Recovery's Long Road
Eight years later, the wounds of Columbine are still fresh
News of the Virginia Tech massacre rubbed Brian Rohrbough's old wounds raw. Not because the killings rekindled grief over his only son Daniel, who was shot dead eight years ago by fellow Columbine High School students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. But because he has spent so much time since fighting to prevent another campus slaughter. "What we're seeing in Virginia so far is the same exact pattern," Rohrbough says. "And the likelihood is that it probably could have been avoided."
Rohrbough and other Columbine parents have waged a lengthy battle to make public a dense collection of police, medical, and school records, as well as interviews with the killers' parents and video- and audiotapes Harris and Klebold made. They believe these could help others better understand the witch's brew of risk factors that can send young people over the edge. Yet they say they have been stymied by tight-lipped officials, overly protective privacy laws, and judges so wary of copycats that they have kept a wealth of details about the killings sealed from public view.
Disclosure. Indeed, many involved in the Columbine case say that fuller disclosure of information could have quelled a years-long firestorm of suspicions that at one point pushed Rohrbough to claim that his son had been killed not by Harris or Klebold, but by a police officer. It took nearly three years and a follow-up investigation to finally disprove that belief. "That's a hard lesson we learned," says Dave Thomas, the former district attorney who revisited Daniel Rohrbough's death. "There's something inherently healing about having full information. In traumatic deaths, human nature wants to know exactly who, why, and where it happened. It helps the process of moving on."
Yet even when information is made available, it can sometimes take years before it's put to good use. A Colorado state commission issued findings two years after the Columbine tragedy; among its recommendations was that information sharing agreements be mandated between police, schools, and others who deal with troubled kids. Legislation to that effect later passed, but no funding was provided to make it happen. As a result, of the 178school districts in the state, "only about five [information sharing agreements] have been completed so far," notes criminologist Bill Woodward of the University of Colorado's Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence. "People still don't want to share information because [over] their whole lives they've been taught that the liability will be on them if they do."
That is likely what motivated the Columbine killers' parents to try to withhold their sons' notorious "basement tapes," in which they detail their reasons for the attack, as well as the parents' own depositions in legal proceedings. Although the basement tapes were eventually shown to the press and to some of the victims' parents, they remain unavailable to the public at large, and the judge in the case ruled this month that the parents' statements should remain sealed for 20 years for fear, in part, that they might inspire copycats.
"It's ridiculous to think that those depositions could have inspired someone like that person in Virginia to go on a killing spree," says Judy Brown, whose son Brooks was threatened by Eric Harris a year before the shooting. "I'll tell you who would read them: parents and psychologists trying to avoid another Columbine."
Even without access to the tapes, Seung Hui Cho was obviously plenty familiar with the events of Columbine. In the materials he mailed to NBC News, he referred to Klebold and Harris as "martyrs."
This story appears in the April 30, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.