Frank DeAngelis, former principal of Columbine High School, spoke about the tragedy his own school faced in 1999 to Mason County School District faculty and staff during a teacher breakfast at Mason County Middle School Tuesday.
On April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris opened fired on students and staff at Columbine High School, killing 12 students, one teacher and wounding more than two dozens others.
“If you had asked me if a Columbine could have happened before April 20, 1999, I would have told you, ‘no,’” he said. “With the community and type of school it was, it was hard to imagine something like that happening. I was lying in bed and I soon realized there was nothing I could do to bring back the 13 people and I made a promise that I would never forget and I would speak on their behalf. I think the thing that makes it so difficult was that they were killed by two of my students.”
During the talk, DeAngelis never mentioned the names of the shooters as he said he wanted the victims to be the ones remembered.
DeAngelis recounted the day of the shooting.
“It was like 9/11 for teachers,” he said. “We can remember exactly where we were when it happened. It was a nice day outside — like it is today. I was out at a meeting with some students who were being recognized by the Chamber of Commerce. I arrived at my office around 10:30. Normally, I would have been in the cafeteria on lunch duty, but that day I was in my office with one of my first-year teachers; I was offering him a continuing contract and before I could offer him the job, my secretary came in and she said, ‘Frank, there are reports of gunfire.’ I thought it couldn’t be happening. I can count on my hand the number of fist fights we’ve had in my 20 years there. It’s a great school, so I thought there was no way.”
According to DeAngelis, at first he believed it to be a senior prank, until he walked out of his office.
“When I left my office, my worst nightmare became a reality, because I see a gunman coming towards me,” he said. “I was never prepared for that. I had never been in a situation like that. Everything seemed to slow down. The fire alarm system was going off and it was blasting throughout the building. That’s something students and teachers talk about 20 years later — being in that building with the fire alarm going off.”
DeAngelis said he still remembers just thinking about his family and what could have happened to him.
“When I talk to police officers, they ask me why I would run toward gun fire,” he said. “There was a reason for that. My students down the hall were in danger. As an educator, we would do anything to protect our kids. That’s what we do. If it happened again, I would do the same thing. I would do anything to protect my kids.”
He said that as he ran down the hallway, about 20-25 girls were entering the hallway, unaware of what was happening.
“On that day, I truly believe there was some divine intervention happening,” he said. “When I ran down the hallway, we were in this little alcove and the door was locked. I had 35 keys on my key chain. I reached into my pocket, pull out the first key and it opens the door on the first try. I have to believe there was a reason. I tried that again for the next 15 years and could never replicate it. The key was not larger than the others or specially marked.”
DeAngelis said one of the teachers, Dave Sanders, heard the gunshots and pipe bombs going off and ran from the faculty lounge in order to evacuate the students.
“He ran up the stairs to get out of the hallway,” he said. “What I found out later was that, as the gunmen were coming toward me, they heard Dave and shot him in the back of the head. What I realized was that if Dave had stayed in that faculty lounge, I wouldn’t be here.”
During the shooting, there were 700-800 police officers outside the building, waiting on SWAT to arrive, according to DeAngelis.
“It took about 50 minutes for SWAT to arrive, resulting in 13 deaths,” he said. “It’s not that the police didn’t want to go in. They were ready to break rank and go in. You look at the plans in place you have now, such as the lock down, lock in, the school resource officers — things that weren’t in place then.”
He also talked about the aftermath of such a tragedy.
“There was a balloon archway that had been put together for the students,” he said. “It was in our school colors. It was great until the balloons popped. The students started diving for cover. The sound of the fire alarm had to be changed.”
He also discussed how many things need to be discussed when it comes to school shootings, and not just gun laws, including mental health, threat assessment and social media.
“We didn’t have social media in the same manner back then. Are you aware of what your kids are doing on social media?” he asked. “I’d be willing to bet that 100 percent of the kids committing these shootings are broadcasting it. The two from Columbine made tapes, a year in advance, telling what they were going to do. In their parent’s basement, they were making these tapes and hiding guns. The first thing the mom said when the police showed up at the Harris household was ‘you can’t go into my son’s room. No one has ever been in here.’ If they had walked in, they would have found rifles and pipe bombs. They didn’t just wake up and commit the shooting. They had planned it out.”
DeAngelis mentioned other school shootings that have taken place and how some of those have been stopped.
“People say, ‘Frank, you’re out there speaking and these shootings continue to happen,’ but how many of them have been stopped because of things we’re doing differently?” he said. “The key to stopping these from happening is all of you and having relationships with these kids so they trust you.”
He ended by telling the faculty and staff that students are the future and they can make a difference in the children’s lives.
“It starts with you,” he said. “What do you want this school year to look like? What are you going to do to fulfill that? They’re our future; our most precious commodity. Do the very best for those kids. Take care of them and love them.”