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Tree of Peace sprouts at Columbine High

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By AJ Vicens

A symbol of peace has taken root near the front doors of Columbine High School.

A Tree of Peace, provided by the Colorado Association of School Resource Officers, was planted Aug. 29 by students and law officers, a decade after two teenagers fatally shot 12 fellow students and a teacher at the school.

"It's a great symbol," Columbine senior Roman Richardson said as he watched the planting. Richardson, 17, remembers watching news coverage of the shootings and recalls his mother being afraid.

Ten years later, Richardson said, the peace tree, along with a plaque noting its significance, is appropriate.

"It's just respectful to what happened. That's all," he said.

Resource officers, the law officers assigned to schools across the state, often represent the closest relationship to law enforcement for today’s kids.

Deputy Rebecca Johnson of the Summit County Sheriff's Office, the association's past president, had the idea in 2007 to plant peace trees at middle and high schools. Columbine's tree marks the fourth donated by the group, following plantings at Summit Middle School in Frisco, Summit High School in Breckenridge and the Windmill Daycare Center in Windsor.

“This tree serves as a reminder that together we will remain committed to promoting and providing a safe and peaceful learning environment for the community of Columbine High School," the plaque reads.

"We're here to protect you, and you guys are here to be good to each other," Johnson told a group of students as 13 columbine flowers were planted. After the ceremony, Johnson said she hopes the students take ownership of the area, keeping it clean and protecting it from vandalism.

Brian Bower, a 15-year-old sophomore at Columbine, said the tree represents community members coming together to support one another. He said it's nice to see school resource officers in a different role than just law enforcement.

Bower also said the tree is another reminder that the school and the community have come a long way since the shootings.

"Sometimes I'm at school, and I realize I'm walking down the same stairs, or in front of where the old library was," Bower said. "It's chilling with the nightmare that unfolded here. But I'm glad to see that we've come such a far way, and this is a reminder of that. The tragedy made this community stronger than it's ever been."

Columbine Principal Frank DeAngelis said the gift serves a poignant symbol.

"It's quite an honor to have this tree planted at Columbine High School," DeAngelis said after the ceremony. "It's symbolic, because we just came off our 10-year anniversary on April 20, and the fact that the tree is presented by some of the first-responders is special."

DeAngelis said this year's sophomore class at Columbine was in kindergarten when the shootings occurred, and all of them remember it in different ways.

"Many of them do remember," DeAngelis said. "They might remember how Leawood (Elementary School) was used as a sort of clearinghouse, and how Pierce Street was closed down."

DeAngelis has his own memories and realizations.

"Most parents feel that schools are a safe place, and when that belief was violated, that's a difficult thing," DeAngelis said. "We've learned that you can't take anything for granted."

Marika Selzer, a 16-year-old junior at Columbine, documented the planting for the school's yearbook. She thinks the tree is a "cool way" for the community to show how it feels about school safety and respect.

Selzer has grown up with the legacy of the shootings " her older sister went to the high school when the tragedy was more recent. But she said the shootings don’t affect her school experience.

"No, not at all," she said without hesitation. "I'm walking around thinking about the history test I have fourth hour, not the people that got killed. It's not something that's part of the environment around here."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.