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Book to air teacher stories

By J. Sebastian Sinisi
Denver Post Staff Writer

March 22 - In the media firestorm that followed the Columbine High massacre that left 15 dead last April 20, the police, paramedics, emergency workers, firefighters and others all got their share of limelight.

But not so much the teachers.

They were in the building for nearly four hours with 220 students while Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold executed the worst school shooting in U.S. history before taking their own lives.

"Nobody ever asked the teachers, and they're not the kind of people who'll toot their own horns," said former Columbine librarian Mary Swanson, who is compiling a book from their point of view.

In Swanson's unfinished volume, teachers who were in the building tell stories that never made it to television specials or accounts in print.

"When you're a teacher and have 30 or 35 children to look after, that's what you do," Swanson said. "They're your charges, and you take care of them no matter what the situation.

"But I don't imagine most people think of teachers that way," Swanson added. "As one of the teachers I interviewed told me: "Nobody really taught us to do that, but it's instinctive. That's simply what you do.' "But you saw almost none of their faces on TV. A few teachers may have cooperated with TV requests for interviews. But none, to my knowledge, ever initiated one."

Swanson will have gotten the stories of about 20 science teachers and others, who were in the firing line, when she finishes the interviews.

"If there's a common thread running through all their stories," Swanson said, "it's that they were only doing their jobs of taking care of their children, even when it meant risking their own lives. They also thought any other teacher would have acted the same way in that situation."

Swanson missed being in the school herself by five minutes or so and was on her way to work when the mayhem began. A teaching and librarian veteran of Jefferson County's Columbine since the school opened in 1973, she'd retired in 1993 to write a biography of world-class opera singer Jim Estes, who grew up in the same small Iowa town she did, Centerville, south of Des Moines.

Columbine Principal Frank DeAngelis convinced her to return in 1998.

After the shooting, Columbine biology teacher Bev Williams suggested that Swanson - a published author - do a book through the eyes of the teachers and staff involved. Williams was there, in a lab next to the library, and recalls "the last thing the teachers thought about was their own safety."

"We knew books would be written about Columbine, and we wanted the teachers' voices to be heard," said Williams, a biology teacher with 24 years tenure. "And one thing we definitely didn't want was a sensational account. There's been plenty of that.

"So we went to Mary, who knows a thing or two about this business," Williams said. "We knew she'd do it right."

There is no publishing deal on the book yet, but Swanson and the teachers have decided they will receive no profits that might result. Instead, said Williams, they will vote at a later date on where the money should go.

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