Off Limits

Next week, families of those who were murdered at Columbine High School last April will announce a $3 million fundraising drive to turn the site of the infamous school library into an atrium and build a new library on the school grounds.

More than forty family members have been meeting for weeks to plan the push for a new library (at press time, two of the families had not officially joined the group). Many of them fear that the present library -- which is still closed -- could become a ghoulish tourist attraction if it reopens, and some of the younger brothers and sisters of the murdered students plan to attend Columbine, and their families don't want them to have to face the room where their loved ones died. The new library, which would be in a separate building or added on to the school, would also include a plaque acknowledging what happened.

Parents and relatives are well aware that the public has lost some sympathy for a few of the families, since several lawsuits have already been filed in the wake of the massacre and twenty families have made note of their intent to sue the Jefferson County sheriff's office and the school district (although it's not clear how many of them will actually follow through). To counter the perception that anyone is trying to profit from the murders, the huge press conference (it's scheduled to be the first time all of the family members have come together to make a public statement as a group) will emphasize the families' gratitude to Coloradans for their outpouring of compassion; it will even feature a mural that reads, "Thank You, Colorado." The group hopes to make it clear that construction of a new library is one way to soothe the wounds.

"Architecture can be incredible as a healing agent," says a businesswoman who has been volunteering with the group. "When the new building opens it will be very healing for the parents."

Already, parents have been contacted by a galaxy of media stars -- including Oprah Winfrey, Rosie O'Donnell and Montel Williams -- eager for them to make appearances on daytime talk shows, and several of the parents have agreed to do so. But the group wants the fundraising to avoid any hint of crass commercialism, and so will refuse donations from tobacco companies or political lobbies like the National Rifle Association.

One immediate source of funding ought to be the Rocky Mountain News, since two days after the massacre, publisher Larry Strutton promised his paper would do whatever it could to help the Columbine community "see that its dreams are realized."

"It's up to the community to decide what needs to be done," Strutton wrote in a letter to the community, published in the News on April 22. "It's up to the families served by Columbine and the residents of the Jefferson County School District to tell their school board what they want done.

"If students, teachers and parents feel there is no way they can return to the classrooms of Columbine, the Denver Rocky Mountain News will lead the charge to raise the funds to build a new school and urge legislators to help.

"If they decide they do not want to be driven from their school, we will support the community in rebuilding the campus.

"Whatever their decision, this newspaper will support them."

Until all the money's raised and construction begins, however, the fact that the library remains closed carries its own ironic symbolism. The Columbine massacre has spawned an increase in censorship in other school libraries across the country, as well as in classrooms, says Joan Bertin, executive director of the New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship. "We've definitely seen an increase in volume since Littleton," she says. "Most has focused on concerns about violence, hate speech and what some people perceive to be odd behavior, like the black trenchcoats or ear piercing, nose piercing, any kind of piercing."

While typical calls to her organization used to be about sexual content in students' material, Bertin says, the nature of censorship has changed with contemporary anxieties. "My sense is that there is a general tightening with regard to non-conforming behavior in the schools. Not even so much in books, but with Internet access, student Web sites and in student essays -- that's one we had seen hardly anything on before," she continues. "Principally, it's the Littleton events that have made high school administrators anxious and mildly paranoid."

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

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