LITTLETON, Colo., May 20 -- One month after the shooting rampage at Columbine High School, President Clinton visited Littleton, privately consoling families of the victims and asking a wildly cheering assembly of Columbine students to make their suffering improve their nation and world. 'Something profound has happened to your country because of this. I'm not even sure I could explain it to you,' Clinton told some 2,500 students, faculty and parents from Columbine gathered in the gymnasium of the Dakota Ridge High School. Although Clinton made no direct mention of his actions in the aftermath of the Littleton shootings to push Congress harder for gun control legislation and gently chide Hollywood for its use of violence, he said of Americans, 'We have been learning along with you.' 'Somehow, what happened to you has pierced the soul of America,' Clinton said. 'And it gives you a chance to be heard in a way no one else can be heard. You can help us to build a better future for all of our children.' In his most direct appeal for gun control, he pleaded with the Littleton community to join Americans in working to keep guns out of the 'wrong hands.' After praising the bravery of the community in response to the shootings, Clinton urged Littleton to realize it has a 'unique chance to make sure that the children of Columbine are never forgotten.' 'We love you and we need you,' he said. Far from somber, the students gathered in the modern brown brick building engulfed Clinton in the atmosphere of a pep rally, shrieking in applause upon his entrance and beginning a rhythmic chant of 'Columbine! Columbine!' as soon as 'Hail to the Chief' finished playing over the loudspeakers.
They continued to cheer loudly through addresses from Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Jane Hammond, Columbine Principal Frank DeAngelis, student body president Heather Dinkel and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The students also showered applause upon two wounded classmates, who left their hospital beds to sit alongside the stage, and several dozen faculty members, who stood wearing white T-shirts with 'Columbine' in large block letters emblazoned across the back. 'We are all Columbine,' the first lady told them. In a five-hour visit to the community that had become the nation's latest symbol of school and youth violence, the first couple met privately with representatives of more than a dozen victims of the April 20 shootings in the middle-class Denver suburb. Only moments before Clinton left Washington, however, national attention to the problem shifted to Conyers, Ga., where a 15-year-old student was charged with shooting six other students at their suburban Atlanta high school. 'This incident again should underscore how profoundly important it is that all Americans come together in the face of these events to protect all of our children from violence,' Clinton said of the Georgia shootings as he left the White House. But Clinton took some comfort during his flight to Colorado from word that the Senate, with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Al Gore, approved a Democrat-authored measure that, among its key provisions, would subject all gun buyers at gun shows, flea markets and pawn shops to criminal background checks. Clinton, described by White House press secretary Joe Lockhart as 'very pleased' by the vote, telephoned Gore from aboard Air Force One to offer congratulations. After waiting a half-hour at the Denver airport for the arrival of the first lady, whose flight from Arizona was delayed by problems with her plane, the president helicoptered to Littleton and met for almost two hours with the victims' families inside the Light of the World Catholic Church. Inside the church sanctuary, the Clintons were escorted by DeAngelis through a group of 14 tables covered with white tablecloths at which the familieswere seated. Family members greeted Clinton with handshakes, hugs and private conversations, Lockhart said. A Jefferson County schools spokeswoman said the families of 12 students who died and teacher Dave Sanders were invited. She said the parents of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold -- who took their own lives after their shooting rampage -- were not invited. Clinton on Wednesday evening telephoned five of the more seriously wounded survivors, who said they did not believe they would be able to attend Clinton's address at Dakota Ridge High School. But Lockhart said two of the students, Sean Graves and Patrick Ireland, decided today they would attend nevertheless. Donna Taylor, the mother of Mark Taylor, who is recovering from gunshot wounds to the chest, arm and leg, said she thought Clinton's call was 'very nice' and that she was glad for the presidential visit. 'It shows he cares,' she said. Clinton had expressed his concern about the Columbine shooting immediately after it happened but held off visiting until he was assured the community had recovered enough to handle a presidential appearance. 'We're very honored that he is visiting,' said Jon DeStefano, president of the local school board. But Jerry Rohrbaugh, father of slain Columbine student Daniel Rohrbaugh, told KUSA-TV in Denver, 'I understand his good intentions, but for me it's kind of like, 'Gosh, I thought that we were kind of all done with this now.'' Columbine senior Casey Stoner said, 'It's hard for me to imagine him (Clinton) saying anything that hasn't already been said.' ---
Copyright 1999 by United Press International. All rights reserved. ---