Off Limits

Pointing the finger: Since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold rudely took their own lives after mowing down twelve other students and a teacher at Columbine High, thereby denying Americans of their right to revenge, it seems that everyone is looking for someone or something to hold responsible. The blame game got ugly last week, when just about everyone--including the state board of education--turned on Hollywood; several prominent Hollywood stars blamed psychiatrists; and a group of women in Jefferson County blamed, well, their neighbors.

"The connection between murder in our schools and elements of the mass culture is now beyond dispute," writes Colorado Commissioner of Education William J. Maloney in a preachy, four-page diatribe signed by the rest of the board. "Only those who profit from this filth and their dwindling band of apologists deny the evidence of violence, hatred and sadism routinely found in films, video games and the like. We believe it is no longer acceptable for an entertainment industry that spends billions to influence the behavior of children to deny that their efforts have consequences or that they have no accountability for sowing the seeds of tragedy."

To replace this "sewage," Maloney suggests that perhaps we should abolish the separation of church and state and "remember, respect, and unashamedly take pride in the fact that our schools, like our country, found their origin and draw their strength from the faith-based morality that is at the heart of our national character. Today," he says, "our schools have become so fearful of affirming one religion or one value over another that they have banished them all."

Maloney doesn't say which religion (perhaps his?) he would like to bring back into the schools, but it likely would not be the Church of Scientology, which boasts among its ranks several well-known purveyors of Maloney's "violence, hatred and sadism" and has used the shootings to promote its own agenda.

Calling itself the Citizen Commission on Human Rights International, a Scientology-backed group showed up at the American Psychiatric Association's annual convention in Washington, D.C., on Saturday to blame psychiatrists for promoting and prescribing the kinds of "mind-altering" drugs that both Harris and Springfield, Oregon, high school mass murderer Kip Kinkel were taking when they went berserk.

"We keep hearing the blame assigned to everything from movies to video games to Marilyn Manson," said actress Juliette Lewis, who protested along with Lisa Marie Presley and Kirstie Alley. "But when a kid commits some senseless, violent act, why isn't the first question we ask 'Was he on psychiatric drugs?'" If Lewis sounds a little defensive, maybe its because her film credits include four of the most violent movies of the last few years: Kalifornia, Natural Born Killers, From Dusk Till Dawn and--you guessed it--The Basketball Diaries, the much-maligned Leonardo DiCaprio flick that supposedly was a favorite of Harris's and Klebold's. (Klebold, by the way, did not need any medication for his part in the rampage.)

But the most surprising bit of blame came from the leader of a group of about twenty Jefferson County women calling themselves "Awakening the Mother Bear." Organized in the aftermath of the Columbine killings to find ways to raise more money for the Jefferson County School District, the Mother Bears are pushing for a mill levy on the November ballot that would raise $23 million. "We need to shame Jeffco voters by saying, 'See what happens when you don't fund your schools,'" says den leader Meredith Vaughn. Jeffco voters haven't passed a mill levy in fifteen years, partially because the county is home to the oldest population per capita and the highest number of voters without school-age children in Colorado, according to Jeffco state representative Ed Perlmutter.

The school district had originally proposed to cut $1.2 million out of the budget for middle-school counselors but immediately took that off the list of possible reductions after the Columbine shootings. "Every year, we've had massive cutbacks and we've gotten overcrowded classes. Columbine had the highest class sizes in the state," says Vaughn, who hopes to take her case to Oprah Winfrey's show. "There's no way of identifying at-risk kids in such large classes."

A Chile welcome: Judging by the enthusiastic applause he received at the Auditorium Theater last week--not to mention the adoring coverage in the Post--Henry Kissinger is back on top again. His image buffed and polished since the dark days when he served as Richard Nixon's sidekick and apologist, the former secretary of state was the final installment in this year's Denver Distinguished Lectures Series sponsored by the University of Denver. After a glowing introduction by an AT&T suit, the wily doctor explained that he was on record as opposing the war in the Balkans but figured it was time to support the president anyway. Kept out of sight were a handful of protesters who wanted to needle Kissinger about the Nixon administration's warm embrace of Augusto Pinochet, the now-disgraced Chilean general who led the junta that overthrew that country's democratically elected (but socialist) government in 1973. After the lecture, one audience member did try to ask a question about Chile, but her microphone mysteriously went dead.

Nothing comes between me and my minions: An even chillier reception awaited representatives of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility when they tried to meet with employees of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment last week. PEER, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that helps federal and state employees blow the whistle on unethical or illegal activities in their agencies, was nearly locked out of CDPHE headquarters.

CDPHE spokeswoman Cindy Parmenter says her department views PEER "as a group whose avowed purpose is to undermine the management at the agency where they're recruiting employees" and to "dismember governmental agencies." In fact, the organization is forced to sell underwear rather than T-shirts and bumper stickers so that its 10,000 members can sport the PEER logo without being hassled.

Two weeks before the May 12 luncheon, CDPHE associate director Lee Thielen vetoed an all-staff e-mail written by Harlen Ainscough, a CDPHE geologist and vice president of the Colorado Federation of Public Employees, informing his co-workers of the upcoming meeting. The federation resorted to mailing notices and posting fliers on agency bulletin boards, but the fliers were removed when it came to the actual meeting day, and the door to the meeting room was locked. Parmenter says that at that point, the CDPHE was reviewing whether to let its employees meet off the clock with PEER reps on its taxpayer-owned property. After some intervention from the state attorney general's office, the PEER meeting did go forward--but fewer than two dozen employees showed up because of all the confusion, Ainscough says.

"We're very open about what we do, and we try to be very accessible to both the media and the public. We're not in the business of hiding anything," Parmenter insists. But the topic of who gets to meet with CDPHE employees in CDPHE meeting rooms came up at a senior staff meeting earlier this week. "We're reviewing our policy right now," says Parmenter, "and we're going to see what makes sense."

Remember her?: Up in Boulder, the grand jury looking into the slaying of JonBenet Ramsey continues to work at a glacial pace. Meanwhile, the murder trial of James Garner--accused of killing his in-laws and wife, as well as wounding his infant daughter--is well under way in Douglas County. Shortly after the bodies were discovered on January 19, 1998, with visions of the then-thirteen-month-old unsolved Ramsey murder dancing in their heads, Lone Tree officials vowed to make sure their investigation was swift and efficient, authorizing expensive overtime work by the Douglas County Sheriff's Department. But in court on Monday, it was Garner's defense attorney who made unfavorable comparisons to the Ramsey case--noting in particular early, over-eager bungling by investigators that resulted in a Garner interview being tossed out of evidence.

When--and if--the Ramsey case gets its day in court, one key figure won't be around to see it. Leslie Aaholm, the Boulder spokeswoman who hosted then-police chief Tom Koby's hot-tub press conference shortly after the murder and has tended to all press inquiries since, is stepping down after seven years on the job--two and a half of them JonBenet-intensive--and moving to Frisco.

Off Limits is compiled by Jonathan Shikes. If you have a tip, call him at 303-293-3555, send a fax to 303-296-5416, or e-mail [email protected].