"Eyes wide shut": The reopening of Columbine High School

                    By David Walsh

                    The ceremony marking the reopening of Columbine High School in
                    Littteton, Colorado, the scene of a horrifying mass shooting and double
                    suicide April 20, was a travesty. Revealed in the event was the inability
                    and unwillingness of any element within official American society to
                    confront the sources of the violence that has erupted in schools and

                    School administrators decided to hold a “pep rally,” the sort of event
                    organized to encourage a football team, to mark the occasion. According
                    to one press report, “The mood was upbeat, with cheerleaders in the
                    front rows screaming and waving pompoms and officials leading cheers.”

                    Principal Frank DeAngelis told the nearly 2,000 assembled students at
                    the “Take Back the School” rally, “I have waited for months to say this,
                    and I say this with great pride: Columbine, we are back!” He remarked
                    that some students “may be feeling a little anxious,” and urged them to
                    seek help. “You need to know you are not in this alone.”

                    DeAngelis made only oblique reference to the mass killing and the
                    teenage gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. “At Columbine High
                    School,” he said, “we will have zero tolerance for cruelty, harassment,
                    excessive hazing, discrimination, violence and intimidation. At Columbine
                    High School, we can no longer state that we were only kidding when we
                    made inappropriate comments or exhibited inappropriate behavior.”

                    Almost incredibly, no reference was made at the rally to the victims of the
                    shooting. No moment of silence, nothing. School administrator Barb
                    Monsea justified this on the grounds that officials wanted to create a
                    “positive atmosphere” for the students on the opening day. The
                    imperative, inevitably obeyed in American official circles, to be “positive”
                    and “move forward” after every unexplained disaster, resulted on this
                    occasion in an act smacking of indifference, even cruelty.

                    Some of the parents of the victims were understandably angered. Rich
                    Petrone, whose stepson Dan Rohrbough died in the attack, told the
                    press: “It was ‘Rah-rah. Let's forget about the kids who died.... Let's
                    forget what happened.' I think that's wrong.” Rohrbough's father, Brian,
                    said: “You can't move forward without acknowledging what happened.
                    I'm very disappointed in the school board and with Frank DeAngelis....
                    My only child was murdered here. I am very fearful that what happened
                    here will happen again.” Phyllis Valasquez, whose son Kyle died in the
                    attack, noted, “If it wasn't for the murdered kids and the injured kids,
                    they wouldn't be having a rally.”

                    A number of students suffered devastating injuries in the April 20 killing
                    spree. Richard Castaldo, 17, remains in Craig Hospital; he was shot eight
                    times and a spinal cord injury has left him with no feeling from the waist
                    down. Anne Marie Hochhalter, 17, was just released from Craig; she is
                    also paralyzed from the waist down. Sean Graves, 15, suffered a spinal
                    cord injury, and can only walk with the help of a walker and a therapist.
                    Patrick Ireland, 17, is undergoing daily outpatient treatment. He was shot
                    twice in the head and suffered a brain injury. Lance Kirklin, 16, returned
                    to school Monday. A shotgun blast tore away much of the left side of his
                    face. He faces reconstructive surgery at least four more times. None of
                    these students were mentioned, even though Ireland and Kirklin were in

                    It only needed the discovery of three swastikas—etched on a girls'
                    bathroom and a retaining wall at the school's entrance—the day of the
                    school's reopening to bring home the reality that pep rallies and platitudes
                    will have no impact on the deep-seated problems that exploded to the
                    surface last April. DeAngelis told reporters Tuesday that he was
                    “disappointed that my message of tolerance and respect” was lost on the
                    party responsible for the defacing of school property.

                    It is not a matter of singling out for blame the Columbine students,
                    parents or teachers, or even school administrators per se. But what one
                    draws, above all, from Monday's unreal and hollow event is the extent to
                    which official America and a large part of the population are truly in the
                    dark about the nature of their own society and its deep discontents.

                    DeAngelis's remark about “inappropriate behavior” going ignored seems
                    so out of proportion to the seriousness of the April 20 massacre as to
                    appear ludicrous. Let's recall that Harris and Klebold manufactured
                    dozens of bombs, studied the layout of the school and its traffic patterns
                    to insure the greatest number of casualties and hoped to kill as many as
                    500 people with a propane bomb, before hijacking an airplane and
                    crashing it into New York City. Moreover, they chose Hitler's birthday
                    as the date of their attack, identifying themselves with one of the greatest
                    mass murderers of all time. In a statement that he posted on his web site,
                    Harris wrote: “I am the law, if you don't like it you die. If I don't like you
                    or I don't like what you want me to do, you die.”

