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Littleton's wounded spirits

By Gwen Florio
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Sunday, February 6, 2000

LITTLETON, Colo. -- Steve Cohn got the call around lunch time: There had been a shooting at Columbine High School, where his son, Aaron, was a sophomore.

Seconds later, he was driving like a crazy man toward the school when his cell phone rang again.

It was Aaron, calling to let his dad know he was all right. But he was shouting, his words spilling out so fast and so loud that his father couldn't understand much, only that Aaron had fled the school and was at a friend's house.

When Cohn pulled up, Aaron sprinted toward him. He was covered in blood. He didn't know whether he'd been hurt, and his father couldn't tell.

He stripped in the street. Together, father and son inspected Aaron's pale, bony frame. No wounds.

Steve Cohn gave thanks. He thought his only child was fine.

More than nine months later, it is clear that nothing is fine. Not Aaron Cohn, who cannot speak of what happened that day. Not his fellow students, who survived the worst school shooting in the country's history. And not the community of Littleton, despite its struggle to maintain a veneer of normalcy.

The floral memorials, the lapel ribbons of Columbine High silver and blue, the phalanx of TV trucks -- all are gone. But the tranquil surface is as thin and fragile as the skim ice on the reservoir. Beneath it is an anguish whose depths are only beginning to be realized.

"This community is still reeling," said Rick Kaufman, spokesman for the Jefferson County school system, which includes Columbine. "Every time we take four steps forward, something happens that sends us 10 back."

In December, it was publicity about the videotapes that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold made before the attack, in which they bragged of their intent "to kill you all."

"I've never seen such pain on people's faces," Kaufman said. "It's like we were back to April 20."

There were school shootings before Columbine, and there have been more since; but what happened on April 20, 1999, is a national benchmark because of the extent of the violence and its particular viciousness.

Harris, 18, and Klebold, 17, killed 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide. That was just a fraction of the carnage they had hoped to cause. They had planted huge firebombs over the school cafeteria, which failed to detonate. Nearly 700 of Columbine's 2,000 students were in the cafeteria when the attack began.

In dealing with such wrenching community distress, nine months is but a brief period, said JoAnne Doherty, chief operating officer for the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, which has coordinated counseling efforts at Columbine. Research shows that it takes 18 months after an event such as the Columbine shooting before the reaction even peaks, she said, and significant healing might take four years. And even then, things are never the same.

"It'll have to be a new sense of normalcy," she said, "a different sense."

Steve Cohn and his wife, Debbie, have figured that out.

Three days after the shooting, Aaron stopped talking about it -- and has refused to discuss it ever since.

"It doesn't go away," said Steve Cohn. "I don't know if you ever truly heal."

At 11:30 a.m. April 20, Aaron, a straight-A student, was studying in the library. The slaughter didn't start there -- Harris and Klebold shot their way through the cafeteria first -- but that's where it ended.

A teacher, Patti Nielson, who was wounded in the initial attack, crawled into the library ahead of the killers and called 911 on her cell phone. "My God!" she screamed, as six shots sounded. "My God, the gun is right outside my door!" Then she rang off.

Harris and Klebold stalked into the room, pacing before students who cowered beneath tables and behind chairs, taunting them with racist epithets, railing against jocks. They tormented some students, Aaron among them, by putting guns to their heads. Sometimes they took the gun away. Sometimes they pulled the trigger -- then roared with laughter as gore splattered the room.

Harris and Klebold killed 10 students in the library. They didn't kill them all at once. They would target one at a time -- such as Isaiah Shoels, whom they shot once in the head, then twice more to make sure he was dead. Long moments would go by before the guns would go off again. Harris and Klebold were in the library for seven minutes, and for that entire time Aaron Cohn lay there listening to his friends die.

Scars on a community

Many other students experienced the same hellish ordeal.

"You have so many people who were witnesses," Doherty said. "There can be a lifelong emotional impact."

Robin Finegan, a victims assistance expert who worked with survivors in Oklahoma City and Littleton, likened the violence to a boulder crashing into a lake, issuing ripples deep and wide.

Finegan has charted the effects of such an event on a community. They're similar to the stages of personal grief: crisis while the event is occurring, shock and denial immediately after.

Then, she said, in cases where the violence is so public, there is an outpouring of support for the victims and the community.

"There are all of these reports on `Isn't it wonderful how the community has pulled together?' " she said. "Sermons talk about the gifts that come from this. And then comes conflict. People begin to be mad at each other, they began to take sides. They become really angry at the media. . . . The conflict phase is huge. That's where we are now."

Aaron Cohn can't bear to be alone. He paces restlessly around the kitchen while his parents talk in the adjoining family room about what the past nine months have been like. He moves within eyesight of them, connected yet always on the periphery of the conversation.

"We get short-tempered with each other," Steve Cohn said of his relationship with his son, now 16. "Anything I tell him, he misconstrues as nagging. I tell him to check the oil in the car, or to slow down because we're coming to a red light -- I'm only trying to be a parent, but he gets mad."

Immediately after the shooting, Aaron talked about it a lot. He appeared to be in shock, his words coming in a monotone, his freckles standing out in a chalky-white face, his dark-blue eyes staring off into the distance.

On the third day, it hit him, said Debbie Cohn.

"He was sick, vomiting, shaking," she said. Aaron stopped talking about his experience; and despite their gentle probing, he hasn't mentioned it since. They took him for counseling, Debbie Cohn said, "but they said there's nothing they could do until he's ready to talk."

"We call him a piece of stone," Steve Cohn said. "I want to know what he knows. We can't deal with it unless we know."

Scene of a nightmare

Aaron's initial conversations gave his father a glimpse. Three weeks after the shooting, police took Steve and Debbie Cohn into the library. The bodies had been removed, along with the shell casings. But everything else remained, stained with blood. Chairs lay where they had been overturned; backpacks littered the floor.

"I felt white," said Steve Cohn, drawing his fingers down his cheeks to show how the color had drained away. "Things before me were unsteady."

Debbie Cohn said she stared at the tables and realized that Aaron and the others hiding under them had been backed against a wall.

"When I first walked into the library that day," she said, "I thought, `Oh, my God. These kids had nowhere to go.' "

Cohn gestured toward his weeping wife.

"This is nine months after the fact," he said. "They took the innocence away from the kids, from the community. We don't know who we can trust now."

Aaron Cohn's struggles are hardly unique. Patti Nielson, the teacher who made the 911 call, has taken a leave. Former Columbine student Mike Croll, who lost his best friend in the library, has resisted making new friends in his freshman year at the University of Colorado. "Either they think he's like them" -- Harris and Klebold -- "or they want to hear the gory details," said his mother, Cherisse Croll.

And everyone holds the painful memory of Carla Hochhalter, whose daughter, Anne Marie, was paralyzed in the shooting. Two days after the six-month anniversary of the attack, Carla Hochhalter shot herself to death.

Through all the turmoil, Aaron Cohn has managed to maintain his 4.0 grade-point average. This year, he collected his academic letter along with Anne Marie Hochhalter, who crossed the stage in a wheelchair to receive hers. He wants to go to the veterinary school at Colorado State University, one of the best programs of its kind in the country.

CSU, where he'll live with family friends, is a little more than an hour from Littleton. Debbie Cohn is glad her son will be so close.

"Maybe in time, this will pass," she said. She shook her head, as if to deny her own words. Blinking back tears, she looked toward Aaron in the kitchen.

"Do you want to talk?" she said hesitantly.

"No."

It was the first time he'd spoken in an hour. Then his voice rose to a shout.

"I don't want to talk to anyone."