No One Told Mr. D

The teachers and students of Columbine returned to school last month to the welcome sounds of silence.

There were no news photographers to record the moment, no live cable coverage of hundreds of suburban teens streaming into the building. No pep rallies, no speeches about "taking back the school," no encircling ring of parents -- unlike a year ago, when the first day of classes had all the pomp and ritual of a mass exorcism, designed to cast out the evil spirits of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

It's been almost seventeen months since the two Columbine seniors rampaged through their school, killing a dozen students and one teacher and wounding two dozen more before taking their own lives. Surfeited with grief and the media's collective wallowing in the massacre, many in the community are eager to move on. In the past few weeks, several groups affected by the shootings have sought to "close the book" on the matter in various ways -- with very different results.

One of the more successful efforts concerns the fate of the school library, the scene of ten deaths. Returning students found the library not only closed but eradicated, replaced by a sun-drenched atrium above the cafeteria, an airy vault containing murals of trees and sky. The $3.1 million renovation was the result of a grassroots fundraising drive by HOPE (Healing of People Everywhere) Columbine, a group of victims' families intent on thwarting morbid curiosity-seekers and demolishing the site where their children died.

The weekend after school opened, reporters were invited to tour the new atrium. HOPE spokeswomen Anne Kechter and Dawn Anna thanked the media for publicizing their campaign and extolled one of the few positive developments to emerge from the tragedy. Kechter, whose son, Matt, was slain in the library, noted that the parents had banded together and transformed a place of "terror and hate" into a symbol of "hope, love and openness."

But not all rehabilitation efforts have been so inspiring, so permeated with light and openness. A few days after the unveiling of the atrium, Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis testified before the Governor's Columbine Review Commission. DeAngelis received a warm welcome for daring to show up at all, since other prominent officials -- including, notably, Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone -- have declined to answer the commission's questions, citing the many lawsuits arising from the shootings.

Yet what "Mr. D" had to say shed little new light about what happened that fateful Tuesday. He had come, it seems, not to recount the terrible losses of that day but to try to put to rest the lingering questions about what might have been "wrong" at Columbine, what supposed defect might have made two of its own so keen on blowing it up. "Columbine was a good school and will continue to be a good school," DeAngelis said. "Any situation that was brought to my attention, we dealt with it promptly and efficiently and appropriately."

Flanked by the school district's attorney, DeAngelis disputed media accounts of a "jock culture" in which athletes ruled and outsiders were ostracized. In his 22 years at the school as a coach, teacher and administrator, he'd never heard of any such persecution.

Asked specifically about an incident reported in Westword, in which Harris and Klebold were allegedly attacked and degraded in the cafeteria a year before the shootings ("The Missing Motive," July 13), DeAngelis shrugged. Surely such an incident, if it happened, would have been captured on the lunchroom cameras and witnessed by staff and other students, he said, and he would have heard about it. "Kids come to me and talk to me," he told the panel. "If this bullying was going on, I think I would have received a phone call."

Before the shootings, DeAngelis explained, he had never met Eric Harris -- or heard anything about him making death threats on the Internet or boasting about having fun with pipe bombs. He was unaware of any disciplinary problems involving either student -- although if such problems did exist, he added, school privacy laws would forbid him from discussing them. He didn't see any "red flags" before April 20, 1999.

Although he tried to make his denials as emphatic as he could, DeAngelis will probably have opportunities to expand on his benighted condition in the months of legal discovery to come. He was recently added to the list of defendants in three of the lawsuits filed by survivors and families of the dead. Among those accusing the school district of not doing enough to prevent the massacre are some of the same families involved in the atrium campaign.


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