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Students return to Columbine HS

The Associated Press

LITTLETON, Colo.

Monday, August 16, 1999

LITTLETON, Colo. – About 400 parents and alumni lined a sidewalk in front of Columbine High School today, clapping as students headed back to class for the first time since last spring’s deadly rampage.

Students headed from a secured parking area to a spot near the school, where they planned to hold a ”Take Back the School Rally,” prior to going inside the renovated building.

After the rally, the U.S. flag that has been at half-staff since the April 20 shootings was to be raised and the school’s doors opened.

”I’m ready to go back. I’m so excited,” junior Jennifer Despain, 17, said today. ”Most people have already had some kind of closure at the school. We went back a couple of times for renovation, registration, to paint tiles. Now, we’re just ready to move on.”

Theresa Redinger, a 1988 graduate who helped form the human chain, said she just wanted to offer any help that she could. ”Mostly, I’m just here to keep people like you away. These kids need their peace. Enough already,” she said.

Among the planned security measures were armed guards for the school’s entrance, dogs sniffing the grounds for explosive devices, and dozens of police officers patrolling the neighborhood.

Many of the nearly 2,000 students have mixed feelings about returning to Columbine for classes for the first time since the April 20 rampage.

Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, stormed the school with guns and bombs, killing a dozen classmates and a teacher before committing suicide. Twenty-three others were injured.

”I’m really excited to get our school back,” said Julie McGinley, 15, who was in the cafeteria eating lunch when the shootings began.

”But I’m nervous, too,” she said. ”All summer I’ve been trying to live life as normal. Being back there is going to trigger a lot of memories.”

Joshua Lapp, 16, who witnessed several of the killings, said he dreads facing the mob of cameras and reporters.

”I’d rather just be in class,” he said.

Parents and alumni planned to shield students and teachers from the media attention by forming a human barrier along a path between a secured parking lot and the school.

The Jefferson County school district, which is imposing tight restrictions on the media, informed photographers and television crews that taking pictures of injured students was prohibited.

Inside the school, bullet and shrapnel holes have been plastered and painted over. And there’s a new wall of lockers blocking the entrance to the second-floor library where 10 people died.

”That’s the creepiest part of all,” said Miss Blair. ”The library is just gone.”

In an effort to give the school a new feel, construction crews renovated its interior, painting the formerly gray walls white, green and blue and replacing carpet in the school’s sprawling corridors with white tile.

”I think (the changes) will make it easier for kids who saw things,” said Lindsey Neam, a senior. ”But for others it might make it harder, because kids just want things to be the same. They want to get back to normal.”

Security has also been tightened. Along with armed guards, the number of surveillance cameras inside the school has been increased by 16 and all students and staff must wear identification badges.

The students will not have to pass through metal detectors or let anyone check backpacks. The nearly 30 extra police scheduled to be on hand Monday were to handle primarily traffic and crowd control.

”We heard shortly after the tragedy and from lots of people – students, staff, parents – that they didn’t want their school to be turned into a fortress,” said school district spokesman Rick Kaufman.

Two mental health counselors have joined the regular staff of six counselors, in case the return is emotionally jarring for any student or teacher. There is also a safe room in the school for anyone who needs special attention during the first week of class.

On Sunday, 19 churches in Littleton held simultaneous back-to-school services to lift lingering clouds of grief and fear.

Bart Campolo, whose Kingdomworks does inner-city mission work in Philadelphia, was one of the main speakers at the Abiding Hope Lutheran Church.

”You’d better believe that good overcomes evil or I don’t know how you can go back to school,” he said.