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Should schools and buildings be torn down after mass shootings? Columbine looks to others as it struggles with trespassers

There are countless examples of macabre tourist attractions that have drawn the focus of the curious and the obsessed, or they were razed or remodeled quickly

Officers from Jeffco Public Schools tell a motorist that they can not be on the property of Columbine High School on June 13, 2019, in Littleton. The school district is considering the demolition of Columbine, the scene of a mass assault more than 20 years ago, and rebuilding the current school. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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Just two months before the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings the school resource officer on campus called the Jefferson County Sheriff for help.

A 29-year-old man from Texas was in the school parking lot taking pictures and making bizarre statements. Harry Carswell told an officer he had channeled one of the Columbine shooters and planned to return to the school for the 20th commemoration in April.  

According to a police report, Carswell, who was living in his van, was convinced he was “the same person” as the now-deceased killer and had traveled to find the shooter’s parents to find out if they thought so, too. He also told the deputy, according to the affidavit, that he had been contacted by the FBI for researching how to make bombs.

Carswell, who was arrested for trespassing and is now jailed in a different county on unrelated charges, is just one of the record 2,400 people who were stopped or arrested between June 2018 and May 2019 at Columbine High School because they did not belong there. Other Jeffco schools have an average of only three to four calls per year, according to safety officials in charge of responding to them.  

Some of these contacts are harmless; some are considered a threat. But Columbine is stranger-danger on steroids. So much so, followers of the massacre have a nickname: “Columbiners.” It’s that obsession that is driving some, including current and former school staff and Jefferson County’s school superintendent, to conclude recently that it’s time to tear down Columbine and build a new school.

An officer from Jeffco Public Schools listens on his radio as students leave Columbine High School on April 16, 2019 following a lockdown at Columbine High School and other Denver area schools. (David Zalubowski, AP)

Others in Colorado and around the country have struggled with similar questions: How do you look at sites of tragedy and horror? As monuments to the victims and survivors, or painful reminders of those horrible events? Can you acknowledge the human need to see and touch history — from Ford’s Theatre in Washington to the World Trade Center in New York — without in some way encouraging the mentally unbalanced who might draw inspiration from them?

There is no single answer, and 20 years after two teenage gunmen killed 12 classmates and a teacher, the Columbine community is now looking hard at itself and others.

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Tourist attractions

There are countless examples of macabre tourist attractions that have drawn the focus of the curious and the obsessed, or they were razed or remodeled quickly. Among them:

  • JonBenet Ramsey’s house: The Boulder home where the 6-year-old girl was found murdered in a dark basement room the day after Christmas 1996. With so much international attention, traffic around the home got so congested, the owners changed the address to 749 15th St. from 755 in hopes of keeping gawkers away. They also added a tall wrought iron fence and tall trees around the property to keep people from wandering on the lawn.
  • The Aurora Theater Shooting:  The Aurora Century 16 theater was redesigned and has changed its name twice since a gunman killed 12 people on July 20, 2012.  A memorial was built nearby.
  • Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School: This spring, Florida’s Broward School District received $25 million to demolish and rebuild the three-story Building 12, where a gunman killed 17 students and teachers on Valentine’s Day 2018. But because the state attorney is pursuing the death penalty against the shooter, the building won’t be torn down right away. “He wants to take a jury through the site for the trial, so we have to drive by it every day. It’s very emotional,” says Annika Dworet, whose son Nick was killed in the massacre. The Dworets’ other son, Alexander, was wounded in the shooting, and will be a junior next year. “Seeing the school come down will be a healing thing, destroying something that was so evil,” says father Mitch Dworet. “I don’t want to keep looking at that building.” Dworet had a dream recently that the new school would have a pool in it, something Stoneman did not have for Nick, who had a full scholarship to swim in college and dreamed of competing in the Olympics.
  • Sandy Hook Elementary School: No child entered the school after the December 2012 massacre. The original 60-year-old school was demolished less than a year after 26 children and teachers were killed there. All of the metal was melted down and the rest was pulverized. The school was rebuilt in August 2016 with $50 million from the state of Connecticut and is located on the same property as the old one, with a longer driveway, 25 classrooms, two treehouses and amped-up security including key cards, extra surveillance and bullet-proof glass.
  • Virginia Tech: The second floor of the southwest wing of Virginia Tech’s Norris Hall was never torn down. But the area that was the site of the murder of 30 faculty and students on April 16, 2007, was renovated soon after the shooting. Today, it is home to several academic departments, including the Center for Peace and Violence Prevention. Ambler Johnston Hall, where two others were killed that day, was also closed for a time, but is now a dorm.
  • Pulse Nightclub: A gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at the club in 2016. It’s now an “interim museum” while a nonprofit group called onePulse raises money to turn it into a national memorial. So far, the Florida legislature has promised to give $500,000, and Orange County plans to add $10 million.

