Prying eyes keep wounds fresh

Culture | Many people in Littleton just want to be out of the media spotlight

Issue: "The Sudan crisis," June 10, 2000

First came the firestorm that left 14 students and a teacher dead. Then came the media glare that scorched Littleton, Colo., and its residents like a never-setting sun.

Neither, it seems, will go away.

On April 20 last year, Columbine High School juniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold gunned down 12 classmates and a teacher, then shot themselves, in the worst school shooting in U.S. history. More than a year later, some Littleton residents say unceasing media attention, in part at least, is keeping the town from healing.

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"More than anybody, the (Columbine) students have desperately tried to take steps forward, but the media have been very relentless with them," said Mike Lawrie, a youth pastor at Littleton's Deer Creek Community Church where between 10 and 15 Columbine kids have regularly attended youth group since the tragedy occurred. Mr. Lawrie feels reporters' continuing quest for "stories" (even stories like this one), and the pressure on survivors to grant interviews, "keeps tearing the wound back open. A year ago, the hope was that we would be able to move on-not forget, but take steps forward. People are now coming to the conclusion that it's not going to end."

Indeed, media interest in Columbine is still high. Search on the word "Columbine" in a news-database covering the past 90 days and you get an error message: "Your query will return more than 1,000 results. Please refine your search." A search of broadcast news media reveals more than 250 Columbine-related transcripts since March. And a general Internet query yields nearly 16,000 site-matches.

The individual tragedies of 15 lives cut short seem to have morphed into a collective national symbol-for gun control, for character education, for "what's wrong with America." Seemingly lost amid the national prattle is Littleton's local pain-and the need for healing.

Many residents yearn for closure. "Yes, my heart does go out to all of the victims and families, but please, can't we let this rest?" wrote Littleton resident Shelly Gonzales in a letter to the Rocky Mountain News. "How can anyone heal when every day there is at least one item in the news about the Columbine shooting?"

Students want to move on, too. When Zach Gautier and his friends began planning how they would minister to Columbine student-survivors on the one-year anniversary of the massacre, they learned their hearts were in the right place. They just weren't in the same right place as the hearts of the Columbine kids.

"We talked about having this big crusade-type event," said Zach, who graduated from Littleton's Bear Creek High this year and works with Revival Generation, a Littleton-based teen ministry. "At one point, we even had the Muppets signed up." But as time went on, kids in Columbine High's Bible club told Zach they didn't want any pomp and circumstance. They just "wanted a place to hide out and worship together."

Mr. Lawrie says Columbine kids in his youth group often just want to be with other Columbine kids, and not in large groups at all: "They don't want to talk about (the shootings) day in and day out. When they're together, they don't have to."

Students' instinctive recoil from public suffering is normal, according to counselor Donna Reutzel, manager of The Grief Clinic in Evergreen, Colo. Mourners grieving under the media's unblinking eye are denied privacy-especially when it comes to dealing with the uglier faces of grief, like being angry with the dead. "It takes away from them what they normally, naturally would be able to do in private; they're on stage," Ms. Reutzel told The Denver Post.

Ms. Reutzel's comments were featured in a Post story last month that weighed the value of grief-counseling, and also cited media ubiquity as a hindrance to healing. Both Mr. Lawrie and Zach Gautier say Denver-area media have been more "respectful" than the national media.

But Bruce Porter, senior pastor at Celebration Church in Littleton, says media coverage, though intrusive, has also shown the good coming out of the Columbine evil. Recent stories have included coverage of college scholarships awarded in honor of the slain students, and "Chain Reaction," a youth ministry begun by Darrell Scott, the father of Columbine victim Rachel Scott.

Still, Mr. Porter also feels the media's prying eye. He presided over the CNN-broadcast funeral of Miss Scott, whose strong Christian witness may have made her a target. Since then, he's been sought after by reporters. "I have gone out to Rachel's gravesite, sometimes late at night, just to cry," Mr. Porter said, "because I can't stand to cry in front of cameras anymore."

Lynn Vincent
Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine and the best-selling author of 10 non-fiction books.


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