Jeffco school district considering tearing down old Columbine High School

Structure "a macabre source of inspiration and motivation" for school shootings

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For Aurora resident Jennifer Witkowski and many like her, Columbine High School will always be connected with April 20, 1999. Witkowski still remembers sitting at an Old Chicago that afternoon with her former husband, an officer who was paged while they were eating and called to the Columbine campus.

“I was absolutely devastated,” Witkowski recalled. “It was horrifying.”

But that day isn’t the only connection she has to the school. Witkowski graduated from Columbine High School in 1988 and watched her son, Cory, graduate from the school in 2011, before he passed away in 2016.

And on June 6, when Witkowski heard the news about the potential demolition of the high school, “it angered me,” she said.

“We think that if it’s out of sight and out of mind, it’s going to solve the problem,” she said. “That is not how you handle it.”

In a letter put out the afternoon of June 6, the superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools announced the district is considering the drastic step of tearing down Columbine High School. The district hopes to reduce the school's status as "a macabre source of inspiration and motivation" for school shootings, it said.

Jefferson County Schools has considered the possibility since the 2001 incident, said Superintendent Jason Glass. While previously deciding to keep the current building in place, recent events have brought the option back to the forefront of public conversation.

MORE: 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting

Namely, he said, the district is responding to the twentieth anniversary of the original incident and last April's threat, in which an 18-year-old from Florida expressed a "fascination" with the 1999 school shooting, according to the FBI. The woman flew to Denver and purchased a shotgun and shell ammunition at a store in south Jefferson County, less than two miles from Columbine.

Schools across the metro area were canceled the day after law enforcement publicized the potential danger to area students. It was later discovered the woman had instead died by suicide near Mount Evans.

"There's an increasing number of trespassings in the school and individuals who are obsessed with the school," Glass said. "All of that is trending up, not down, and here we are two decades later."

The district will spend the next few weeks seeking the community’s input on the plan through an online survey. District leaders will then hold in-person community conversations in June, July and August, with the school board making its decision based on those conversations.

Should the board decide in August to go forward with the demolition and reconstruction plans, voters will choose whether to approve a ballot measure that would raise an estimated $60-$70 million in property tax revenue to finance the plan.

In the meantime, the district would redirect the $15 million in bond money earmarked last year for Columbine renovations. Those funds would either go toward the rebuild or toward improving security features at schools across the county.

If the ballot measure passes, construction of the new building would begin in early 2020, Glass said. The district would aim for students to move into the new building in 2022, after which the old site would be torn down and replaced with fields, landscaping and potential elevation changes, Glass said.

"Columbine is already an incredibly safe building, and the new building would carry forward many of the same security protocols," Glass said. 

"But knowing that it's Columbine High School, you'd design it differently," he said. "Fencing, access points and privacy features would all be different, where it's located in relation to the road would be different. In a renovation of the existing building, that's not possible."

The day after the district made its announcement, principal Scott Christy sent a letter to the community saying that, while he and the district believe the decision should rest with the community, he supports the plan.

“I have had many additional conversations with staff members, all of whom have been in favor, as long as the name Columbine High School remains,” he said, adding that he and others were initially torn due to their emotional connection to the building.

“It is not the facility that makes Columbine so special; it is the traditions, the culture, the pride, the love,” he said, “and, most importantly, the people that make Columbine what it is.”

Community members can access the 10-question survey about the future of the school at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/YT65D7V. Included on the survey are questions around the name, mascot and colors of Columbine, whether the new school would be built just to the west of the current location and preserve the Hope Library, and the amount of the possible tax, which may cost $1-$2 per month for a $500,000 home in the county.

Glass said that the consideration "is a decision every community's got to wade through" in the wake of a mass murder.

"Doing nothing is an option, and that may be what the community tells us to do," he said.

He added that the plan stems from the advice of school safety experts that "icons" at which mass murders occurred should be removed. Other schools around the country have pursued similar plans, Glass said, including Sandy Hook Elementary, which was demolished 10 months after 26 were killed in the 2012 shooting.

But for Witkowski and some of those who graduated with her, the possibility runs a high risk of being ineffective, she said.

“It’s still going to be there. You’re always going to have people who are enamored with it,” she said. “You have to learn from it and work on making changes so it never happens again.”

That process would require new safety measures, she said, such as employing more school resource officers in schools. Additionally, she believes that the primary solution to the problem is for districts and governmental leaders to address prevalent mental health struggles for students and stop bullying in schools.

“It saddens you that people thought the only way we could move past this was to tear down something that is so precious to so many people,” she said.

Even so, she added, for those who hold the school close to them: “Those memories are never going to leave you.”

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