- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 20, 2001

LITTLETON, Colo. — When the Jefferson County school district invited Sue Petrone to paint a ceramic tile for Columbine High School as part of an art-therapy project two years ago, she jumped at the chance.
She spent hours painstakingly designing and later painting a picture that showed a cross over a heart with the name of her son, Daniel Rohrbough, who was killed in the 1999 Columbine massacre.
But when volunteers finished putting up the decorative tiles along the walls and doorways of Columbine, Mrs. Petrone's contribution was nowhere to be found.
The school district had rejected it because it depicted a cross, which officials said would constitute an endorsement of religion and a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
School officials said they were trying to avoid raising the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union. Instead, they were hit with a federal lawsuit by the parents of two Columbine victims, Daniel Rohrbough and Kelly Fleming, whose tiles were either torn down or rejected on the spot because their designs were deemed too religious or otherwise inappropriate for the school display.
"When they told her no, they wouldn't put her tile up, she just cried," said Rich Petrone, Sue's husband and Daniel's stepfather. "They were basically telling us, 'We want you to express your feelings, but they have to agree with our feelings.'"
Thus did Columbine High School, site of the nation's deadliest school shooting, enter the fray over religion in public education. At issue is the families' right to freedom of speech versus the district's right to control the content of its school displays.
So far, the parents are winning both the public relations and the legal battles. Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Wiley Daniel ordered the district to post the disputed tiles, saying that the school had created a "limited public forum" when it invited artistic contributions from individuals.
That might have been the end of the case, but then the district did something that few expected. On Nov. 5, it filed an appeal with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, asking the higher court to overturn Judge Daniel's decision.
The district then requested and won a temporary stay of Judge Daniel's order to restore the tiles, a decision that has left much of the community dumbfounded. Having received a clean bill of legal health from a federal judge, ask critics, why not just hang the tiles?
"I am quite frankly confused as to why the Jeffco board has chosen this issue to battle over," said state Rep. Don Lee, who represents the Columbine area. "Maybe they should pray for more guidance before deciding to waste more taxpayer dollars over a position that is unconstitutional and that they cannot defend in good conscience."
Both of Denver's major daily newspapers blasted the decision to prolong the courtroom agony. "Can the board possibly believe it is reasonable to embark on a hugely expensive legal free-for-all that can offend broad swaths of the community?" the Rocky Mountain News asked in a Nov. 8 editorial.
The main target of criticism is Superintendent Jane Hammond, who has orchestrated the district's strategy in the absence of direction from the board. She has disputed the parents' contention that censoring the tiles violated their rights to free speech.
"Our concern is that we don't believe it's an issue of free speech," said district spokeswoman Marilyn Saltzman. "There are numerous court rulings that give schools the right to control speech. It's an issue of church-state separation and also the school district's ability to control what happens in the schools."
She said the Columbine parents and others were given specific guidelines for what could be included on the tiles. Those included no religious imagery, no personal messages and no references to the shootings.
"We're working on a permanent memorial in the park [next door]," said Mrs. Saltzman, who noted that the tile project began in 1996, three years before the shootings. "But this wasn't intended to be a memorial."
Brian Rohrbough, Daniel's father, says that's not what the district told him. "I got a call that said, 'We'd like you to come in and create a memorial of Dan at the school,'" he said.
"When I got there and [a teacher] started telling us the rules, I objected and she said, 'Go ahead and do anything you want,'" he said.
Before the school reopened in the fall of 1999, volunteers mounted about 1,500 tiles. They later removed nearly 100 deemed to have violated the guidelines, including several that were seen as glorifying violence.
Painted on one tile were the initials "D.K.," which could stand for "Dylan Klebold," one of the two gunmen who killed 12 students and a teacher before taking his own life. Another tile showed the profile of a head with a splatter of red paint, which officials said appeared to represent a bleeding bullet wound.
Officials worried that if the district agreed to put up the religious tiles, they would have to replace the other tiles, Mrs. Saltzman said. If somebody had painted a swastika tile, say the district's supporters, would the school be compelled to display that?
Critics insist the district is exaggerating, saying that the "bloody head" tile is so abstract that it could be interpreted any number of ways. In any event, said Mr. Rohrbough, the judge's ruling applies only to the tiles named in the parents' lawsuit.
"His ruling has nothing to do with the other tiles," said Mr. Rohrbough. "And even if it didn't, I haven't seen one single tile that would offend me to be next to. Even 'D.K.,' Because it's not my tile."
The parents have benefited from the legal muscle of the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville-based legal foundation dedicated to promoting religious freedom. The institute, which originally offered to defend the school district against any ACLU lawsuit, found a local attorney, James Rouse, to represent the parents and has picked up the tab for court costs.
During the trial, Mr. Rouse noted that Columbine had featured several displays with religious themes, including some paper mobiles in the art room with messages such as "God is with you." In the office hangs a framed poster with the words, "God weeps over Columbine this day, April 20, 1999."
School attorneys countered that those displays were temporary and could be removed easily, not permanent like the tiles.
Mr. Rouse also argued that the school had several de facto memorials, including a plaque in the office, the framed volleyball jersey of shooting victim Lauren Townsend, and a memorial field dedicated to teacher David Sanders. The cheerleaders sold memorial blue-and-silver ribbons this year, and the student store offered hats with the words "Never Forgotten."
"They've said they don't want to put up a reminder about the tragedy, but they've got memorials all over the school," said Mr. Rouse. "It's just totally arbitrary."
For the family of Daniel Rohrbough, the district's refusal to let them put up a tile with his name on it feels like a "personal vendetta," said Mr. Petrone.
"Danny wasn't a star athlete, he was just a normal everyday kid," said Mr. Petrone. "If you're not an athlete at that school, you're nothing. They've got jerseys hanging up there for the kids who died who were athletes. There's nothing up for Danny."


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