Doom Rules

There were a lot of things Melissa Sowder didn't like about Columbine High School. The bullies, for instance. They were football players, mostly. They shoved her friends in the halls and threw snowballs or bottles at them on the way home. Sometimes they shoved her, too. Who needed it?

"Teachers would see them push someone into a locker, and they'd just ignore it," she says. "I think they were afraid of the students. They didn't stop half the fights in that school."

But Columbine wasn't all bad, Sowder insists. She liked most of her teachers. And there were nice students, too--guys she met in the commons area, drinking coffee or hot chocolate and talking about what was wrong with Columbine. Guys like Eric Harris.

"I used to talk to Eric once in a while," Sowder says. "He was like the sweetest guy I ever knew. He'd do pretty much anything for people he liked. We'd talk mostly about how we got picked on, how the school was not caring what the students did. And how some people could get away with anything."

Sowder was near the bottom of the intricate social hierarchy at Columbine last fall. She was a freshman and a special-education student, struggling to get the services and classes she needed. She liked to dress in black, and most of her friends were kids who thought of themselves as outcasts--punks and goths and skaters.

Eric Harris was a senior and a very confident student. He, too, dressed in black. He had a juvenile conviction for theft and had been reported to the police for making death threats against another student on the Internet. His personal Web page crackled with fantasies of murder and revenge, and he liked to show off his extensive knowledge of guns and explosives.

Before the world that was Columbine blew up last spring, guess which one of the two attracted more scrutiny from school officials?

Right up until April 20, 1999--the day he and his buddy Dylan Klebold stormed the school, tossing pipe bombs and shooting helpless classmates, killing thirteen and injuring 23 before taking their own lives--Eric Harris was just another scowling face in the crowd. One of the most baffling aspects of the worst school massacre the country has ever seen is how Harris and Klebold's deadly plan went undetected by friends, teachers, administrators--and, apparently, their own parents--until the killings began.

The question becomes even more troubling when you consider how school authorities have dealt with Melissa Sowder, who knew Klebold and Harris only slightly. In her first few weeks at Columbine, Sowder ditched class several times, resulting in a parent conference and restrictions imposed on her ability to leave campus during the day. But when she tried to complain to teachers about harassment by jocks, she was told, "Deal with it," she says.

One day last fall, Sowder was called to the dean's office after she was late to one class. "He asked me what I think about all day at school," Sowder says, "so I told him I thought about blowing up the school. The school made me that angry. He told me I was suspended for a day and called my mom."

Diana Sowder says she spoke to her daughter about speaking and acting responsibly. But she also believes that the school "overreacted" to Melissa's remark, which officials described as a threat. Over the next few months, Melissa Sowder's movements were closely monitored by school staffers, who followed her in the halls and quizzed her if she showed up at school early or stayed late.

Sowder was in the cafeteria when Klebold and Harris began their rampage last April. She escaped unharmed, fleeing with a group of students. When classes for Columbine students resumed at Chatfield High two weeks later, she was summoned to the principal's office and informed that she might prefer home-schooling.

"I think they had kind of classified me as a troublemaker," she says. "I told them I felt okay about going back to school."

Columbine officials didn't feel okay about it, though. A counselor in a security officer's uniform followed Sowder from room to room, actually sitting through each class and observing her behavior. On her third day at Chatfield, she made a remark about the shootings to another student. According to Sowder, she'd been greeted warmly for the first time by athletes who'd formerly harassed her, so she said that maybe something positive would come out of the tragedy "because now the jocks will treat us better."

That isn't the way the school's spy system heard it. Relying on a version of the remark passed on by two students to a teacher and then administrators, a school counselor contacted Diana Sowder that day and informed her that her daughter was not to come back to Chatfield. Melissa was being removed from school because she allegedly said that "the kids who died at Columbine deserved it." Melissa denies she said any such thing, and another student who says she was present during the conversation supports her story. Steve and Diana Sowder say that they were given no chance to meet with school officials and that their daughter had no hearing--no opportunity to respond to the accusation or appeal the decision--before she was summarily booted out of school.