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Officials debate demolition of Columbine High School

DENVER — Two decades after the name “Columbine” became synonymous with a school shooting, the suburban Denver community surrounding the school is debating whether it’s time to tear down a building that also became a beacon for people obsessed with the killings.

School officials said the number of people trying to get close to or even inside the school reached record levels this year, the 20th anniversary of the 1999 attack that killed 13 people. People try to peek into the windows of the school library, mistaking it for the long-demolished room where most of the victims died, or ask people on campus how to take a tour.

The buses full of tourists have mostly stopped coming over the years, but not the visitors. This year alone, security staff contacted more than 2,400 “unauthorized” people on Columbine’s campus.

Then, a few days before the anniversary, a young woman described as obsessed with the attack flew to Colorado and bought a shotgun, killing only herself yet sparking lockdowns and new fears. School security has intercepted others with a similar infatuation with the crime and its teen perpetrators — so-called Columbiners.

District Security Chief John McDonald can rattle off some of the most frightening instances of people who came to the campus: An Ohio couple later charged with planning a domestic terror attack; a Utah teen later arrested for a bombing plot against his school; and a Texas man apprehended at the school after he said he was filled by one of shooter’s spirits and intended to “complete his mission.”

“They want to experience it, to walk the halls,” McDonald said. “The only way we can stop that interest in the building is to move it. Otherwise they’re not going to stop coming.”

But Columbine, named after Colorado’s state flower, represents more than one day to this suburban area southeast of Denver. Boisterous call-and-response chants of “We are Columbine” dominate school pep rallies and more solemn occasions including an April ceremony marking the anniversary.

“It’s not just a building, it’s like a second home to us,” said Jenn Thompson, who as a 15-year-old huddled inside a science classroom during the attack. “It’s still standing 20 years later. It represents us, still standing 20 years later.” She hopes her own daughter, now 8 years old, can attend the school, home to about 1,700 students.

The fates of mass shooting sites around the United States are varied.

In Newtown, Connecticut, voters authorized the demolition of the Sandy Hook Elementary School building where 26 students and teachers were killed in 2012 and construction of a new school with the same name near the original site. The building where 17 people were killed in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018 is also expected to be razed; there has been no public discussion about the school’s name.

The discussion of Columbine’s future is likely to take months. An initial proposal would keep the school’s new library, which was built after the attack, and construct a new school on the existing campus but further from nearby streets to give security more room to intercept intruders.

An online survey gauging community support will close this week. District officials will spend the summer reviewing and summarizing responses. If they decide to present a plan to the school board in August, its members will determine whether to put the estimated $60 or $70 million expense on November ballots.

Conversations with victims’ families, survivors and current staff convinced district officials that changing the school’s name was a non-starter, said Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Jason Glass.

“Until you’ve heard those thousands of people yelling ‘We are Columbine’ together, you don’t really get it,” he said. “The sense of pride is real.”

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