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Sorrow, fear at Columbine

LITTLETON, Colo. — Columbine High School senior Richard Hoover watched the all-too-familiar images flicker across his TV screen: Teenagers fleeing their school; sobbing students facing TV cameras; parents rushing to find their children.

"The first thing that comes to my mind is, 'Could it have been prevented?' " said Hoover, 18. "With this one, the obvious answer is it could have."

Hoover was in the weight room at Columbine on April 20, 1999, when students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold began their shooting rampage. He escaped without injury.

Since that day, Hoover has traveled with other Columbine survivors to more than 50 high schools to speak about youth violence. On March 17, he's scheduled to speak in Los Angeles.

Perhaps, Hoover said, the group will consider heading south to Santee, Calif., site of the latest school shooting.

"The biggest thing we can do is give words of encouragement and hope," he said. "When that happened at Columbine, I was in a state of shock, a state of confusion. To have somebody actually reach out and talk to me really helped."

Hoover was home Monday, recuperating from having his wisdom teeth pulled. A telephone call from his mother alerted him to the California tragedy, and he flipped on the television.

Later, friends from school called. "They were all saying, 'We can't believe it happened again,"' Hoover said.

Jefferson County Public Schools spokesman Rick Kaufman said Columbine officials did not formally notify students of the shooting. "We did not want to interrupt the educational process," he said.

Instead, principal Frank DeAngelis told teachers of the news and "they may have shared it with students," Kaufman said, adding, "Word got around."

DeAngelis described the school's atmosphere as "a bit more subdued and quiet" than usual, Kaufman said. Counselors were available but no students sought help and none left school early.

"There were no negative reactions, nothing out of the ordinary," Kaufman said.

Superintendent Jane Hammond called the school chief in Santee to offer her support. District officials later faxed copies of the county's response plans for the first 24 hours and the first month after the Columbine tragedy.

Hammond said they also faxed staff names and numbers that might prove helpful, including the district's mental health and communications officers.

Hammond was visiting a school when she learned of the California shooting.

"When it happened to us, I had no idea the pain in the community, the pain for the families," she said. "You realize what they will have to go through.

"So it's very disheartening. You wish there was something you could do and you realize you can't ... take away the pain and the challenges and the hurt."

Hoover knows that too. But he plans to keep speaking about his experience at Columbine. He said he urges students to reach out to their classmates who sit alone at lunch or who are picked on. He urges teachers to become involved in students' lives and "not just pump information into them and give tests."

"One gesture of kindness could change a person's life," Hoover said.

He's upset, he said, that the California shooter apparently told others of his intentions — and no one believed him.

"People always say, 'Just get over it, Columbine happened two years ago," Hoover said. "The whole point is, it's still happening. As long as it's still happening, that's how long I'll speak."


Contact Nancy Mitchell of the Rocky Mountain News at www.rockymountainnews.com.