Superintendent Calls For 'Thoughtful' Discussion Over Proposal To Demolish Columbine

Jul 7, 2019
Originally published on July 7, 2019 10:25 pm

Twenty years after two gunmen attacked Columbine High School, the community of Littleton, Colo. remains divided over whether it's time to tear down the site of one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history.

Among those in the community calling for the school to be demolished is Jason Glass, the superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, the school district where Columbine is located. In a recent op-ed for The Washington Post, Glass said the school has become a tourist destination, and while most visitors are harmless, some may be potential copycat shooters. He says the school should be torn down and rebuilt nearby.

In his op-ed, Glass writes that from June 2018 to May 2019, some 2,400 people were stopped or arrested for intruding on the grounds of Columbine.

"There are intractable challenges in operating a comprehensive high school for roughly 1,700 students in a building that seems to serve as a macabre inspiration for the contagion of school shootings in the United States over the past two decades," Glass wrote.

Speaking to NPR, Glass said, "It's the constant management of that and the pressure that any one of those unauthorized individuals who comes onto the site may be there to do harm — that is the concern."

Residents who want the building to stay have valid reasons rooted in emotion, economics and tradition, Glass told NPR.

The very fact that the building is still standing represents resilience, for many in the community, Glass said, who feel that "the building stands as sort of a symbol against what shooters were trying to accomplish in 1999, and it needs to continue to do that."

Ultimately, the community will make the final decision, Glass said. If Columbine is demolished, taxpayers would have to pay as much as $70 million for the construction of a new high school.

Glass said he hopes that no matter the building's fate, the emotional debate might serve as a crucial chance for Columbine to distinguish itself, above all, as a community that accomplishes a difficult decision with love and respect.

"Right now our responsibility is to inform the community of the question and help them navigate through it," Glass said. "I think it's just really important, especially on an issue that relates to the community's children, that we show that we can come together and have a thoughtful conversation."

Columbine is far from the only community that has been forced to grapple with what to do with the physical site of a mass shooting. As NPR's Bobby Allyn recently reported:

"In Newtown, Conn., Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a gunman killed 20 students and six adults in 2012, was demolished in 2013 and a whole new building was built on the property.

Officials in Parkland, Fla., are moving toward replacing the three-story Marjory Stoneman Douglas building that was the site of the killing of 17 students and staff."

NPR's Meera Venkat and Natalie Winston produced and edited this story for radio.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

April marked the 20th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School. There were a number of events to mark the day and to remember those who lost their lives. In the 20 years since, the building itself has become something of a memorial, but also a landmark for people obsessed with the school's past. In the last year alone, the Colorado high school has had 2,401 unauthorized visitors. And that's why Jason Glass, the superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, which includes Columbine, has called for stakeholders to consider demolishing the building and constructing a new one.

In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, Mr. Glass wrote that it's not a safety issue. The school is arguably one of the safest in the country. Instead, he says it's about a building that seems to serve as a macabre inspiration for the contagion of school shootings in the United States over the past two decades. And Jason Glass, the superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, is with us now. Mr. Glass, thank you so much for talking with us about this.

JASON GLASS: Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.

MARTIN: So 2,401 in the last year. The safety officials say that that's compared to maybe three or four other calls to other schools. That's just a tremendous, you know, pressure on the student body, on the faculty, on the building. I mean, who are these people, and what do they say they're doing there?

GLASS: The vast majority of people who come to visit Columbine are there because they have a curiosity with the site, or they view it as sort of a tourist attraction. So there's no harmful intent. So when those people show up at the building, they're either walking onto the grounds or pulling up in the parking lot. They're confronted by security or police and asked to leave. A few others are a little more aggressive. So they're coming up and trying to pull on doors and get inside or look in windows or even to test the school's security system.

And then we have a very small number that are actually there to do harm. So those are disturbed individuals that we are very concerned about. And, of course, it's the constant management of that and the pressure that any one of those unauthorized individuals who comes onto the site may be there to do harm. That is the concern that we have right now with the number of unauthorized individuals presently attempting to come onto the grounds.

MARTIN: Would you just describe what are some of the points of view that have arisen over time, particularly over the last year, as this attention has kind of ramped up? What are some of - people saying?

GLASS: I think people have fallen into two camps, a for camp and an against camp. Those that are opposing the idea of rebuilding the school point to the tax impact. Rebuilding it would not be free. There would be some cost involved. That the building stands as a sort of symbol against what the shooters were trying to accomplish in 1999, and it needs to continue to do that. And that the building was also a place where a lot of positive things happened for alumni and the community and for current students.

And so there's an emotional attachment to the current building. And I think all of those views are valid and have to be taken into account. On the other side, there is also strong support. There's a concern over the number of threats that we've encountered at the school and continue to manage. So I think we've got some tough choices to think through on either side of this. Or there may be more creative options that emerge, and we're open to those.

MARTIN: One of the things about your piece that really struck me, I have to say, is that you really, I think, showed yourself to be an educator because one of the things you said in the piece is your piece didn't say, this is what should happen, and this is where I'm planting my flag, and we should definitely do this. What you said is that, regardless of what happens with the building, perhaps the greatest outcome would be for our community to engage thoughtfully on a very difficult and emotional issue, not seeing the other side as good or bad, but instead, speaking directly and honestly with those who see things differently.

So really, what your conclusion of the piece isn't to say, we must tear the building down. What you said is, we must discuss this in a thoughtful and careful and respectful way. So it's kind of an extraordinary plea. But tell me why, why is it that is what you said is the most important thing that should happen?

GLASS: Well, because I think it's a really incredibly emotional and difficult and complex question. And in a community where we're going to have to go to the voters and pass a tax question if anything substantial is going to happen, the community ultimately is going to be the one that is making the decision. So right now, our responsibility as the school system is to inform the community of the question and help them navigate through it.

And I think it's just really important, especially on an issue that relates to the community's children, that we show that we can come together and have a thoughtful conversation and try to do what's right - where we take the political labels off and just try to see each other as neighbors and friends and parents and community members, and try to do what's right. And we haven't figured out what that is yet, but we want to have that discussion with the community.

MARTIN: That's Jason Glass. He's the superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, which includes Columbine High School. We're talking about a piece he wrote for The Washington Post. It's titled "Why I've Asked My District To Consider Tearing Down Columbine High School." You can read it online. Mr. Glass, thank you so much for talking to us.

GLASS: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.