'I've Had a Lot of Survivor's Guilt': Columbine High's Former Principal on Healing His Community

Frank DeAngelis, Columbine High School's principal from 1996-2014, visits the Columbine Memorial in Littleton, Colo.,  earlier this week.
Frank DeAngelis, Columbine High School's principal from 1996-2014, visits the Columbine Memorial in Littleton, Colo., earlier this week.
—Nathan W. Armes for Education Week

Frank DeAngelis explains why he stayed in his post for 15 years after the Columbine massacre

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Frank DeAngelis was 43 and in his third year leading Columbine High School when normal life ended forever with what was then the deadliest school shooting in the nation's history. DeAngelis drew on his Catholic faith, his family and friends, and therapy to return to the school, determined to keep alive the memory of "the beloved 13" who were killed that day and rebuild the spirit of the school.

The toll on him included his first marriage and, for a while, his health. After the shootings, he poured even more hours than before into increasing feelings of connection, attending as many school events as possible and reaching out to disaffected students. DeAngelis says he is still correcting news media misrepresentations of the school from 20 years ago. In his just-published memoir, They Call Me Mr. De, he challenges the notions that Columbine was ever a place where bullying ran rampant or that the killers were kids "on the outside. Wrong." Instead, he writes, "What we saw were two kids in Advanced Placement classes."

To this day, on every April 20, DeAngelis calls each family who lost a loved one and each former student who was injured in the shooting. He spends his time speaking to educators and to groups across the county who intersect with schools around safety concerns. And he continues to reach out to survivors of school shootings, especially principals and students, telling them that they need to find their support system for the long haul, as he did.

This interview was conducted by Education Week contributing writer Bess Keller.

How did the events of April 20, 1999 and its aftermath change you as a person and as a school leader?

As a principal, you feel that you're responsible for your kids, you're responsible for your staff. So I've had a lot of survivor's guilt.

If I had to say my strength as a leader prior to the shootings and after, it is the relationships I had with my kids, with my staff, with the community. What helped with the recovery for all of us is those relationships. It allowed me to take my leadership to a level that no one was ever expecting.

You had been principal at Columbine High School for three years when the shootings happened, and you stayed for another 15 years. Why did you decide to stay?

At the time of the shootings I was pursuing a doctoral degree from the University of Denver with the thought of becoming a superintendent. The night of the tragedy, I had to come up with something to tell the people the next day because I was going to have to speak to the students and the staff and community members, and I made a decision that night that we [the school community] needed to stay together and form this bond.

I promised them that I would be there for the next three years until the class of 2002 graduated. That was after I offered to resign or be transferred, and the president of the school board said, "You can stay as long as you want to stay."

What got you through those first few days after the tragedy?

Two days after, there was a community vigil at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Littleton, Colo. There were about 1,200 people in the church. Father Ken Leone called me up to the altar, and he brought a lot of my students up there who were part of the church's youth group. And he had them pray.

We also carried on this whispered conversation. He said, "Frank, you encountered the gunman; you should have died. But God's got a plan for you. It's going to be a tough journey, but God is going to be with you every step of the way. You were put in this situation to help rebuild the community and the school."

See Also: 20 Years After Columbine, Principals Form Network to Cope With Shootings

You stayed long after the three years you promised.

The summer of 2001, I knew it might be my last year at Columbine. But I did some reflecting, and I decided that I didn't fulfill what Father Leone asked me to do, to rebuild that community. We just weren't there. So that's when I made a commitment to stay until every kid who was in the elementary and middle [Columbine feeder schools] had graduated. All those kids were deeply impacted. And then a parent prevailed on me to stay for children who had been in preschool.

When I retired in 2014, I felt like I had done what Father had asked me. And people tell me Columbine needed me. But I needed Columbine. It helped me to heal.

Despite the fact that there continue to be horrendous school shootings, you've said schools and public safety people have made a difference. Tell me about that.

I look at how many shootings have been stopped because of things we have in place now. Twenty years ago, the protocol used by responding officers was: No one go in before the SWAT team arrives. Now, they're sending in single officers to engage the perpetrator because what research shows is these shootings are usually over within 10 minutes. So if you can engage right away, it's going to decrease the possibility of deaths or injuries.

There are increased security measures at schools, advances in first-responder communication, and schools practice lockdowns. Something that came out of Colorado is a system called Safe2Tell, which is a 24/7 anonymous tip line. It empowers our students because so many times these perpetrators are broadcasting their intentions—even more so than 20 years ago because of social media.

Following the massacre at his school, Frank DeAngelis found strength in his relationships with students, staff, and the broader school community.
Following the massacre at his school, Frank DeAngelis found strength in his relationships with students, staff, and the broader school community.
—Nathan W. Armes for Education Week

Is what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in your mind a game changer?

What we saw those kids from Parkland do last year—they basically called the adults out, saying you've done nothing, and mass shootings continue to happen. And they got the attention of politicians and others.

When I met with some of the top [Stoneman Douglas student] leaders last year, I said you need to keep this passion, but you need more than passion. If politicians are not doing what you feel is going to stop some of these shootings from happening, then you need to make sure that you get out and do your research and get your age group to vote.

I also said, make sure you take care of yourself. I saw them last summer when they were going from city to city. Where's the support system? I worried about who is taking care of them.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Vol. 38, Issue 31, Page 20

Published in Print: April 16, 2019, as Former Columbine Principal Reflects on Healing His Community
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