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A 'Morbid Fascination' With Columbine High School Might Lead to Its Shuttering

The 20th anniversary of the massacre has prompted an increase in security concerns as devout "Columbiners" flock to the campus.
Police patrol outside Columbine High School on April 17th, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado, as all Denver-area schools were evacuated and classes canceled after an active threat to the area.

Police patrol outside Columbine High School on April 17th, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado, as all Denver-area schools were evacuated and classes canceled after an active threat to the area.

More than 20 years after the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, that claimed 13 lives and forever changed the landscape of the gun debate in America, the school district that houses the high school is seeking public input on whether or not to tear down the building.

In a letter to the Littleton community, district superintendent Jason Glass wrote that the proposed demolition comes in response to an enduring "morbid fascination" with the school—one which has only been "increasing over the years, rather than dissipating."

"The tragedy at Columbine High School in 1999 serves as a point of origin for this contagion of school shootings," Glass' letter reads. "School shooters refer to and study the Columbine shooting as a macabre source of inspiration and motivation."

According to the letter, local law-enforcement officials in Colorado's Jeffco School District have been working alongside the state's Department of School Safety for years to make contact with "hundreds of individuals" who seek to "enter the school and reconnect with the 1999 murders" annually. Most recently, in April, Colorado temporarily shuttered 19 of its school districts in response to credible threats from an 18-year-old woman who had traveled to the state from Florida. (According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the woman, who later died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound, had an "infatuation" with the Columbine shooting.)

While Glass acknowledged that Columbine is one of the safest high schools in the United States, he also admitted to CNN in a Friday interview that the 20-year anniversary of the mass shooting had sparked a wave of renewed interest in the building, with a record number of individuals making attempts to illegally enter the school or trespass on the grounds.

"Most of them are there to satisfy curiosity or a macabre, but harmless, interest in the school," Glass told CNN. "For a small group of others, there is a potential intent to do harm."

Irrespective of whether their intentions are "harmless" or "malicious," many of those young people who are fascinated by Columbine have found each other online. Within the Tumblr community, the dedicated group of young dilettantes fixated on the massacre and the pattern of school shootings it helped to foment are known as "Columbiners"; according to a 2015 Vice News investigation into the community, some members are merely "interested in the criminology surrounding serial killers and mass murderers," but others "relate to the two Columbine shooters ... and want to copy them."

The Columbine shooting was perpetrated by two young men, both of whom attended the high school as seniors at the time they carried out the attack. One 16-year-old "Columbiner" who spoke to Vice News about her involvement in the community described one of the shooters as being more "homicidal" and the other as being more "suicidal"—two designations, she said, that do a good job of categorizing many of the massacre's devout online followers.

"Putting those together sort of represents the way a lot of young people are feeling," the woman said.

In addition to inspiring a generation's worth of copycat shooters, the Columbine massacre also marks the beginning of an intense pattern of media coverage of school shootings. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Jaclyn Schildkraut, a co-author of Columbine, 20 Years Later and Beyond, sketched out the broad contours of what that coverage has largely looked like: live images of "people running out of school buildings with their hands over their heads," the repetitive loop of the same law-enforcement officials from one press conference given shortly after the violence unfolded, the cable news talking-head "experts" offering their commentary on a predictable and preventable tragedy, and, finally, the identification of the victims and "talking about things such as societal and legislative changes."

In May, Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communications, culture, and digital technologies at Syracuse University, told Pacific Standard that the way the media covers terrorist attacks and mass shootings has the unfortunate potential to spawn potential copycat attacks if it isn't executed responsibly.

"There are many, many ways to talk about these issues that inform the public and call attention to the public-health crises at the heart of these incidents without feeding into the interest of the violent attackers," Phillips said. "So much of that has to do with: Where are you pointing your camera? What kinds of conversations are you framing?"

According to the letter circulated to district members, administration officials plan to ask residents to vote on whether or not to approve an addition $60-$70 million in funds in order to begin construction on a new school building, which would keep Columbine's name, school colors, and mascot in addition to the old campus' Hope Library, which was constructed after the shooting took place. The site where the former school once stood would be converted into fields, according to the letter.

In a Facebook post, Frank DeAngelis, who was principal at Columbine at the time of the shooting, writes that he is in "full support of building a new facility."

"It is the people that make us a family, not the building," he writes.