Columbine and Newtown Shootings

January 16, 2013 at 12:59 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Adult school shooters are learning from children – that is the idea I begin with in discussing the Newtown and Columbine shootings for a USA Today Op-Ed.

In my book Columbine: A True Crime Story, I discuss how traditionally school shootings undertaken by juveniles occurred in suburbs and small towns “because in those locales, high school is the only game in town. A loser there feels like a loser through and through and takes revenge on the source of their angst and the most immediate symbol of society: the schoolyard and its social hierarchies.”

Also, school shootings overwhelmingly occurred in the South and West of the United States. A so-called “culture of honor infused people in these regions – namely males – with the idea that if their honor had been violated, it was appropriate to respond with violence. Student outcasts translated this into a school shooting when they felt their mates had not given them proper recognition.

“Now adults everywhere have taken up the mantle of the mass shooting.”

As we explore the motivations of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter in Newtown, Connecticut, we should also keep in mind that violent threats, writings, and extreme changes in behavior are all warning signs we should look out for.

Taking Back Columbine on Film

April 16, 2012 at 12:20 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Amid the tears and reflections, anniversaries surrounding major events often emerge with a storyline.

At least that’s the way I’ve seen the April 20, 1999 Columbine High School shootings, where I was one of the first reporters on scene and ten years later published the book “Columbine: A True Crime Story.” The 13th anniversary is Friday.

The 10-year anniversary of the shootings, which prompted the greatest round of media attention since the shootings themselves, was no exception. The storyline then came, appropriately enough, at the culmination of a series of observances: A sunset ceremony at Clement Park adjacent the school. Former President Bill Clinton, who was in office at the time of the shootings, spoke by videotape, and approximately 1,000 people attended, according to one estimate.

The storyline from many of those who had gathered, as The Denver Post put it, was “The time to write a new meaning for ‘Columbine’ has come.” The paper quoted teacher Lee Andres as saying, “It’s my hope you look at your school as that — your school — not the most famous high school in the world.” Andres added that the world may then see Columbine as “a symbol for strength, courage and hope.” That same storyline was echoed earlier in the day when the state legislature passed the resolution “Columbine High School Triumph Over Tragedy.”

These were not bad thoughts. But the truth is that Columbine will never cease to be the scene where two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher before taking their own lives. It may never cease to be the archetype of school shootings. With apologies to Andres, Columbine alumni, and current students, this is not a bad thing either. To whitewash what happened at Columbine would also be a crime.

And yet, as we approach the 13th anniversary, the Columbine story is being revised in legitimate and important ways. This is not a nod to the pronouncements made on the 10-year anniversary, but like other historical turns, this change appears to result from the random yet timely collision of various factors: the rise of social media, one person’s vision, and enough distance from the original event to bring perspective and healing. And it is happening on film.

Last year the film “13 Families” was released portraying the journeys of the victim families. This was not the first time these families had taken ownership of the tragedy – there had been everything from lawsuits to the successful drive for a new school library, where most were killed. But the film was seen as another triumph for victim families in telling their story rather than the killers’.

And now Columbine grad and Denver resident Samuel J. Granillo, who works in film and television as a freelance camera and production assistant, is trying to raise funds for a film called “Columbine: Wounded Minds” about the survivors. Other Columbine students have explored the shootings, including Brooks Brown’s book “No Easy Answers.” Granillo was a 17-year-old junior lunching in the cafeteria when the shootings began. He and 17 others were then trapped in a kitchen cafeteria for three hours until rescued by SWAT.

As Granillo writes on the film Website, the “unofficial thought” for making the film was “how to get help to those still suffering from the mental and physical traumas of the event.” He adds, “The DREAM is to create a formula or foundation providing free services to all those who need mental health help. From soldiers coming home to other school shooting survivors, a plan needs to be devised….”

