Frank DeAngelis believes in the idea of having been put in a certain place at a certain time by God in order to accomplish a certain purpose.
To hear the former Columbine High School principal’s stories from the day of the tragedy for which the school is known, and from the next 15 years as he continued as principal despite great personal and emotional toll to himself, one is inclined to at least consider he may be right.
That story, taken together with his very name, suggest that the words of the Bible’s Jeremiah were written to him directly: “Before I [God] formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you” to help the school and the community of Littleton, Colo., heal from the day in 1999 when two student-gunmen killed 12 schoolmates and a teacher.
His name, in a rough translation from the Italian, means “Frank of the Angels.”
To the students, parents, faculty and community who needed someone to show them out of darkness, DeAngelis was an angel indeed.
DeAngelis gave a presentation about his experiences on Friday, Jan. 19, in the auditorium of Grand County High School. Though DeAngelis has become known as a secure-schools consultant and speaker about school safety, that wasn’t the focus of his visit.
Or rather, it was, but not quite the way one would at first think.
Children: ‘Our most
DeAngelis didn’t speak so much of security systems or measures or strategies, which developed in large part after and because of Columbine. Rather, making schools safe, he indicated, begins with making sure children feel cared about and included.
“By you being here tonight, tells me how important it is for this community to take all these kids under their wings. That is the value of it all,” DeAngelis began.
DeAngelis, last Friday, was the guest of the Moab Faith-Based Coalition, an organization started last year by Pastor Dick Pacheco of the River of Life Christian Fellowship, to focus on the prevention of substance abuse and suicide among Grand County youth.
“Kids … are our most precious commodity,” DeAngelis said. “We can’t take anything for granted … on any given day, something can happen. If you would have told me 19 years ago that something like a Columbine could happen in Littleton, Colorado, I would have said, ‘No way.’”
Most people know the basic story: Two students, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, entered their school with guns and bombs (which fortunately did not go off, otherwise there would have been 600 to 700 people killed, rather than 15, DeAngelis said). They killed 12 classmates, a teacher, and then themselves during the ordeal.
But DeAngelis spoke of things many people don’t know.
April, 20, 1999...
and its aftermath
By all rights, DeAngelis said he should be dead.
As he entered a hall from his office upon being told of gunshots in the school, he encountered one of the gunmen face to face, though at a distance, with the gun pointed right at him. In the moment, “The barrel of the gun seemed about the size of a cannon,” he said.
He remembers glass shattering behind him. He didn’t realize it, but he learned later from a witness that he ran toward the gunman, he believes in order to protect some students.
Had it not been for faculty member Dave Sanders coming into the scene, DeAngelis believes he would have been shot and killed. The gunman’s attention was drawn to Sanders. Sanders was shot and later died. In a tragic irony, students kept Sanders alive for three hours; he died 20 minutes after police finally entered the school.
DeAngelis ushered a group of students toward a locked storage closet for safety. He said he grabbed his set of 30 similar-looking keys. In the urgency of the moment, he didn’t waste time trying to identify the right key from the 30 or so on his key ring. He just grabbed one. The closet opened on that first try.
“I have to tell you, I tried that for 15 years afterward, and I was never able to pull out that one key.”
DeAngelis told heart-wrenching story after heart-wrenching story: The boy who, driving to school with his sister that morning, got in a fight with her and left the car angry — it was the last time he saw her alive. Later, hiding under a table in the cafeteria where much of the carnage took place, two of his classmates died right on top of him; he survived only by playing dead.
The time he had to tell a student, who had survived Columbine, just a few months later, that the boy’s mother had committed suicide.
Greg Barnes, who was one of the students giving first aid to keep Mr. Sanders alive; Barnes, who took a picture of Sanders’ grandchildren from the teacher’s wallet and showed it to him to motivate him to fight for life; Barnes, who, a year later, wrote, “I can no longer live with these images...” — in a suicide note.
There were so many others. Rates of substance abuse and suicide increased. “As time went on, people would ask, ‘When is it going to get back to normal?’”
“It never did.”
One year, while DeAngelis was at a Colorado Rockies baseball game on the Fourth of July, he found himself crying and in a fetal position because of the trauma that kicked in when the fireworks went off.
For three years, the school cafeteria could not serve Chinese food. “That’s the meal the kids were eating when the shooting started.”
When the fire alarm would go off in a drill, people would have meltdowns; if word of a drill got out, “We’d have 400 kids absent.”
The hard road of
Yet DeAngelis’ message was one of inspiration, of hope, of untold strength born of desperation and the determination to overcome it.
It was a hard road.
At first, DeAngelis was despondent, heartbroken. After all, those who died “were killed by two of my kids. It’s something I have to live with for the rest of my life, knowing that parents sent their kids to my school at seven o’ clock in the morning, and they never returned home.”
That weight, and the survivor’s guilt he feels to this day, were nearly unbearable, he said, until one day when his Catholic priest counseled him, “‘Frank, you were spared for a reason. Now you need to go back and rebuild that community.’”
He took the directive to heart, making it what he calls a “spiritual imperative.”
He vowed to stay on at Columbine — even with all the horrific memories it held — until the freshman class of 1999 had graduated.
That would have been in 2002, but as the time neared, DeAngelis realized, “The job’s not done.” He extended his promise: He would stay on as principal until the children who were in their earliest school year in 1999 had all graduated.
When the Class of 2012 was preparing to graduate, DeAngelis was getting ready to leave with them. But a parent told him their child had been only in the first year of a two-year preschool program in 1999 — would he please stay.
He did, and so did not retire until 2014.
The Columbine family
During his tenure after the tragedy, he agonized over how to overcome the lingering effects. He helped build the “Columbine family.” He said he learned he needed to reach out to those who felt cast out or marginalized.
While the story was widely circulated that Klebold and Harris had been bullied, DeAngelis said this wasn’t the case. The two were sort of on the fringes, yes, but not even in the so-called “Basement Tapes” the pair recorded in the several months prior to the incident did they mention bullying as motivation for their act, DeAngelis said.
In rebuilding the school, DeAngelis said he reached out to those normally not included and unheralded. He met resistance: “You don’t even know who we are,” they told him. But he had done his homework; he did indeed know their names, which gave some inroad.
They talked. He listened. He implemented things to make them feel as important as the star athlete or the straight-A academic.
He put a premium not simply on loving his students, but making sure they knew it. “If I had to suspend a kid, when they walked out of that office, they know I still cared about them.”
Years later, he said, every student knew they were an indispensable link in the Columbine family chain. That, not the image of Columbine in the collective consciousness, is the lesson DeAngelis teaches.
He told the story of freshman Sean Graves, who was confined to a wheelchair as a result of injuries from the shooting. His parents had come to grips with the fact he might not walk again, “But he’s given up his will to live,” they told DeAngelis.
The principal worked with him, pleaded with him to come back to school, to not give up.
It took some doing, but DeAngelis succeeded. Three years later at graduation, Graves was wheeled to the stage when his name was called. He put his hand up in a gesture to stop his helpers and, DeAngelis said, “He gets up out of his wheelchair and he walks to me to get his diploma … that’s what Columbine represents: Never giving up hope.”
Though not explicitly stated in quite this way, DeAngelis’ message was that inclusion, sensitivity, awareness, involvement and compassion are the keys to preventing future school-age tragedies.
“Not only do we need to teach them math and English and science, but we need to teach them life lessons, also,” he said. “They’re all of our kids ... if kids are crying out for help, we need to be there for support …One more senseless death is one too many.”