The man who was principal at the time of one of North America’s most horrific school shootings was in Red Deer to tell his story last week.
Frank DeAngelis, former principal at Columbine High School, spoke about his experience and how the community overcame the tragedy that happened on April 20th, 1999. DeAngelis was the final speaker of the Campus Security Administrators Workshop Conference being hosted by Red Deer College.
“The reason I am here is because I made a promise after the tragedy at Columbine that I was going to do whatever I could to make sure we’re being proactive and to share some of the advice I had to learn the hard way,” he said. “Thirteen of my students were killed by two of my own students. There is not a day that I don’t think about that.”
DeAngelis became the principal of Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado in 1996 after being a teacher there. He retired just last May.
One of his favourite things to do while he was principal was to go down to the cafeteria at lunchtime and visit with students. On April 20th, 1999, DeAngelis was late getting down to the cafeteria.
“I was meeting with a teacher to offer him a full-time contract and my secretary comes running in and she said, ‘Frank, there has been a report of gunfire’,” he said. “Immediately I was thinking this can’t be happening. I ran out of my office and my worst nightmare was becoming a reality – I came in direct contact with the gunman.
“It’s been over 16 years but I still have flashbacks of what I witnessed in that moment. I remember seeing a kid with a ball cap on backwards and a black vest which carried all the ammunition he had. All I remember was staring at him – he was about 50 yards away from me. I can remember distinctly thinking, what is it going to feel like to be shot? It would happen quickly, my body would get cold. And then all of a sudden I start thinking about my wife and how I will never hold my kids again. Everything slowed down,” he said. “Fortunately for me there were some girls who were unaware what was happening and they were getting ready to come into the crossfire and they redirected my attention. It was at that point that I ran to an adjacent hallway as the gunman came towards us.”
He added there were several things that happened that day that he can’t explain.
“The gunman is coming towards us and we’re going down a hallway and all the doors are locked. I reach into my pocket and I had 35 keys and I pulled out the one master key that opens up all the doors,” said DeAngelis. “I have tried that time and time again – to pull out the master key in that stack. It was my day – that one key saved my life and it saved the girls’ lives.”
He added what he found out later from the police was that if David Sanders, a teacher at Columbine who was killed by the gunman, had not come up a particular hallway as DeAngelis was coming out of his office, DeAngelis likely would have been shot that day.
“Needless to say, here I am in this wonderful school, 13 people are dead on my watch, in addition two of the kids that did the shooting that also injured 26 kids, were my students,” he said. “It was a war zone.”
Following the tragedy, DeAngelis promised the students who were freshman that he would remain principal at the high school until they graduated.
“My priest told me that I really needed to go back and rebuild that community and I didn’t feel like I could do it in three years. If I really wanted to do it, it had to be a generational thing so I made the promise to be there until every kid who was in an elementary school (at the time of the tragedy) graduated and that was the class of 2012,” said DeAngelis, who ended up retiring in 2014.
Today, DeAngelis said he believes schools are better equipped to handle tragedies like Columbine.
“The protocol on that day at Columbine was to secure the parameter and the two gunman had reign of the school for about 30 minutes. Now as a result of some of the things that happened at Columbine, we are actively engaging the shooter. Unfortunately shootings are still occurring but I think they are engaging the shooter much sooner and research shows that if they can be deterred – timing is everything,” he said. “I think some other things that were learned is how do you create an environment for help. How do you connect with those kids that don’t necessarily feel connected? I’m hoping to be proactive to teach kids how to treat each other – how to respect each other – how to create environments that are welcoming to all students.
“Today, I think threat assessment is better. I think counseling is better and I think we have learned. But unfortunately every time we make a correction, it seems shooters are out-thinking law enforcement agents or schools. A prime example was Sandy Hook (Elementary). They had everything in place – they had secure entry, but they didn’t anticipate the shooter would shoot his way through the glass. The bottom line so many times is that there is a feeling of comfort when you see cameras or metal detectors, but we have to do something for these people who are crying out for help. As I have stated, the two shooters at Columbine didn’t come out of their mother’s womb hating – what happened from the time they turned 18 and were killing their friends in a school?”
Unfortunately, school shootings continue to happen and DeAngelis said every time he hears of another one he is re-traumatized.
“It could be another school, it could be across the country, it could be 20 years later – when I see those kids running out of the building it takes me back to April 20th, 1999,” he said. “That’s the one thing everyone I think feels when you experience a tragedy – in a year or two you are going to wake up and everything is going to be back to normal when it’s not. You have to redefine what normal is,” he said. “What is interesting is that people are in different places – some suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder five or six years out.”
DeAngelis said his faith helped him move forward.
“It was two days after I survived the shooting and I was feeling survivor’s guilt. The priest at my church said there was a reason I was spared – now go back and rebuild that community. I felt the spiritual strength to do that,” he said. “Another friend of my parents – he was a Vietnam veteran – he said if you don’t help yourself, you can’t help anyone else. Between the counseling and my faith, it helped me continue. I also had the support of people in the school district.”
Meanwhile, DeAngelis continues to remember those who were killed in the Columbine shooting and he honours them by speaking around the country and raising awareness.
“There is always someone out there to reach – kids who are struggling. So many times with these school shootings, these kids are on a suicide mission because they know they are going to be killed. There are other ways to seek help and I don’t care how dark it may seem – there is always going to be light there,” he said. “For staff I think the most important thing is that each day you realize the impact you can have on a kid. Reaching out and providing love – there is a way to have that environment where you care about them and they care about you. That is what it is all about.”