Ghosts Of Columbine

It's one of the last football games of the high-school season, and the leaves of the aspen trees have turned street-sign yellow. The defending state champs are getting trounced, which only serves to further perkify their cheerleaders, all 26 of them. But this is Columbine High School. Maggie Ireland beams at the crowd as she chants: "Can't push us away, Columbine's here to stay!" It was the cheerleader's brother, Patrick, who shoved himself out of the second-story library window after being shot in the head the day of rampage. Up in the bleachers, Ryan Shucard, a wiseacre sophomore wearing an Andrew Dice Clay T shirt, pokes the stomach of a cheerleader on a break. Shucard's father was one of the cops who responded to the call, but he has never told his son what he saw. Out on the field, Lee Andres fires up his running backs. The assistant coach, who's also a music teacher, was with his guitar class when the shooting started. He stuck his head out into the hall and a bomb or a shotgun exploded directly over him. "I still don't like to hear balloons popping," he says. "My blood pressure's high. If I was someplace else it would probably be lower. [But] when your house burns down do you get up and move or rebuild? We chose to rebuild."

It's been almost five years since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students, a teacher and themselves in what remains the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. The students who survived that horrific day have graduated. Today's kids claim that most of the time no one at Columbine even thinks about "Columbine." They say they're just like high-schoolers everywhere. But more than 60 interviews with students and members of the community reveal a school that dwells simultaneously in its past and its present. Though Columbine has moved on in some ways, the school is constantly dragged back to what is known as "4/20" or just "the tragedy." To the residents of Littleton, Colo., Columbine is also a church, a country club, an office park, a library. And yet the community remains so intimately connected to the killers that they are still referred to as simply Dylan and Eric.

Last week Klebold and Harris showed up again. On Wednesday police released a 15-minute home video showing the boys taking target practice in the woods six weeks before they opened fire at Columbine. On the tape, the teens marvel at the damage their weapons do to a bowling pin, and laugh as they imagine what a riddled tree would look like if it were a human brain. Tom Mauser, who lost his 15-year-old son, Daniel, says, "It's just too bad that it comes out in bits and painful pieces like this, rather than all at once." But the video was only the latest reminder. In the wake of last year's Oscar-winning documentary "Bowling for Columbine," a new film, "Elephant," depicts a massacre just like Columbine's in unrelenting detail. And though a snarl of lawsuits have for the most part been settled or dismissed, five of the victims' families are set to appeal an order to destroy the transcripts of the Klebold and Harris parents' depositions. The families believe the information could help us understand how to prevent a similar tragedy. "People keep saying, 'Well, now are you back to normal?' But there's never going to be normality here," says principal Frank DeAngelis.

The real legacy of the massacre lies in what's missing. The Columbine mascot, a 1776 Revolutionary "Rebel" soldier, no longer carries a gun. The bare vinyl floors of the school are striking to anyone who remembers that all the carpet was ripped out after the mess of that day. The library, which was above the cafeteria and where most of the shootings occurred, has been removed and rebuilt in a different part of the school; now students eat their lunch in a sun-filled atrium that fills the space where the library used to be. And the names of those who were lost are now inscribed on the memorial in the new library. Other reminders are less gentle. Anti-choice demonstrators still show up with signs that say things like IF YOU HAVE AN ABORTION, YOU'RE JUST LIKE DYLAN AND ERIC.

Since the shooting-era students left a year and a half ago, the school's taken its greatest steps toward recovery. Though tourists still peek in while school's in session, there's more giggling in the halls now. "For the three years after the tragedy, it was a very different place. It was too quiet," says counselor Susan Peters. Kids who have seen "Bowling for Columbine" don't seem to have been too disturbed by it. "At that one part I cried," says Vanessa Hudspeth, referring to the security-camera footage of Harris and Klebold's swarming through the cafeteria with their guns. "Otherwise it was boring because it's a documentary." When you ask freshman Josh Van Natta, 14, if he ever thinks about the shooting when he walks through the halls, he says, "Sometimes you find bullet holes in the wall." Really? "Just kidding," he says. Yes, they can joke about it. And in another sign that levity is beginning to ease tension here, kids have started dropping change, not slips of paper with names, in DeAngelis's anonymous tip box, established after 4/20 so kids could come forward to report a peer they were worried about. Balloons are starting to be allowed again. After all, there are few people here now who might be shocked by their popping--not only all the kids, but two thirds of the staff and every administrator except the principal have gone, too.

