'It's a Heavy Lift': Securing the Columbine High School Campus from Threats and Curiosity-Seekers
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Twenty years have passed since two students murdered a dozen classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado.
But curiosity about the campus seems to be intensifying as the years go by, according to the man in charge of securing the school.
“It’s about a tenfold increase over the last decade and I don’t know why. Nobody’s been able to explain it to us,” said John McDonald, executive director of safety and security at Jeffco Public Schools.
Schools across the Denver metro area were closed three days before the 20th anniversary of the attacks, due to what was believed to be a threat from an 18-year-old Florida woman said to be obsessed with the massacre. Authorities said the woman traveled to Colorado and bought a shotgun. After a day-long manhunt, authorities found her dead of an apparent suicide.
The scare represented a high-profile example of the challenges the school’s security teams have had to deal with for two decades now.
McDonald told Rocky Mountain PBS earlier this year that in recent months his security teams and Jefferson county deputies have intercepted an average of 198 would-be trespassers every month. The school has posted ‘No Trespassing’ signs around campus along with a network of surveillance cameras and 24-hour security on duty, all with the goal of insulating the school’s 1,700 current students and its staff from the curiosity happening outside.
“The way that we manage it, kids don’t feel the impact of this at all, and that’s the way it should be,” McDonald said. “But it takes a pretty significant lift to provide the security and the law enforcement personnel necessary to keep the school safe.”
Sheriff department reports obtained by Rocky Mountain PBS tell the stories of what the school’s staff and officers who work to secure the campus are up against: from prank calls to bizarre emails and social media postings, to people who arrive from all over the country determined to get inside the building.
Many intruders express seemingly innocent curiosity when caught, like the man with alcohol on his breath who brought two women he met at a hotel bar to see the school after they expressed interest. The trio proceeded past ‘no trespassing’ signs on the front doors into the building to try to check in at the front office one afternoon in January, only to be met by sheriff’s deputies. The man received a criminal trespassing citation.
Because the trespassers come around the clock, the school is patrolled 24/7. Deputies recently intercepted a couple after 2 a.m. who wanted to take selfies near the school sign and claimed they wanted to “pay their respects.” They too received citations.
Other intruders seem to have an obsession with the school.
The sheriff’s office has several reports involving a woman from another state seen on surveillance video outside of the school, once in 2016 and once in 2017. Deputies noted her social media feeds included a photo of a car with a vanity plate bearing the name of one of the Columbine killers, along with “postings indicating [she] owns several assault rifles, shotguns and handguns and regularly practices shooting.” The reports indicate law enforcement contacted her and warned her not to come to the school again.
“It’s probably been the most shocking thing as far as managing the security for Columbine High School is dealing with the people that are inspired, who want to feel it, touch it, see it, and just are on the fringe,” McDonald said.
Reports indicate that sheriff’s deputies routinely monitor social media for mentions of Columbine High School, looking for anything suspicious.
In one 2016 case, deputies located photos on social media that appeared to show two women inside the building each squatting on the school’s logo “in a rifle shooting crouch.” One of the women documented her planned trip to Colorado on her social media account, saying her visit to Columbine would be the “best day of my life.” Surveillance video confirmed the women roamed the school taking photographs.
Many of the people who create security concerns never set foot on the campus. Reports document disturbing phone calls and voicemails fielded by administrative assistants and strange emails to the school principal.
Even incidents that seem like pranks are investigated and at least one such incident produced some worrisome findings.
In October of 2018, school staffers received a series of emails from a person claiming he was thinking about moving to Littleton and sending his two daughters “named Erica and Dylanie” to the school. In the emails, the person claimed to have “stumbled upon” a Wikipedia page about the shooting at Columbine and asked “what procedures you have to avoid these things nowadays.”
Investigators followed up and found a YouTube account associated with the email address and learned the emailer was a ninth grader from another state who, according to the police report, is “very interested in school shootings."
McDonald said the public interest in the school intensifies annually around the April 20 anniversary of the shooting, but the security challenges exist all year long.
“There’s nothing like it in the country,” McDonald said. ”There’s no other school that has to deal with the issues that Columbine has to deal with.”
To hear to more about the security concerns at Columbine High School, listen to the Rocky Mountain PBS podcast, Ripples of Columbine: A School as a Spectacle.