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08/16/99- Updated 10:07 AM ET


Pride and pain mark return to Columbine

By Charisse Jones, USA TODAY

DENVER - In some ways, Patrick Ireland has been in school all summer long. He is a teen-ager who had to learn how to print the alphabet again, how to articulate his thoughts, how to use a fork and how to walk on his own.

When two teen-agers at Columbine High School opened fire on their fellow students and teachers on April 20, a bullet passed through Ireland's brain, and the image of his limp body hanging from a ledge and falling into the arms of rescuers flashed on television screens around the nation.

But despite such terrible memories, he never doubted that he would return to Columbine. "I knew I was going back," says the 18-year-old who will be a senior this year. "There's no other place I'd rather be."

The funerals are long past, the new security measures are in place, and Monday, the students of Columbine returned to school. But this school year will be like no other, for along with the anxiety and excitement that greets any new school year, Columbine's nearly 2,000 students will have to deal with the shadow that has hovered over their suburban high school since two boys killed 13 others and then themselves.

The day began with a "take back the school" rally. A false wall conceals the entrance to the library where many students were shot. But reminders of the tragedy will be everywhere. William "Dave" Sanders, a coach and science instructor killed in the massacre, will not be there to teach. A dozen murdered students will not be there to learn. And others returned in wheelchairs, on crutches and with physical and emotional scars that may never heal.

Still, Connie Michalik felt her son, Richard Castaldo, should go back. "At the beginning, I said, 'No way, forget it,' " she says. But after learning about the precautions and counseling services the school would put in place, she changed her mind. "I think it will be a healing year. I think, emotionally, it'll be good for him."

Almost all of the most seriously injured Columbine students planned to return. Lance Kirklin, 16, whose jaw was shattered on the left side by a gunshot, planned to be there on the first day of school. But Sean Graves, 15, Anne Marie Hochhalter, 17, and Richard Castaldo, 17, whose injuries left them unable to walk, will start classes during the next several weeks.

"Sean originally said he wanted to walk into the school," says Randy Graves, Sean's father. "But I didn't think that was a realistic goal at the time. And that's not going to happen."

Graves, who was shot four times and injured at the base of his spine, has gone from being unable to move his legs at all to being able to move his left leg and manipulate various muscles. But it will be another one to two years before he can walk again. And after school each day, the sophomore will return to the hospital to undergo physical therapy.

"It's going to be rough because he's going to have to learn to do things differently than before," Graves says. "Instead of running down the stairs to his next class, he's going to have to wait for the elevators." But at least at Columbine, "people aren't going to ask him what happened. They know."

Ireland is less sure that everyone at Columbine will understand. "I don't want to be labeled," says Ireland, who walks with a brace and is wrestling with the effects of his brain injury. "Senior year is going to be a fun time, but I'm a little bit apprehensive about the way people react to me and how they deal with the fact that I'm not exactly the same."

The school has implemented a number of stronger security measures, which give people like Ted Hochhalter comfort. But he speaks of the future with the resignation of a man whose daughter was shot twice and left in a wheelchair.

"I'm convinced they're doing all they can to make sure our children are safe," he says of Columbine. But "as a society, we have to accept that there's always a possibility that bad things can happen and will happen."