One indication that the school is reaching a new normal is that bullying is back. A student was recently suspended for writing a note to a friend about wanting to get rid of Jeremy Lodwig, the lone boy on the color guard. Why would someone write that? "I'm different," says the 15-year-old sophomore with bright orange hair glued into little spikes. "I have more girlfriends than I do guys." Heidi Cortez, who was a sophomore when everyone hiding under the library tables around her was killed, says, "Did we not learn anything?"

Because many kids--and armchair psychiatrists--think peer abuse may have contributed to Klebold and Harris's rage, some students are strangely sensitive for teenagers. "You want to be like, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe she does her hair that way, she's such a loser!' [But] you try and hold yourself back. You never know if you're going to be the one person to break them," says freshman Jaimie Hebditch, a "watergirl" for the JV football team. Students whose older siblings survived the massacre are the most vigilant. Ty Werges, a sophomore on the soccer team, tells how he came upon some kids slamming shut the locker of a student who's mentally impaired. "I was like, 'Why are you doing that? Do you feel cool now?' They were shocked because out of nowhere someone sticking up for another kid is kind of weird," says Werges. But the bullying stopped. Columbine's counselors --(four out of five of whom spoke to NEWSWEEK) argue that the massacre wasn't caused by bullying and that kids will always beat up on other kids. For them the return of such behavior is actually something of a relief. "Oh, it's a girl fight. Something normal," counselor Ken Holden says he hears colleagues say.

But the misbehavior is not tolerated; in fact, discipline is sometimes taken to an extreme. The administration hauls off kids to detention for joking that they could just kill someone. And with the addition of two dozen surveillance cameras and regular faculty meetings to discuss any student whose behavior is troubling, the kids are watched closely before they can do anything bad. Also, tattling isn't taboo. "It's a lot like kindergarten," says James Baker, a sophomore who's now sweeping leaves in the parking lot after ditching school. " 'Mommy, Jimmy pushed me!' " he says. Andrea Schmidt and her friends wonder if maybe the members of the administration use the tragedy as an excuse to act like drill sergeants. Junior Brittany Glassett says she was pulled out of class because a surveillance camera caught her leaving a drink on the table. Maybe more worrisome than that, some of the good kids feel ignored in today's Columbine. "I'm in honors society, yearbook and two choirs. I'm in, like, everything, and Mr. DeAngelis doesn't know my name," says Schmidt, a junior, who's also on Poms, the dance team.

What's most surprising about Columbine is that, despite the ghosts of the past, all kinds of students--flag-twirlers, cheerleaders, self-described dorks, drummers, soccer players, choral singers--say they love coming to school here. After taking some heat for overseeing a "jock-ocracy," DeAngelis makes an effort to celebrate groups other than the football team, which won state three of the past four years. Though there are state champion bumper stickers on the finance-office window and even the counselors' door, all the groups are introduced at assemblies now. "We take such a pride in our school," says Danny Beyer, a senior in the choir whose older sister, Lauren, survived 4/20. "Even though we might not be the best, but because this is our school."

On a late October day after school, students lounge around the airy cafeteria, warmed by a sun skimming over the Rockies. Kids huddle around tables playing cards and waiting for their rides to get there. The Poms set up a CD player and practice their moves. Rachelle Kastle, a junior Pom, tells a reporter she likes coming to school here. Though, after thinking, she admits that there is one door across the room that she tries to avoid. Her older brother escaped through it. But sitting here in the atrium, where terrified children once cowered before Klebold and Harris, you can look up at the new murals on the ceiling and see a light in the sky through painted tree branches that seem to touch it.