DeAngelis was the principal at Columbine when two students, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, entered the school with bombs and guns and killed 12 fellow students, a teacher (Dave Sanders) and finally themselves. DeAngelis went on to continue as principal for the next 15 years, vowing to put the school and the community back together, which was the subject of his presentation in Moab. An article reporting on his presentation can be found in the Jan. 25 edition of The Times-Independent, and also online at moabtimes.com.
As a further note, DeAngelis this week was assisting in the aftermath of a school shooting on Jan. 23 in Marshall County, Kentucky, that left two students dead and 18 injured. It was the eleventh school shooting in less than the first month of 2018.
TIMES-INDEPENDENT: How do you refer to the event? I think most people just call it ‘Columbine,’ but do you refer to it differently? Because I know you’re trying to remove a little bit of stigma.
DeANGELIS: I refer to it as the Columbine tragedy. People say it’s the incident or the thing at Columbine, but it was a tragedy … to me, it was an act of terrorism, and a plan that was not fully carried out, fortunately.
TIMES-INDEPENDENT: I think every generation has key moments…that seem to have an impact on the collective psyche. For me, Columbine and 9-11 are the two that stick out. Why did Columbine have that kind of an impact?
DeANGELIS: I’m always taken back when people make that comment, ‘I remember where I was when Columbine happened.’ For me, I grew up in a time ... I remember where I was when President Kennedy was assassinated; I remember when the Challenger exploded; I remember 9/11 … And to be put in that category with others that had a major impact … I really believe it’s the way the media played it out, that’s the reason we’re still talking about it. It’s the first time media was doing 24/7 coverage; they brought it into our living rooms.
TIMES-INDEPENDENT: I notice you talk of them [perpetrators Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris] as ‘the gunmen,’ and avoid using their names. Is that a conscious decision, or why is that?
DeANGELIS: It is. Because it was probably a month later, I had to watch what is referred to as the Basement Tapes. These two did not just wake up the morning of the 20th and say, ‘I’m having a bad day, let’s go and shoot up the school. It’s something they had planned out meticulously for over a year. One of the comments they made is they said, ‘We are going to live forever, we are going to be legends.’
If I were to go into a place and say, ‘Give names associated with Columbine High School,’ most people would be able to name the two killers. But most people would be hard-pressed to name the 12 students and [the teacher] Mr. Sanders. The thing that worries me now is there are kids that were not even born who are making reference to the two. There have been 74 instances where students have made reference to the two killers at Columbine as motivation or as cult heroes. And there have been five instances where … people that actually carried out school shootings made a visit to Columbine as motivation to carry out their act. So, I don’t want those two to be remembered for that hideous act that they did.
TIMES-INDEPENDENT: Right after the incident, how did you think of them, of those two that perpetrated the tragedy?
DeANGELIS: There was so much anger or hate built up in my heart. I was angry, because I went to 13 memorial services. I was so angry and mad all the time and bitter, and I said, ‘If I really am going to rebuild this community, I can’t bring this attitude in,’ and so … I had to forgive. Now … there are families that don’t agree with me, who say, ‘I can never forgive those two for what they did, they took my child …’ I understand that completely, but … for me to lead that school to where it needed to be, I couldn’t have that anger and hatred pent up inside.
TIMES-INDEPENDENT: How did it happen for you? How did that process work?
DeANGELIS: It was my faith, and I kept believing. When I go out and present, I don’t mean to preach, but … it was my faith and my counseling that allowed me to fulfill what Father Kent [DeAngelis’ Catholic priest] had asked me to do to rebuild that community … I said, ‘Who am I not to forgive?’
TIMES-INDEPENDENT: It would be difficult for anyone who was in that kind of traumatic situation to stay and be so continually reminded … I would think that fulfilling that promise [to stay at Columbine] came at some personal cost to yourself?
TIMES-INDEPENDENT: Can you talk about that?
DeANGELIS: I had my faith. I got into counseling right away.
Where I made a mistake is I did a pretty good job taking care of students, parents, staff members, community members, but I did a poor job taking care of my family … I was married for 18 years, I had a stepson who graduated from Columbine in 1993, and I had a daughter … who was a sophomore at a neighboring high school … It got to the point that [my wife] said, ‘When are we going to stop talking about Columbine? … When are you going to get over it?’ I wish I would have been more persistent and said, ‘You don’t understand what I’m going through.’ As time went on, instead of coming home each night and her saying, ‘Oh, are we going to talk about Columbine again?’ I … stayed at work until they were sleeping, and I’d leave before they got up in the morning, and, well, that led to a divorce after 18 years of marriage… It was a hard lesson to learn.
TIMES-INDEPENDENT: I don’t think anyone would be blamed if the tragedy had caused a loss of faith completely. For you that’s clearly not true. Did it ever cause a crisis of faith?
DeANGELIS: Yes, it did. I can remember, after seeing the gunman, after seeing those girls, after seeing a kid … whose face was shot off, and amazingly he survived … after going to the elementary school and having to tell the parents, ‘There’s a good chance your kids lost their lives in my building,’ … I can remember … lying in bed and saying, ‘God … how could this happen?’ But I had to believe God has a plan … I did not understand at the time the importance it would have. I was being vilified, I was being judged, I had eight lawsuits named against me, and it took everything in my power not to fire back, but I kept going back to my faith … and it was that mindset that allowed me to continue to be the principal at Columbine.
TIMES-INDEPENDENT: Were there times that you wished you hadn’t made that promise [to stay at Columbine as principal]?
DeANGELIS: No. People look at me and say, ‘You’re dumber than I thought.’
Everybody kept saying, ‘Frank, you’ve stayed longer than you needed to. You don’t owe anybody. You did what you had to do.’ But I kept thinking that, ‘I lived through the worst of it. I survived. I can get through this.’ I never regret being at Columbine.
TIMES-INDEPENDENT: I can’t imagine the number of times you’ve probably thought through the years … ‘What could we have done? Where did we go wrong?’ Especially when in the Basement Tapes they said, ‘There’s nothing you guys could have done to prevent any of this. There’s nothing anybody could have done.’ Did you find an answer?
DeANGELIS: No. The one thing I can say is there have been lessons that were learned … I saw pictures of these two kids when they were young, and they were in soccer uniforms and smiles from ear to ear and teeth missing, these innocent kids … And then I see the guys pointing a gun to my head and I say, ‘What went wrong? Did we let them down?’ And I don’t know.
TIMES-INDEPENDENT: What should we have learned [from Columbine] but haven’t yet?
DeANGELIS: That’s a good question. The thing we have not learned is that there are kids who are crying out for help, and we needed to make sure that we have the resources to provide that help. When they talk about cutting funding for mental health and programs, that bothers me.
TIMES-INDEPENDENT: You suffered a lot, yet that has allowed you to help others…through the same kinds of situations. I don’t want to use the word, ‘savior,’ but do you see … you were called upon to do something absolutely horrific, so that you could help others.
DeANGELIS: It’s so ironic. Because pastor Dick Pacheco (of Moab) and I just had this conversation ... We said, ‘We’re both sitting here for a reason. God brought us here.’ I could very easily have died. And I didn’t. I was spared for a reason … It’s not that I’m anyone special … but I lived through this. Would I have had this platform if I weren’t principal of Columbine High School? I don’t know. But because I was … I can walk in somewhere and say, ‘Trust me, it looks dim now, but I’m living proof five years, ten years from now, it’s going to be a tough journey, but you’re going to be able to survive.’