Columbiners

Carswell certainly wasn’t the first — or last — Columbiner to be drawn to the school.

Last August, Elizabeth “Bee” LeCron traveled to Colorado from Ohio for a  Columbine pilgrimage, announcing the tour on her Tumblr: “We’re gonna try to hit Rampart Range, the memorial, the gas station, the bowling alley and such. It’s gonna be a lot of fun and I can’t wait to post pictures.”

MORE: Twenty years after Columbine, Colorado schools are assessing an astonishing number of student threats

LeCron, 24,  is now in federal prison in Ohio, facing a life sentence for planning a mass attack at a bar. Court records show she was communicating with the Charleston church shooter last summer, idolized the accused Parkland murderer, and had several weapons at the ready including an AK-47 and bomb making materials. Federal investigators considered her volume of violent social  media posts as a “call to action.”

A Nevada woman who calls herself Samantha Klebold took a “murder vacation” posting YouTube videos she filmed on her phone, circling Columbine at night. “Oh my God, it’s like that’s where it happened,” she exclaims to her social media followers. “… It’s like, I’m here!” According to law enforcement, she changed her name because she believes she is the spiritual wife of one of the killers.

In April, 18-year-old Sol Pais, who the FBI said was “infatuated with Columbine,” made a one-way journey to Colorado from Florida dressed like the shooters, and even bought a similar weapon — a pump-action shotgun — and ammo. Her visit prompted 16 school districts from Fort Collins to Douglas County to shut down for the day. Jeffco sheriffs and school officials did not know that she killed herself in the mountains before she could harm others.

Still, Pais’ pilgrimage scared law enforcement officers like John McDonald, who is in charge of security for the 157 Jefferson County Schools.

“These people want to see where the tragedy happened,” he said. “They feel connected to the killers.”

Being the go-to guy responsible for keeping Columbine students safe from an ongoing, creepy parade of potential threats like Carswell, Pais, Klebold and LeCron keeps McDonald up at night. Of those thousands of stops, he says there’s no way to estimate how many were a serious threat and how many were merely curious.  

“You can never tell how dangerous someone is until they engage in attack behavior,” McDonald says.

MORE: Jeffco Public Schools’ security chief was already losing sleep over the Columbine anniversary. And then this week happened.

For example, he says people will wander into the school parking lot from the Columbine Memorial and say they’re lost. But, he says, “they just say that so that they can get on the property. ”

McDonald says he can’t remember all of the scary encounters at the school, but he does mention “the sovereign citizen who showed up a few weeks ago talking about the conspiracy of Columbine and his feeling of being connected to the killers or the student from another district who was expelled for making threats to his school and then showed up at Columbine at midnight two months ago. They all pose risk,” he says. “But until they do something, you can’t ever know, so there is no way for us to distinguish them.”

Denver police psychologist John Nicoletti agrees.

“These people are real threats,” Nicoletti says. “People don’t realize that school security has to catch every single one of these. That’s a big burden.”

A New Columbine?

Trespassers are a central reason many of the current and past Columbine staff agree it’s time to tear down the school and rebuild a bit to the west. Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass floated the controversial suggestion in a letter to the community earlier this month titled “A New Columbine?”

“Since the morbid fascination with Columbine has been increasing over the years, rather than dissipating, we believe it is time for our community to consider this option for the existing Columbine building,” Glass says in the letter.  

Designing a safer school

John McDonald, who is in charge of security for Jefferson County Schools, recently met with a dozen other school resource officers from around the state as they got certified in a program which, last century, no one could foresee would exist. CPTED, or Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, specializes in the design and management of secure facilities, including schools. It’s a safe building model so state-of-the-art, metal detectors are considered Stone Age. “This is the 21st century, looking at every school from curbside to classroom to understand where gaps exist in terms of safety. The ability to look at the environment from lighting to shrubbery … sightlines, door locks and glass.”  

School officials are consulting with the FBI and behaviorists like Nicoletti about whether moving the school will dull people’s obsession with Columbine’s bloody history.

