Two decades after the name “Columbine” became synonymous with a school shooting, the suburban Denver community surrounding the school is debating whether it’s time to tear down a building that also became a beacon for people obsessed with the killings.
School officials said the number of people trying to get close to or even inside the school reached record levels this year, the 20th anniversary of the 1999 attack that killed 13 people. People try to peek into the windows of the school library, mistaking it for the long-demolished room where most of the victims died, or ask people on campus how to take a tour.
The buses full of tourists have mostly stopped over the years, but not the visitors. This year alone, security staff contacted more than 2,400 “unauthorized” people on Columbine’s campus.
Then, a few days before the anniversary, a young woman described as obsessed with the attack flew to Colorado and bought a shotgun, killing only herself yet sparking lockdowns and new fears. School security has intercepted others with a similar infatuation with the crime and its teen perpetrators — so-called Columbiners.
District security chief John McDonald can rattle off some of the most frightening instances of people who came to the campus: An Ohio couple later charged with planning a domestic terror attack; a Utah teen later arrested for a bombing plot against his school; and a Texas man apprehended at the school after he said he was filled by one of shooter’s spirits and intended to “complete his mission.”
“These people, they want the building,” McDonald said. “They want to experience it, to walk the halls … The only way we can stop that interest in the building is to move it. Otherwise they’re not going to stop coming.”
But Columbine, named after Colorado’s state flower, represents more than one day to this suburban area southeast of Denver. Boisterous call-and-response chants of “We are Columbine” dominate school pep rallies and more solemn occasions including an April ceremony marking the anniversary. At the nearby memorial just over a crest named “Rebel Hill” for the school’s mascot, a plaque quotes an unnamed student: “You’re a Columbine Rebel for life and no one can ever take that away from you.”
“It’s not just a building, it’s like a second home to us,” said Jenn Thompson, who as a 15-year-old huddled inside a science classroom during the attack. “It’s still standing 20 years later. It represents us, still standing 20 years later.” She hopes her own daughter, now 8 years old, can attend the school, home to about 1,700 students.
The fates of mass shooting sites around the United States are varied.
In Newtown, Connecticut, voters authorized the demolition of the Sandy Hook Elementary School building where 26 students and teachers were killed in 2012 and construction of a new school with the same name near the original site. The building where 17 people were killed in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018 is also expected to be razed; there has been no public discussion about the school’s name.
After a shooter killed 12 people inside an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in 2012, the building reopened with a new name and auditoriums identified with letters rather than numbers. In Orlando, the owner of the Pulse nightclub plans to make the site into a museum and a memorial to the 49 people gunned down there in 2016.
The discussion of Columbine’s future is likely to take months. An initial proposal would keep the school’s new library, which was built after the attack, and construct a new school on the existing campus but further from nearby streets to give security more room to intercept intruders.
An online survey gauging community support will close this week. District officials will spend the summer reviewing and summarizing responses. If they decide to present a plan to the school board in August, its members will determine whether to put the estimated $60 or $70 million expense on November ballots.
Conversations with victims’ families, survivors and current staff convinced district officials that changing the school’s name was a non-starter, said Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Jason Glass.
“Until you’ve heard those thousands of people yelling ‘We are Columbine’ together, you don’t really get it,” he said. “The sense of pride is real.”
Some of those closest to the shooting have changed their minds over the years on the best course of action.
After the attack, Frank DeAngelis, then the school’s principal, met with the families of those killed, students and staff about their scarred building’s future. He said the majority felt demolishing it meant “the two killers had won.”
So construction crews repaired the bullet holes, replaced broken glass and covered bloodstains and burns with fresh paint and flooring before classes resumed in the fall. The library was closed off and later torn down. Its former location became an airy atrium in the school’s cafeteria with a ceiling mural of an aspen tree canopy and 13 clouds — representing the dead.
But after years of coping with unwanted visitors, DeAngelis, who retired in 2014, said he now supports the proposal to demolish and rebuild the school.
“I think if we would have known or projected what was going to happen, we may have had a different discussion about going back into the building,” DeAngelis said.
Retired English teacher Paula Reed said she initially balked at the idea of demolishing the building she worked in for 32 years. After a few days, though, her opinion shifted.
“I never loved that building,” Reed said. “I loved the community, my kids, my colleagues. And their needs simply matter more than my sentimentality.”