Granillo has raised approximately $15,000 of the $250,000 he is seeking for the film, but is already doing some interviews, fueled by his passion and the volunteer help of friends. Granillo’s film has been mentioned in a number of Denver media stories, and emerged as a counterpoint to an already controversial miniseries on the shootings proposed by Lifetime. Granillo and I are Facebook friends, and his Facebook page has become an online forum for discussing the healing and history surrounding the shootings.

The highly publicized 10-year anniversary of the shootings produced the call to rewrite and take back Columbine High. But this 13th anniversary – surely a blip on the media and public radar – may go down as the year that made that pronouncement reality.

From what I’ve seen so far, I think Granillo gets it right on his Website when he writes, “This documentary isn’t just a message, it’s a movement.”

Chardon and Columbine: Suburbs, Small Towns and School Shootings

March 1, 2012 at 11:01 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Chardon High School has at least a couple key things in common with Columbine that might help explain Monday’s shooting.

Three students from Chardon, in northeastern Ohio, are dead and two are injured. The suspected shooter has been identified as T.J. Lane. 

The first similarity that came to mind is that Columbine and Chardon may both be classified as suburbs and small towns, where many school shootings have occurred.

According to the U.S. Census, Chardon’s 2010 population was only 5,148, and overwhelmingly white — 96.9 percent. As I point out in my book, Columbine: A True Crime Story, Columbine does not even exist. It is not an official city, but a “Census designated place” with a population of about 24,000 that is 92.5% white.

School shootings tend to occur in these places because they are so homogeneous that youths who are different from others feel like complete outcasts who have no place else to turn. Social services in such small areas may also be limited.

While shootings have traditionally occurred in suburbs and small towns, they are still seen as everyday Americana — a point the Chardon schools superintendent drove home: “We’re not just any old place, Chardon,” he said, according to the New York Times. “This is every place. As you’ve seen in the past, this can happen anywhere.”


Can Lifetime Handle Columbine?

February 26, 2012 at 2:12 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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“Columbine killer Eric Harris wanted to haunt survivors from beyond the grave with flashbacks and drive them insane, he said in a video diary before the killings,” – that’s how my recent Op-Ed in the Denver Post begins. “As we approach Columbine’s 13th anniversary in April, more than 5,000 people are now accusing Lifetime Networks — which touts ‘content that celebrates, entertains and supports women’ — with bringing them ugly Columbine flashbacks.”

Those 5,000 are now over 5,600 people who have put their names to the online petition titled “Say ‘No’ to Columbine Movie.”

“We ask for basic human respect be shown to a community that does not want to be exploited over a sensitive, and persistently prodded event,” the petition begins. It adds, “There is no mention of any proceeds being directed at programs that address school violence. There has been no indication that people were actually consulted from the community. There is no indication that anyone has been contacted for likeness rights. How the network has gone about making this movie is questionable, which begs the question, ‘How tasteful is this movie going to be? Will it be historically accurate or just a gore-fest?’ ‘How distorted are they going to make the film to sell ad space?'”

The number of petition signers rocketed in a little over a week, and many indicated they were closely tied to the shootings that left 15 dead, including the two killers. The current goal is 7,500 signatures.

“I would argue that no one owns a tragedy such as Columbine,” I wrote in the commentary. “But why does Lifetime want to own a piece of it? No compelling answer has emerged. Does the network want to solve an unanswered question about the shootings? Or does it just want to entertain?”

The other part of the commentary was, “If Lifetime wants to enlighten us, it has already stumbled. Anyone can investigate for themselves what happened at Columbine. But Lifetime has chosen to tell a specific and unfounded story about Columbine….”

Don’t Vote Columbine

February 9, 2012 at 8:25 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Shots were heard round the world when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed twelve fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School before turning the guns on themselves on April 20, 1999.

Almost 13 years later, Illinois gets to vote on a legacy of the world’s most iconic school shooting, and I urge them to get it right.

I was one of the first reporters on scene on April 20, 1999 and covered the shootings as a staff writer at the now defunct Denver Rocky Mountain News. My colleagues and I broke major stories: the 911 tapes, the diversion files of the killers, and leaked crime scene photos. I wrote about the shootings for national publications including the Boston Globe, US News & World Report, and Chicago Tribune. On the 10-year anniversary of the shootings my definitive book was published Columbine: A True Crime Story (Ghost Road Press).

Another book, Columbine, by blogger Dave Cullen, is now in the running for the Illinois School Media Library Association Abraham Lincoln Award. The Lincoln is given “annually to the author of the book voted as most outstanding by participating students in grades nine through twelve in Illinois. The award is named for Abraham Lincoln, one of Illinois’ most famous residents and himself an avid reader and noted author,” according to the ISMLA Website. The award “is designed to encourage high school students to read for personal satisfaction and become familiar with authors of young adult and adult books.” Past winners have included Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (2008) and A Child Called “It” by Dave Pelzer (2005). The Lincoln award will be announced in March, one month shy of Columbine’s 13th anniversary.

Columbine, in many places, is a good attempt. But it has far too many serious shortcomings to be considered by ISMLA.

The nation’s most trusted media outlets may have misled ISMLA – and the rest of the country. Frank Rich, arguably the New York Times‘ most prominent columnist when Cullen’s Columbine was also released on the 10-year anniversary, wrote, “Dave Cullen reaffirms Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were instead ordinary American teenagers who worked at the local pizza joint, loved their parents and were popular among their classmates.” Aside from the shootings themselves, there are plenty of examples that the alleged bonhomie was not reciprocated. “You people could have shown more respect, treated me better, asked for knowledge or guidence [sic] more, treated me more like a senior and maybe I wouldn’t have been so ready to tear your [expletive] heads off,” Harris wrote a few months before the shootings in a typical diary entry.

(In another story New York Times literary critic Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Kass, whose tough account is made even sadder by the demise of The Rocky Mountain News in which his Columbine coverage appeared, has also delivered an intensive Columbine overview. Some of the issues he raises and information he digs up go unnoticed by Mr. Cullen.)

Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin reviewed Columbine and heralded the supposed revelation that student Cassie Bernall was not shot dead in the library after saying “yes” she believed in God. The false Bernall story did quickly travel worldwide after Columbine.

But five months after the shootings, the media dissected the Bernall myth once police investigators themselves sorted through events. (“Cassie probably never said yes, or anything else,” The Washington Post reported in September 1999.)

Many reviews of Columbine were not just faulty. Among the most egregious errors in the book itself is portraying the killers as normal teens accepted into the student body, and Harris as among the most popular (at least with the girls). The killers’ alienation, however, was one of their greatest motivators. Five days before the shootings, a recruiter made clear to Harris and his family he could not join the Marines, at least while he was on the psychotropic drug Luvox. Cullen claims it never happened. Cullen attributes thoughts to the killers – implying that Klebold lost his nerve during the shooting and was in general nothing more than a blameless lackey. Yet both killers share equally.

It’s horrible that the nation’s major media outlets could not bring accurate analysis to reviewing one of the nation’s major social issues. But the librarians at ISMLA – and its voters – should be a backstop to such media shortcomings and not vote Columbine.

Columbine and the End of Journalism, Part IX…Oprah

June 27, 2010 at 2:54 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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For proof of the widespread interest in Columbine’s ten-year anniversary last April 20, look to the biggest name in book publishing: Oprah.
She had planned a show the day of the anniversary titled “10 Years Later: The Truth About Columbine.” As I have discussed in this series of blogs, many Columbine “myths” were actually debunked years ago (aside from the new ones that cropped up on the ten-year). A trailer for Oprah show touts diaries of shooter Eric Harris (released years earlier) and how a parent complained a year before the shootings (probably the story of Randy Brown, known within days of the shootings). The only topic mentioned in the trailer that might have benefited from some fresh discussion was whether the shooters were bullied. An Oprah spokeswoman did not elaborate on what new information would come out on the show.
This segment wasn’t a big deal just because Oprah can sell books like nobody’s business. The ten-year was special. As I have written, coverage of that anniversary seems eclipsed only by coverage of the shootings themselves. Oprah’s segment had to be just right.
But Oprah canceled the show as it was set to air. “After reviewing it, I thought it focused too much on the killers,” she said. “Today, hold a thought for the Columbine community. This is a hard day for them.”
In Denver’s alternative weekly, Westword, Michael Roberts chronicled the cancellation as it occurred, “The Winfrey comment suggests that there’s more to the story — and there is.”
But the question, arguably, remains whether the show was canceled due to community outcry, a misguided segment, or both.
Opposition to the segment from two of the most well-known Columbine community members, Brian Rohrbough and Randy Brown, centered on the show’s guests. Rohrbough heard about the show when an Oprah producer called him asking for photos of his son, Dan, who was killed at Columbine. The photos were to be used for the anniversary segment. Rohrbough, who had been on the show before, learned that Columbine author Dave Cullen, lead Columbine investigator Kate Battan, and FBI Columbine investigator (and psychologist) Dwayne Fuselier were among the guests. (Disclosure: An Oprah producer called me and we talked about my Columbine book, but I guess I didn’t make the final cut.)
Rohrbough, who has been among the fiercest critics of the troubled Columbine investigation, said he would like to go on the show to rebut those guests. Investigative omissions by the Jefferson County Sheriff, for example, are well documented, and Rohrbough was bothered that the views of all three guests might go unchallenged. Brown sees Fuselier as part of the investigation and therefore part of the problem. He also believes Fuselier had a conflict of interest because two of his sons attended Columbine (one graduated before the shootings).
The Brown family now famously reported Harris and fellow shooter Dylan Klebold, multiple times to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office in the years leading up to the killings. The sheriff’s office did draw up a draft affidavit for a search warrant for Harris’s home, but never took it before a judge, and never acknowledged that until they were sued after the shootings. The sheriff thanked the Browns for their pre-Columbine vigilance by trying to refute their story and question whether their son Brooks Brown had prior knowledge of the shootings.
In the lead-up to the ten-year anniversary, Brown was also talking to an Oprah producer. “You’re going to hurt the [Columbine] families,” he said of the lineup. “Why are you doing this? This is the anniversary.”
The call ended up lasting maybe 40 minutes. In the end, Brown thinks Oprah listened. But he doesn’t think he himself stopped the show. “No one tells Oprah what to do,” he emphasizes.
The Denver Post at the time reported that Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis, who was also to appear, ended up opposing the show because it “was glorifying the two killers.”
Fuselier says an Oprah producer also told him on Saturday – two days before the show was to air – that it was being dropped. Fuselier did not disagree that the segment “focused too much” on the killers, but had also prepared an article on ways for parents to talk with their children.
Fuselier says that if critics have an issue with the Columbine investigation, they are “painting with a pretty broad brush” to include all the FBI too. Fuselier even recalls an instance where Brown gave him information that led to the successful prosecution of a post-Columbine threat. (Brown remembers talking to Fuselier, but on a different post-Columbine case.)
Spokeswoman Angela DePaul also has an answer as to whether anyone influenced Oprah.
“It was Ms. Winfrey’s sole decision to pull the show,” she says, and cleared up a somewhat open question when she added, “and there are no plans to air it in the future.”

Columbine and the End of Journalism…A Talk

April 29, 2010 at 11:45 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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(Note: I will focus on media coverage of Columbine; this is the official description):

Helen Verba Lecture Series to Feature Jeff Kass May 6

Columbine: A True Crime Story gives an in-depth look at the shooting and its aftermath

Nearly 11 years after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 classmates and a teacher, Columbine remains the world’s most iconic school shooting. Columbine: A True Crime Story, a victim, the killers and the nation’s search for answers is the first book of investigative journalism to tell the complete story of that day, the far-reaching consequences, and the common denominators among school shooters across the country.
Author Jeff Kass will discuss his book, at 6 p.m. May 6 as part of the Helen Verba Lecture Series, at the Denver Press Club, 1330 Glenarm Place.
Kass was one of the first reporters on scene and wrote the Page One, next day story for the Boston Globe. For 10 years he covered Columbine as a staff writer for the Rocky Mountain News. He has broken national stories on the shootings such as leaked crime scene photos, and the sealed diversion files of the killers. He has also reported the story extensively for the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Newsday, and U.S. News & World Report.
This event is free and open to the public, presented by the Colorado Society of Professional Journalists, The Denver Post and the Denver Press Club.

Columbine and the End of Journalism…Part VII, The Good Stuff

April 28, 2010 at 11:11 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Some reporters got it right on the ten-year anniversary of the Columbine shootings.
The Associated Press was among the first to signal the coming of the anniversary with a review of three new books on the shootings. Writer M.L. Johnson produced an informed and, following the AP tradition, straightforward review. By pointing up key differences and similarities, she avoids pure propagation of new myths. “[Dave] Cullen discounts the idea that Harris and Klebold were outcasts or bullied,” Johnson writes on the one hand. But she also added the flipside, well supported by the killers’ writings and of course their actions: “[Jeff] Kass describes the boys’ circle as ‘probably the lowest rung of the social ladder.’”
Johnson also juxtaposes theories as she discusses the “why.” Kass: “Columbine and other school shootings are an outgrowth of the South and West of the United States, and suburbs and small towns. In suburbs and small towns, if you’re an outcast in high school, you feel like a loser through-and-through because there are no alternative outlets to find your self-esteem. … And in the South and the West, there is a mentality that if you feel your honor has been injured, you take it upon yourself to retaliate.”
Johnson contrasts that with the idea that, “Cullen believes Harris would have killed regardless of where he lived.”
There is arguably a right and wrong amongst the various interpretations. But at least readers are given a choice.
* * *
Aside from Johnson two of the most insightful reviewers were Denver writers who, through their knowledge and research, were able to put Columbine in proper context. If all politics is local, maybe journalism is too.
The Denver Post review was especially important given that the rival Rocky Mountain News (where I worked for ten years) had ceased publishing less than two months earlier and the Post was now the only major daily in Colorado. Keith Coffman, who reviewed the Columbine books for the Post, was described as “a Colorado-based freelance journalist. He has written about Columbine for Reuters, The Denver Post and the governor’s Columbine Review Commission.”
“The Columbine massacre of a decade ago,” Coffman began, “was one of the most widely – if inaccurately – reported crime stories in American history.” Although the record also shows that many errors were corrected, which the Post captures: “Myths surrounding the school shooting that were seared into the public consciousness from the early news coverage were later debunked, but muted by the passage of time.” That key subtlety is the one that almost every reviewer and reporter across the nation missed, and so came to believe that what was old was news.
The Post also does good by doing no harm – i.e. not propagating new myths, and ends with a nuanced conclusion as to Columbine’s most vexing question: Why? The Post refuses to simply buy into the idea that the shooters were just normal, popular teens and allows for multiple viewpoints. Mental illness, the American West and the isolation of suburbia (Kass) versus Harris the psychopath (Cullen).
Next up: Denver Post opinion columnist Vincent Carroll weighs in, admirably, on Columbine myths, old and new.

Columbine and the End of Journalism…TIME Mag and LA Times miss the mark

April 21, 2010 at 11:34 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The lesson on this Columbine anniversary that hit April 20 may not come from the shootings themselves. But rather, how the media has covered the shootings since the ten-year anniversary last year.