“If you move it, it will lose its potency,” says Nicoletti, who was on scene when Columbine happened. “It’s like moving 911 from NY to Kansas City.  If something changes, it no longer has the same meaning, but keeping it there will mean more of the same.”

Under the plan, Jefferson County voters would be asked to approve $60 million to $70 million dollars in funding to pay for a replacement, which would mean, roughly, an extra $2 per month in additional property taxes for a $500,000 home.  

About 7,000 people responded to an online survey about the proposed idea. Jeffco Schools spokesperson Diane Wilson says officials are assessing the responses and results should be made public in mid-July

Even though Jefferson County residents would be the only ones to weigh in if the tax makes the ballot, it’s been a hot topic for Coloradans.

Detractors are not convinced that moving the school would keep the curious away. Others say there are plenty of Jeffco schools in worse shape that need the dollars more than 46-year-old Columbine High.

State Rep. Patrick Neville, a Columbine shooting survivor, calls the idea an “incredibly inappropriate” proposal.

“Using the tragedy as an excuse to raise taxes is inexcusable,” he told The Colorado Sun in an email. “If it was just about maintenance I could understand, however, that is not the case and I am saddened that they have clearly used the tragedy as an excuse to get more revenue, 20 years later.”

Kiki Leyba was also inside the school on April 20, 1999. He was in his first year of teaching when the shootings happened and has remained for 20 years, becoming a witness to an alarming increase in “looky-loos.”

He’s shocked by anyone who opposes paying for a new building.

“You wouldn’t pay $2 a month to rectify this problem?” he says. “You see the Columbine license plates that say ‘Respect Life.’ We’ll buy the license plate, but we won’t throw in two bucks a month?”

Drivers pay $50 each for the special Columbine plates, which recognize victims and survivors of the massacre. Since 2000 when they were first introduced, 92,495 have been sold, bringing $4,625,000 to state coffers. They are by far the best-selling designer license plate offered by the Colorado DMV.

Leyba and other teachers often watch between classes as cops rope off the front entrance to the school, stopping people before they can get inside. “Anyone can drive through the parking lot into the front door. We don’t have those round ball barriers you see at Target and King Soopers. Our only protection is the trees that bloom three months a year.”

“It’s so bizarre to me,” says former Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis. “If you would have asked us 20 years ago, we would never have thought we’d still be talking about Columbine like this. But the lady from Florida (Pais), who wasn’t even born in 1999, who showed up the week of the anniversary was the tipping point. Enough is enough.”

There are as many opinions on what to do with Columbine High as there are people who were touched by the murders.  

Craig Scott, whose sister, Rachel, was the first student killed and who saw friends gunned down in the library, feels that building a new Columbine may “deter some of the curious wanderers, but it may not stop someone deeply fascinated with Columbine with negative intentions.”

After Columbine, Scott started a non-profit, helping kids around the country to learn respect for themselves and others.

“I’ve visited thousands of schools over the years,” Scott says. “And to me, Columbine is nicer than most.”

He doesn’t want to see Columbine use money that could be used at schools needing it more.

Betty Schoels, whose nephew, Isiah, was murdered in the library, says the school should have been torn down in 1999 after the shooting, but now she thinks it should remain.

“I believe Columbine High should be the monument to remind us of failure,” she says. “If any good should come out, it’s worth the save!”

Current and graduating Columbine students are divided on the issue. Rachel Hill, who was student body vice president last year, texted The Sun that she is  “…100% in favor of Columbine getting a new building. We need and deserve it, as long as the name/mascot/colors stay the same.”

Teagz Simons, another outgoing senior, is a fired-up “no” vote. He texts that he knows Columbine survivors with PTSD who seek out the old school for solace when they’re in a rough patch. “It’s wrong. That building isn’t just a school, it is a symbol of our community.”

Ana Lemus-Paiz, who just graduated, says tearing down the school “is a ridiculous suggestion. Whether or not it’s the same building, there will always be mentally unstable people who continue to seek it out. The building means a lot to the parts of the community who were taught there.”

McDonald, the school security chief, understands the argument.

“It’s emotional. I completely get that,” he says. “We need to find ways to honor this and at the same time protect our kids. But we need to have the conversation.”  

Columbine is different because the shooting there has become so notorious.  

“The place has given back to me in so many ways. … it is a strange animal, though,” Leyba said while on a head-clearing summer road trip to Mesa Verde. “We are not a museum or a mausoleum. We are a working school. People love to say ‘We are Columbine.’ But are we, really?”