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January 30, 2009 at 6:16 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

When Columbine hit I was a part-time reporter in Denver at the Rocky Mountain News and stringing for a number of national publications. On Tuesday April 20, 1999, I was scheduled to take the test to work at the Associated Press because I had long wanted to be a foreign correspondent, and the AP has a multitude of overseas bureaus. At about 11:30 a.m., ten minutes after Columbine started, the deputy national editor I worked with at the Boston Globe, Dean Inouye, called me at home. He said there had been reports of a shooting at Columbine High School, a place I had never heard of. Dean said a student might be shot in the leg – the reports were sketchy, and just coming in. Dean wasn’t sure he wanted me to go to the scene, but it was a possibility.

This might not be a big story, I thought. But I double-checked the local news. Wham. The wall to wall local coverage made clear that a full-blown school shooting had come to a Denver suburb. I called Dean back and said it was huge. I was going out to the school. As I was getting ready editors at the other publications I free-lanced for, the Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, and US News & World Report, called in rapid succession in the breathless, desperate voice of journalists on deadline: Can you cover the story for us? Yes, yes, yes, I said, figuring I would sort it all out later.

I have never covered a war zone. But Columbine seemed to be a close approximation. Clement Park, which rubs up against the school, was the staging area for police, reporters, and grief. That first day, before the international hordes of media and the general public arrived, friends and family gathered in the park hoping to connect with missing Columbine students and faculty. Students who did not know if their classmates were dead would find them amidst the mass, and burst into hugs and tears. On that first day, then Sheriff John Stone said the death toll might reach twenty-five. As a reporter kneeling in front of Stone at that impromptu press conference on the park grass when he uttered those words, the news was so stunning it seemed improper to immediately ask a follow up question. Stone, it turns out, was wrong. But the final number of dead, fifteen, remains no less mind-numbing.

In the following days, the park continued as a town square. Grief was translated into clumps of teddy bears, flowers, and every manner of knickknack that twisted through the grass like a lumpy snake and stretched the equivalent of several city blocks. By the Friday after Columbine, spring snow turned Clement Park into a mud pit. War zone, I thought.

As the crowds filtered out of Columbine in the following months one fundamental question, which became the genesis for my book, remained. That was why school shootings seemed to suddenly be occurring across the country with greater frequency. It was a trend Columbine now cemented in the national psyche. But where did this come from? And when the shootings seemed to taper off, that just begged the question as to why. Then they exploded all over again.

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