Columbine's Jock Culture Probed

LITTLETON, Colo. - The state wrestling champ was regularly permitted to park his $100,000 Hummer all day in a 15-minute space. A football player was allowed to tease a girl about her breasts in class without fear of retribution by his teacher, also the boy's coach. The sports trophies were showcased in the front hall - the artwork, down a back corridor.

Columbine High School is a culture where initiation rituals meant upperclass wrestlers twisted the nipples of freshman wrestlers. Sports pages in the yearbook were in color, a national debating team and other clubs in black-and-white. The homecoming king was a football player on probation for burglary.

All of it angered and oppressed Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, leading to the April day when they staged their murderous rampage here, killing 13 and wounding 21.

Columbine may be no different from thousands of high schools in glorifying athletes. But in the weeks since one of the worst school shootings in history, every aspect of what had seemed normal is now being re-examined. Increasingly, as parents and students replay images of life at Columbine, they are freeze-framing on injustices suffered at the hands of athletes, wondering aloud why almost no one - not teachers, not administrators, not coaches, not most students, not parents - took the problem seriously.

No one thinks the high tolerance for athletic mischief explains away or excuses the two boys' horrific actions. But some parents and students believe a schoolwide indulgence of certain jocks - their criminal convictions, physical abuse, sexual and racial bullying - intensified the killers' feelings of powerlessness and galvanized their fantasies of revenge.

It was clear in the first hours after the shootings that vengeance against athletes was a preoccupation of the two killers. Harris and Klebold began firing with the words "All the jocks stand up." They barked that "anybody with a white hat or a shirt with a sports emblem on it is dead."

But in the two months since that day, as pundits and politicians searched for an explanation of why, the national conversation moved away from those words, and even outside the walls of the school completely. It turned to the boys' families, where no clues have surfaced; to the mental problems of Harris - he was on anti-depressants; to video games; to violent movies; to guns, which currently preoccupy Congress.

While the rest of the country looks elsewhere for explanations, the community here has resisted easy answers. Through their mourning and anguish, many parents and students have made a more difficult turn inward, to the culture of Columbine and the aspects of it that may have provoked two boys to such aggression. In the past two weeks, a task force has been formed to examine that atmosphere.

"I don't think any one thing drove them to this," said member Joyce Hooker, a parent of two Columbine students. "But I think we need to say, `Whoa. Why did they focus on athletes?' "

Their perspective is adolescent and simplistic, but dozens of interviews and a review of court records suggest that the rage of Harris and Klebold began with the injustices of jocks. The pair knew of instances where athletes convicted of crimes went without suspension from games or expulsion from school. They witnessed instances of athletes tormenting others while school authorities looked the other way. They believed that high-profile athletes could finagle their way out of jail.

In one episode, they saw state wrestling champion Rocky Hoffschneider shoving his girlfriend into a locker, in front of a teacher, who did nothing, according to a close friend.

Hoffschneider, who graduated last year and works in the Denver area at a construction company, declined to answer questions.

Harris and Klebold were preoccupied with Hoffschneider, who became, for many at Columbine, a symbol of athletes' runaway sovereignty.

Athletes' torment of Harris and Klebold personally was also a factor. Recalling many conversations with Harris and Klebold during the three years he knew them, friend Brooks Brown now feels the shooting "had to do with the injustice in our society and in the school."

"We all hated it - hated the fact we were outcasts just simply because we weren't in sports," Brown said. "It's insane when you think about it, but it's real."

To some athletes and parents, this is guilt-induced revisionism. They point out that athletes moved in and out of a variety of cliques. Some were scholars, the majority well-behaved. These parents and students experienced a Columbine where camaraderie was strong, discipline evenhanded and harassment minimal. To say otherwise, they say, is to validate the mind-set of murdering madmen.

"They had no school spirit and they wanted to be different," said Randy Thurmon, parent of a wrestler and football player, of the killers. The new introspection also has been resisted by Columbine school officials, who ignored the task force's invitation to their first meeting, members said.

But one school official who serves on the board overseeing all Jefferson County schools believes that these issues cannot be dismissed so quickly.

"I do believe that, in all of our schools, athletes can appear to have a different status. I think it's OK if kids are working hard and they're good role models," said Jefferson County School Board member David DiGiacomo. "But to give them special privileges, I think we have to be careful."

With the first media bulletins of the shootings, Stephen Greene was on his car phone, calling a school hotline about his son's safety. He got voice mail and screamed out a message: "I knew something like this in this school could happen."

Greene's sense of foreboding dates to 1996, the year Hoffschneider transferred to Columbine after being expelled from a private school for fighting.

The summer before Hoffschneider entered Columbine, his girlfriend's parents alleged in court papers that Hoffschneider's mother and sister kicked in their door one morning. Edmund Lemieux, the girl's father, said the Hoffschneider family "was abusive and physical towards us."

Calls to the Hoffschneider family were not returned.

Within a month of school opening in the fall of 1996, Hoffschneider and another football player were teasing Greene's son Jonathan, who is Jewish. The gym teacher, Craig Place, who was also Hoffschneider's wrestling coach, did nothing, Greene said.

"Then the threats began - about setting him on fire and burning him."

Greene went to Place, Principal Frank DeAngelis and his son's guidance counselor. "They said, `This stuff can happen.' " he said. Greene called the School Board, which notified the police. Hoffschneider and the other athlete were charged with harassment, kicking and striking, court records show, and sentenced to probation. But Hoffschneider was allowed to continue his participation in football and wrestling.

Hoffschneider also attracted a following. "He created a tough little group of guys - probably seven or eight boys that were involved in sports - mostly football, wrestling - who began to take control of the school," said parent Cecelia Buckner. "They all wore white hats."

In Harris and Klebold's junior year, an unlikely challenge arose to the jocks' unchecked power - from Columbine's social underclass. "All of us outcasts got jealous," said junior Pauline Colby.

Just as jocks wore an unofficial uniform to school - white baseball caps - the outcasts donned black, most noticeably, trench coats. When jocks branded them "the Trenchcoat Mafia," they embraced the name.

"Last year, there was a group of seniors who picked on everyone, not just the lowest people. Pretty much everyone was scared to take them on. If anyone said anything, they'd come after you, too. I don't think teachers realized it was serious. They just saw it as kids joking around," said Kevin Hofstra, a Yale-bound soccer-team captain.

Harris and Klebold absorbed it all. As the year went by, they drifted closer to the Trenchcoat Mafia, but unlike most students, they seemed to take the taunting to heart. "They just let the jocks get to them," Colby, the junior, said. "I think they were taunted to their limits."

Something changed by Harris and Klebold's senior year. What began as rage - held inside - turned into a vicious plan of revenge. But if it started with athletes, as it evolved, it morphed into a plot to destroy the entire school.