                    Nothing that has been written in the media or appeared in statements by
                    school officials indicates that the slightest consideration has been given to
                    the social conditions that produce this sort of behavior. This, in spite of
                    continuing school and workplace killings, new racist and anti-Semitic

                    Blame is pointed in a number of directions: at the youths' parents, at lax
                    school security, at the weakening of society's moral fiber, at the inability
                    to read “warning signs,” etc. Republicans in Congress, with political links
                    to the forces promoting right-wing terrorism, propose to hang the Ten
                    Commandments in every school. No one greets this with the derision that
                    it deserves.

                    Insofar as there is agreement among the “experts,” it is on the need to
                    beef up security. Many schools are already prison-like, with metal
                    detectors at the doors, fences with controlled entries, uniformed police
                    on guard, and so forth. New proposals include random searches or
                    searches of backpacks, the introduction of see-through bags, the
                    elimination of lockers, etc. How an atmosphere of fear and repression is
                    supposed to encourage tolerance and understanding is anyone's guess.

                    A recent report on CNN cited the comment of Dave Klinger, a
                    University of Missouri professor who oversees a federally-funded study
                    of the use of force by SWAT teams. “Columbine was a big wake-up call
                    for a lot of people,” he said. “It is no longer unpredictable that some
                    school, somewhere is going to be assaulted by some sort of lunatic, so
                    you'd better prepare for it.”

                    CNN reported that participants at a recent four-day police seminar in
                    Palm Beach, Florida reenacted the Columbine tragedy, “using fake
                    blood, screaming students, screeching fire alarms and paint-ball guns. In
                    Austin, Texas, the police department recently started a program called
                    Homicide in Progress for officers who are among the first to respond,
                    said Paul Ford, a senior police officer and SWAT team member. ‘It
                    teaches them to recognize situations like Columbine, and give the officers
                    some options on what they can do ... whether it is rescuing victims or
                    going directly to the source of the threat,' he said. ‘We don't want to wait
                    until it happens here to start training. We're trying be proactive.'”

                    The reopening of Columbine could not be allowed to pass without the
                    intervention of Bill Clinton. Heaping insult on injury, Clinton noted that it
                    was important to tell children “that the chances of a tragedy happening
                    are small, less than they used to be, less than one in a million.” This
                    certainly offers some measure of consolation to the students and parents
                    at Columbine. And to the rest of the country's school children, to know
                    that they only run a relatively small risk of being slaughtered in their
                    classrooms! There are nations—not generally considered to be heaven
                    on earth either—where such risks are essentially unknown.

                    Clinton will himself appear in television spots urging parents and children
                    to talk about the problem of school violence. “Will this public service ad
                    get every parent in America and every child to talk about every
                    dangerous thing that happens at every school? No. But it will have a huge
                    impact,” Clinton said. If a pious message from Bill Clinton were to have
                    any discernible impact on America's parents and children, or anyone else
                    for that matter, it would be cause for astonishment and perhaps alarm.

                    Everything is being done except the critical thing: to make an analysis of
                    the social situation in the US. Politicians and media pundits offer differing
                    shallow conclusions, but they all agree on one thing: the killings have
                    nothing to do with the basis of the social order. That they spring to
                    defend. In any event, one is hardly expecting from official America a
                    searching self-criticism, but the policy of sweeping major problems under
                    the rug will inevitably have disastrous results. In considering the official
                    response to events such as Columbine, it is difficult sometimes to
                    calculate precisely where reaction ends and ignorance, hand in hand with
                    wishful thinking, begins.

                    Notwithstanding the rising stock market indices, which help to delude
                    those enriching themselves that things have “never been better,” America
                    is a deeply disturbed country, beset by enormous social and moral
                    problems. The signs are there for those who care to read them: the
                    widening gap between wealth and poverty; the alienation of the majority
                    of the population from an increasingly discredited political establishment;
                    the disaffection of the youth in particular; the growth of neo-fascist
                    elements; the glorification of war and violence; the worship of wealth.
                    The events at Columbine, no matter how indirectly or contradictorily,
                    flow from these social circumstances. Predictably the political and media
                    elite closes its eyes to this reality; it would be perilous for the general
                    population to do so.