Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Columbine High School Massacre

Legal Battles

Harris and Klebold with a sawed-off shotgun in a video they made six weeks before the shooting.
Harris and Klebold with a sawed-off shotgun in
a video made six weeks before the shooting.
The quest by families of the victims, the media and public officials to fully understand the Columbine massacre in the hope that such a tragic event can be prevented in the future has been a six year battle, fought on many fronts, that is still not over.

In all there were 17 lawsuits filed by victims of the school tragedy who sought to make someone accountable for the tragic events. Those named in suits included school officials, law enforcement officials, the manufacturer of a drug prescribed for Harris - Taylor and Solvay Pharmaceuticals Inc.-  gun dealers and three young people who helped the teen shooters obtain guns, in addition to the killers' parents. All were either settled or dismissed.

While many of the settlements were confidential and several families turned down the money they were offered, the largest single settlement made public was $1.5 million from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, which went to the family of teacher Dave Sanders.

The disclosure in the early stages of the Columbine investigation that there had been several incidents in the two years prior to the shooting in which both Harris' and Klebold's propensity toward violence were made known to the police, the school and the boy's parents raised the question of whether this tragedy could have been prevented – could more have been done?

Finding an answer to this question has been a legal struggle of mammoth proportions. 

It would take four years for video tapes and writings of Harris and Klebold to be declared "criminal justice records" and therefore available to the public, but still who they should be made available to is being debated. Some argue that much can be learned about warning signs which may help to prevent a future Columbine, while others are concerned that unrestricted public access may only serve to retraumatize the community and may glorify Harris and Klebold and their actions.

The fact that the videos had been made using the school's video equipment and a copy of one of the videos was found on a school computer fuelled the accusations that the school was negligent in not taking further action to stem the growing violence of Harris and Klebold.

A report compiled by the school's attorneys that includes interviews with the boys' teachers, which parents believe could help prevent another tragedy by shedding light on any warning signs that were missed or ignored at Columbine High School, cannot be released because it was compiled to help school officials defend themselves in court from lawsuits filed in the wake of the Columbine shootings, and is therefore, according to attorneys, covered by the attorney-client privilege exception in state open-records laws.

In February, 2004 the Jefferson County Public Schools superintendent declared that the interviews with teachers in the report would never be made public. In an attempt to reach a compromise school's spokesman Rick Kaufman announced that Columbine staff members would speak with the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado.

A notebook, kept by the father of Eric Harris, seized from their home on the day of the shooting, which was a record of dealings with his son, including contacts from law enforcement and his school has also been the subject of much controversy. Attempts by many parents of victims to have the notebook made public in the hope that it would help answer lingering questions about what school and sheriff's officials knew about Harris before the Columbine tragedy have so far been fruitless. In May 2002 Jefferson County District Judge Brooke Jackson ruled that "items seized from the killers' homes did not automatically fall under state open records laws." This ruling is still under appeal.

The sworn testimony of Tom and Sue Klebold, and Wayne and Kathy Harris, taken during a lawsuit filed against them by Daniel Rohrbough's and other victims' families, is believed by parents to reveal much about how the next Columbine could be averted but, despite many attempts to have the testimony made public the courts continue to uphold the decision to keep those records closed.

In July 2004 State Attorney General Ken Salazar was involved in negotiations to try to win the cooperation of the parents of the Columbine killers for a wide-ranging study of the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.  To date those negotiations have not been successful.