The day before the tragic school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Frank DeAngelis, the retired principal of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, came to Georgian Court and gave an emotional account of the long-term aftermath of the Columbine tragedy and the rebuilding of the community.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of those who were lost,” Mr. DeAngelis said after showing photographs of the 12 students and one teacher who were killed in the April 20, 1999, tragedy at Columbine High School. In the tragic massacre, two students entered the school with guns, killing 13 and wounding 24 others.
Mr. DeAngelis spoke to more than 300 students, faculty, and members of the community in the Casino on Tuesday night as part of the Office of Mission Integration’s Week of Love. His message to the audience: “Don’t wait until something happens to tell someone how much they mean to you.”
Trauma Years Later
As horrific as the immediate events of the tragedy were, Mr. DeAngelis said the repercussions are still being felt years later. Four students, he pointed out, were gravely injured. The mother of one of them took her own life. Another student, who tried to keep teacher David Sanders alive on the day of the shooting, hanged himself a year later.
“Some of these kids,” Mr. DeAngelis said, “were re-traumatized five to ten years later.”
His teachers, Mr. DeAngelis said, were “brave but struggling. One-third of them continued to talk about it; one-third moved forward; one-third were in-between. The majority of the staff stayed together three years until the freshman class graduated. Then, 50% left. There are about 10 remaining.”
Mr. DeAngelis also talked about the compassion that is essential for school administrators. “District leaders told me it was better not to talk to parents because of potential lawsuits. The last thing on my mind was lawsuits. On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, I met with each of those students. Our attorneys asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m doing what is right.’ I was never prepared for this, but, somehow, I was able to find the words.”
He spoke of the importance of forgiveness: “I was questioning God. ‘How could you let this happen?’ I had so much hatred in my heart, but I had to forgive if I was going to continue to lead that school.”
Mr. DeAngelis continued to serve as principal until his retirement in 2014.
In 1999, Mr. DeAngelis said that law enforcement and schools did not share a lot of information with regard to security, but that has changed. In Colorado, the attorney general and governor helped form safe2tell Colorado, which provides an anonymous venue for parents, students, teachers, school administrators, and law enforcement to share information.
He also works closely with the Koshka Foundation, founded after the tragedy at Virginia Tech to improve campus safety and empower student activism, and Safe and Sound Schools, created by Sandy Hook parents, educators, and community members to provide safe, secure schools for children and educators and to help others do the same in their communities.
Many in the crowd during Mr. DeAngelis’ presentation had to wipe away tears, and some had to temporarily leave the room. When he finished his moving and inspiring talk, he received a standing ovation.
Story contributed by Sanford Josephson.