

Yet there are monuments to Columbine all around us. Books and scholarships in memory of the dead. The new school library. The release of almost 30,000 pages of investigative records that police and school authorities never wanted to release -- a record of "warning signs" ignored or missed, of unheeded anger and threats, of bureaucratic ineptitude and parental blindness and the chaos that followed. Anonymous hotlines and dramatic changes in police response tactics that may well have prevented worse school shootings.

What is lacking, perhaps, is what only a permanent memorial can provide: A place to try to make sense of it all. To glimpse the innocence and vitality of those caught in the gunfire that day, to try to fathom the loss of lives cut so short, a loss that diminishes us all. To meditate on a society so prosperous and promising, yet maimed by senseless rage and violence.

A place for generations to ask why, even if the answers remain elusive.

For related stories please see the Columbine Reader

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