Doom Rules

Page 6 of 14

At Columbine, the message that jocks rule seeped into student life in many ways. Randy Brown says that his own son, Brooks, encountered his share of harassment and that teachers stood by while a few athletes continually cut in line in the cafeteria--a show of superiority that also earned comment on Harris's Web site. ("YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE!!!? ASSHOLES THAT CUT!!!!! Why the fuck cant you wait like every other human on earth does. Every fucking line i get into i end up having to wait a fucking hour when there WAS only me and 1 other person in line! Then the queer sucking asshole lets all his\her so called friends cut in behind em! If that happens one more time i will have to start referring to the Anarchists cookbook (bomb section)."

Students who feel bullied are supposed to take their complaints to the staff, particularly the school counselors. Columbine had six of them. But many teenagers are reluctant to take their complaints to adults out of fear of retaliation or of being branded a snitch. In any case, counseling programs throughout the district's high schools had shifted direction in recent years, partly as a matter of survival. During budget cutbacks in the early 1990s, counselors lost their lone full-time representative at administration headquarters, and the position was never restored. At the time of the shooting last April, the district was considering further cuts in the number of counselors at the middle-school level.

"Sometimes we get used as clerical workers or administrative assistants rather than doing the work we're supposed to do," says Clark Bencomo, a counselor at Green Mountain High School and president of the Jefferson County Counselors Association. "In this district, the affective needs of these kids aren't given much priority at all. That's what the community wanted."

In recent years, Bencomo says, the district's counselors were spending more time trying to provide career counseling to the whole student body rather than working with troubled kids. "We focused on getting into the classroom and downplayed some of the social-personal issues," he says. "This tragedy is going to make us re-examine that."

The district has pledged to add more counselors now. Bencomo, of course, thinks it's a smart move. "I've had kids come in who will complain about the jocks mistreating them, particularly the kids with the black fingernail polish, the goth people," he says.

"They say, 'They call us dirts.' These may not all be horrible things, but they add up, and you become disenfranchised."

In the absence of an appeal to adult authority, students figured out their own way of dealing with the oppressive aspects of Columbine. One response was the Trenchcoat Mafia, a haphazard group of nonconformists who took to wearing the jocks' sneering nickname for them as a badge of honor, along with their black dusters. They were geeks and goths, oddballs and losers; only one or two exuded even a faint aura of menace. And they were far more likely to be targeted for ridicule than most students.

Principal DeAngelis has said that he never heard of the Trenchcoat Mafia before April 20--despite the ad they took out in the 1998 yearbook begging others to notice them ("Insanity's healthy!"), despite the fact that several members of the group were suspended, expelled or flunked out that same year. The statement has prompted much eye-rolling among DeAngelis's critics; to them, it's part of an official campaign to deny that anything was less than perfect at Columbine--right up there with the principal's boast that, when investigators searched every locker in the school following the shooting, they failed to turn up any drugs or weapons. ("That he would even say that is pretty amazing to us," says Rohrbough. "Nobody's talking about how many drugs were found in the cars.") Recently DeAngelis told a Denver Rocky Mountain News reporter that he was aware of "some kids wearing black dusters" but not of the harassment claims; yet even his supporters don't understand how an administrator as ubiquitous as DeAngelis, always roaming the halls and dropping in on classes, could fail to take note of such an exhibitionistic crew and ponder what it might mean.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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