Jason Glass is the superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, which includes Columbine High School.
Two thousand four hundred and one.
That is the number of “unauthorized individuals” who came to Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., between June 2018 and May 2019. Even now, 20 years after the horrific murders of 13 people at the school in April 1999, the site continues to attract the interest of outsiders.
Most mean no harm — they are tourists or others who are curious about the site. They roll up into the parking lot and start taking photos or selfies. The occasional tour bus comes to the school and attempts to unload sightseers.
Others are more aggressive. They pull on doors or try to peep inside, trying to get a better look or perhaps testing the building’s security.
And there is a small number who come with more troubling intent, as Carol McKinley of the Colorado Sun reported in a recent review of intrusions at Columbine.
One man traveled from Texas to Colorado, McKinley found, convinced that he was the “same person” as one of the 1999 shooters, who killed themselves at Columbine after murdering 12 students and one teacher. He wanted to find the killer’s parents to see if they thought so, too. He was arrested for trespassing after taking photos at the school and making troubling statements to police officers. He had previously come to the FBI’s attention for researching how to make bombs.
Another person, calling herself Samantha Klebold, came from Nevada believing she was the spiritual wife of one of the killers, Dylan Klebold. She would drive around the school at night as part of what she called a “murder vacation,” posting photos and videos on social media.
And then there was the troubled Florida teen who bought a one-way ticket to Colorado. She dressed like the killers, purchased a weapon and ammo like that used in the Columbine shooting and was being monitored by law enforcement for a troubling fascination with the murders. She ultimately took her own life , but not before causing a statewide manhunt and a shutdown of Denver-area schools.
That isn’t to say Columbine is unsafe. The school is arguably now one of the safest in the world — it has to be. Columbine has sophisticated technological and human security systems to protect it from external threats. Internally, it has a powerful, positive culture and a strong mental health and counseling system.
Still, there are intractable challenges in operating a comprehensive high school for roughly 1,700 students in a building that seems to serve as a macabre inspiration for the contagion of school shootings in the United States over the past two decades.
The library where many of the murders took place was replaced, and there have been other renovations over the years. But in the aftermath of the shootings, there was a sense in the community that demolishing the building would somehow mean giving in to the shooters. Few could have predicted at that time that we would be managing so many threats all these years later.
With no sign that the threats and unwanted intrusions will abate, I have asked people to consider the possibility that the building should be razed and a new facility constructed.
The subject is a complex, emotional one. Public deliberation has not been easy. Most people are used to marketing efforts aimed at swaying the public toward some predestined outcome. We have not taken that approach with Columbine. Perhaps predictably in this polarized age, some in the community have adopted hard “for” or “against” positions.
Opposition includes those who object for tax reasons (rebuilding is not free), for symbolic reasons (the building should stand against the actions of the murderers) or for emotional reasons (the building was a place of grieving and healing for many). Some also feel that rebuilding the school would be no guarantee that the external threats would stop.
Supporters of rebuilding have a variety of reasons, too. Some think that architectural features needed to increase student safety can be achieved only with new construction. Others feel strongly that removing the current building, so familiar from media coverage, would greatly reduce unwanted fascination with Columbine.
Simply changing the school’s name, as some outside observers have suggested, is a nonstarter at a school that cherishes tradition. Hearing the crowds at games or school events chant “We. Are. Columbine.” can bring chills and tears to any listener.
So the conversation continues. From my vantage point, there are no “right” answers — there are options, all of which come bundled with challenges, opportunities and consequences.
Regardless of what happens with the building, perhaps the greatest outcome would be for our community to engage thoughtfully on a very difficult and emotional issue, not seeing the other side as “good” or “bad” but instead speaking directly and honestly with those who see things differently. And all the while, still respecting and loving each other as neighbors.
It would really be something if that was what Columbine came to be known for, wouldn’t it?