Doom Rules

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At Columbine, stretching for excellence in certain areas--such as football, basketball, baseball, soccer and track--definitely yielded greater rewards than other endeavors. The school won 32 state sports championships in the 1990s, and the trophies and pictures of star athletes were on display in a glass case in the front hallway. There's no comparable shrine honoring scholars, artists, debaters, or other student achievers.

The trophy case is only the most obvious sign of the pervasive jock culture at Columbine. The school's budget for coaches' salaries alone was more than $138,000 last year, the highest in the district--including a whopping $20,000 for football. For years, critics say, top athletes enjoyed special parking privileges, received special consideration when class schedules or demands conflicted with practice routines, and were only sporadically disciplined for harassing other students.

A hefty amount of the ten-minute daily broadcast of the Rebel News Network, piped into every classroom during second period, was devoted to the exploits of the teams as they marched toward one championship after another. Last spring, one much-aired skit featured the soccer team, their hair dyed white in solidarity, kicking a ball through the halls and into classrooms. Teachers were expected to gamely put up with such disruptions in the name of school spirit and to cut star players slack in other ways.

"When they had assemblies, that was an opportunity to hero-worship the jocks," says Victor Good, whose stepson, Nathan Dykeman, was a friend of Klebold and Harris. "The kids were not permitted to leave. And the assemblies were always for athletes, never for academics. What the hell is school spirit? Worshiping these other kids?"

Good, the chairman of the Colorado Reform Party, would like to see competitive athletics removed from the schools. Other parents aren't as quick to condemn the entire jock culture, but they do claim that a core group of athletes targeted weaker kids for bullying and ridicule.

"The bullying and harassment went on uncontrolled and throughout the school," insists Randy Brown. "This was a group of twenty kids picking on other kids, and at the bottom of the pile were Eric and Dylan. They got spit on and called 'faggots' and pushed around. Nobody did anything about it. What caused this was the school's failure to enforce their zero-tolerance policy toward harassment."

Stung by media reports about the so-called jock elite, including a scathing article in the Washington Post, school officials have denied any favoritism. A few weeks ago, Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis, a former baseball coach, even went on national television to explain how he once turned in his own son for off-field mischief. Many parents and students involved in the athletics programs also dispute the stories of marauding gangs of jocks assaulting other students at will. There were tensions between jocks and other cliques, they say, as in any school, but the situation had improved since the graduation of a few trouble-prone wrestlers and football players in 1998. (One of the leaders of the tribe, former state wrestling champ Rocky Hoffschneider, had a penchant for expensive cars that would receive special mention in Harris's online list of pet peeves: "LIARS!!! OH GAWWWWWD I HATE LIARS ...Why the fuck must people lie so damn much! Like...My brand new hummer just broke down on the highway when I was going 250 mph.")

"I realize there aren't too many high schools in the country where you have a student who has a Viper and a Humvee," says Darryl Strahl, who's had two sons and two daughters graduate from Columbine over the past nine years. "But that had nothing to do with Columbine. I don't agree that that [bullying] attitude sprouted from or was nourished by Columbine faculty."

In her experience, Strahl says, the coaches at Columbine were also excellent teachers, including DeAngelis--"He taught my sons so much more than baseball," she says. And safety wasn't an issue, not until April 20. "In 1995 there were some kids from another school who came into the parking lot," she recalls. "Before they ever got out of the car, Jeffco [sheriff's officers] was in the parking lot, too. I personally don't have any complaints."

Yet even if actual assaults on students weren't that common, the primacy of the jocks created an atmosphere of intimidation that could be stifling at times. "There is a lot of resentment toward the jocks--and the cheerleaders, if you're a girl," says Sarah Bay, a Columbine student active in debate and theater. "The jocks get help in class, help with their homework. They want that next state championship. I know this happens, and it's not just at Columbine."

Employees of the school district say that the preferential treatment begins at administration headquarters, where rules are sometimes bent to accommodate principals eager to recruit top coaches and keep them happy. Every employee of the district is supposed to undergo fingerprinting and a background check to be hired; that requirement was waived, one source says, in the case of a former NFL player and talk-radio host who's now coaching high school football in Jefferson County. One internal 1997 memo to an employee who questioned the high salary of a particular coach instructs her that if she encounters a situation that she believes to be "in conflict with state law...or district rules, you should continue to question athletic directors about the details. However, when a principal makes a decision on any matter, implement his/her directives immediately."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast