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TRAGEDY IN COLORADO

Graduation, Student Needs Top Agenda

Aftermath: Officials are searching for a suitable site to hold classes. Added security is put in place at the county's middle and high schools.

April 23, 1999|STEPHANIE SIMON and JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

LITTLETON, Colo. — While scores of law enforcement investigators and explosives experts comb through the mess, students and teachers of Columbine High are facing a more personal question: When and where will they be attending school?

Authorities concede it is unlikely that Columbine will reopen this school year, although they do not rule it out. District officials have still not been able to enter the crippled buildings to assess the extent of the damage caused by the bullets and bombs.

Jane Hammond, superintendent of Jefferson County public schools, said plans are being formulated to let the Columbine students remain together with their teachers. Officials are searching for a suitable site, she said, adding that commencement ceremonies will take place May 22, as scheduled.

Hammond said that additional security is in place at the county's middle and high schools.

School board President Jon DeStefano praised the students and staff of the school and said their courageous actions during Tuesday's shootings saved "hundreds of lives."

"We have a long road of grieving and healing to do," he said, "but this tragedy has brought us together, and we will do it."

Teachers and staff have been meeting daily at Columbine, but the majority have not been speaking with reporters, nor has the school's principal, Frank DeAngelis, made a public statement.

Judy Greco, a special education teacher at Columbine, said at a staff meeting the day after the shootings that administrators had warned teachers they would have to "hang together."

"They said the media would be embracing us now, but soon the media would be tearing us apart and trying to blame us for it," said Greco, who has been teaching at the school for 12 years. She said she felt "an obligation" to speak to the media.

Greco, who hid in a broom closet with her students on the day of the shootings, said she anticipated some finger-pointing, but she hoped parents, teachers, students and outside observers would all realize the tragedy defied easy answers.

"I know people want to find blame," she said. "But we might never find out why." Looking into the distance as her third-grade daughter, Julianne, played at her feet, she added: "We might never find out why."

Now, in the raw aftermath of the shootings, community members have been talking about beefing up security at the school, about making sure teachers are more aware of troubled kids and about trying to break up cliques. But Greco said she doesn't think such resolve will last beyond the end of the school year.

Many have wondered why teachers at the school did not recognize that members of the so-called Trench Coat Mafia--to which the two killers belonged--might be potentially violent. Greco said that, in assessing which kids might be struggling, or in danger of exploding, she goes by "intuition" more than any textbook list of warning signs.

'You never know what's going to make someone snap," she said. "It's frustrating being an educator because we are aware of the warning signs, but when we report them to authorities, if there's not enough evidence, they often let the kids go without doing anything."

She said she's always trying to stop kids from picking on one another in class, warning them that not everyone can shrug off teasing as a joke. "Some kids just look like victims, and other kids can smell it. They go after them."

Although her job involves a fair amount of impromptu counseling, Greco said she never resents the effort--and vowed that she will work even harder to incorporate social work into her teaching in the future.

"I feel it comes with the job, because teaching is not just about 'Turn to page 87 and do the even number problems.' We're not just training them how to write the perfect essay. We're training them for life."

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