I previously discussed shortcomings in Newsweek’s coverage of Columbine’s ten-year anniversary. But they were not the only ones who wrote as if they were unaware of the twists and turns the Columbine story had taken.
Writing in TIME magazine, Lev Grossman’s ten-year anniversary story was titled “The Meaning Of Murder.” The first line in TIME’s big piece tried to reach for news and said of the killers, “They weren’t gay.”
Grossman doesn’t say why that is new, and it’s not clear the (false) notion that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were gay ever gained acceptance in the mainstream media. On May 2, 1999, just less than two weeks after the shootings, the Rocky quoted someone who knew the killers with the same words Grossman used: “They were not gay. They did not wear makeup,” Dustin Gorton told the paper. “There’s so much information coming out about them that just isn’t true.” Stories on the “basement tapes” made by the killers often note their anti-gay rhetoric, including a TIME magazine story published in 1999.
The next line in TIME magazine’s big ten-year piece announces that the killers “weren’t part of the Trench Coat Mafia.” (Probably true, although long a topic of debate.)
For Grossman “maybe the most surprising thing…is how quickly it all happened.” He is in awe that Harris and Klebold ended their lives 49 minutes after the shooting began and “All the murders happened in the first 16 [minutes].” Well, that’s the same information released in May 2000 in the sheriff’s official version of events.
Yet TIME seems to take a swipe at the media saying that “the stories that have already been told” have to be untold. Now TIME’s story can be untold.
Although Grossman is insightful in opining that we should focus on Klebold, not the more fiery Harris: “If there is a lesson here, it lies in Klebold’s story, which is the more disturbing because he was, at heart, like us. He was capable of love and sympathy, and he discarded them. Some killers are natural born. Klebold was made.”

* * *
Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin began a review of a Columbine book by saying, “Forget everything you thought you knew.” Ulin goes on to herald the revelation that student Cassie Bernall was not shot dead in the library after saying “yes” she believed in God. (Another girl, Valeen Schnurr, did say she believed in God, and after being shot. She survived.) The false Bernall story did go worldwide in the months after Columbine and Bernall’s mother wrote the book, She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall.
But five months after the shootings, on Sept. 23, 1999 (yes, 1999), the Denver Post, citing, noted “‘key investigators’ doubt the widely reported story that 17-year-old Cassie Bernall was slain because she told the killers, as a gun was held to her head, that she indeed believed in God.” The next day the Rocky ran a story with the headline, “ACCOUNTS DIFFER ON QUESTION TO BERNALL COLUMBINE SHOOTING VICTIM MAY NOT HAVE BEEN ASKED WHETHER SHE BELIEVED IN GOD.” The next month the Washington Post reported, “Cassie probably never said yes, or anything else.”
Misinformation early on wasn’t necessarily due to sloppy reporting. Ten of the thirteen victims were killed in the library. Investigators needed time to sift through information and correct errors. Despite the many valid criticisms of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, it seems to have done an able job in debunking the Bernall myth long before the ten-year.
To be sure, many in the public still seem to have genuinely believed such myths of Columbine. As did journalists. But journalists should proceed on what is known, not their perception.
Yet Ulin chides “the misreporting of the media, which at its worst resembled nothing so much as an enormous game of telephone.” He adds that the media “parachuted into Columbine, asked a few questions and then parachuted out.” But a simple spot check on the Bernall issue shows the Washington Post, Denver Post and Rocky quickly got it right. The Denver Post and Rocky, meantime, never parachuted in. Then again, they never left. They also filed lawsuits, as did victims families, that freed up valuable information. A Denver Post lawsuit that took four years resulted in the release of nearly 1,000 pages of key writings by the killers and Harris’ father.
Ulin (and most other reviewers) never mentions that. Nor do they mention the Denver Post won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news, in the words of the judges, “for its clear and balanced coverage of the student massacre at Columbine High School.” (Nor, if that Pulitzer wasn’t warranted, do reviewers criticize the Pulitzer judges. Do the reviewers even know about the Columbine Pulitzer?) The Rocky also won a Pulitzer that year for breaking news photography of Columbine.

Columbine Memorial

April 20, 2010 at 10:45 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I have been blogging this past week about Columbine media coverage, but today is the 11th anniversary of the shootings. This posting is dedicated to the 13 innocent victims who died on April 20, 1999.

Rachel Scott
Dan Rohrbough
Dave Sanders
Kyle Velasquez
Steven Curnow
Cassie Bernall
Isaiah Shoels
Matt Kechter
Lauren Townsend
John Tomlin
Kelly Fleming
Daniel Mauser
Corey DePooter

Columbine Memorial Web site.

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