I’m Frank DeAngelis, former principal at Columbine High School.
On April 20th I was sitting in my office. And usually during that time period, around 11:15, I’m down in the cafeteria you know because I love being with the kids, but I was in my office. And my secretary comes running towards my door and I remember it so vividly because there was a little window and she faceplanted in there and I could tell something was wrong. And she opened the door and the words that rang out was there’s been a report of gunfire.
So when I’m hearing gunfire, bombs exploding, this is not resonating with me, until I ran out of my office and then my worst nightmare became a reality because about 75 yards away I saw a gunman coming towards me. And I went through something that I learned later was fight, flight and freeze. And I was thinking aloud was what was it going to feel like to have a bullet pierce my body. And I remember the shots ringing out and glass breaking behind me and I can recount about seven shots being fired that were sailing beside me and over my head.
I pull on the gymnasium door and we’re in this little alcove and we’re trapped, the gunman’s getting closer, the sound of the shots are getting louder, the girls are in a state of panic. I reached into my pocket, had a set of 35 keys, first key I pull out I stick it in the door and it opened it on the first try. And, divine intervention, someone was looking after us. For whatever reason. I tried that on numerous occasions. And I’ve had people say Frank, you don’t understand, when you’re under that stress situation, your fine motor skills are diminished. And fortunately I was able to find that key. It was unfortunate 12 of my students and Mr. Sanders lost his life. But on that particular day, with me being able to find that key on the first try, it probably saved our lives.
Impact of events on his life
The event changed me immensely. Each morning when I wake up, I recite the names of the beloved 13. My 12 students and Dave Sanders. And everything that I do throughout my life now, I think about them. I can remember distinctly telling the students that people will tell you that time will heal all wounds but the scars we experienced yesterday will last a lifetime. And it’s not that we can’t move on, but to say that we‘re going to forget what we experienced that day, it’s very difficult.
And unfortunately what happens is there’s events that happen in all of our lives that trigger those emotions from that day.
Impact of school shootings
Anytime there’s another school shooting my phone starts exploding with, ‘You’re in my thoughts and prayers, if you need anything.’ I know immediately there was another school shooting. It was last year, I was getting off a plane, I just did a presentation in New Jersey, I turned my phone back on, when I got here February 14th, my phone, ‘Thoughts and prayers, what do you need?’ Then all of a sudden the media starts calling, ‘Frank,’ and I looked on the web and I saw what happened.
And immediately Parkland took me back to Columbine because of the images, with the kids running with their hands behind their heads, what I call the Columbine march. That took me back.
What ends up happening is… I have these skills now, something I learned from my counselor. Something known as touchstones, and I have them around my neck. And as soon as that started happening, and my heart started racing, I just grab those and say this is not April 20, 1999, this is February 14, 2018.
How students are doing today
So many of these kids told their parents, ‘I don’t need help, I’m fine, I’m fine.’ And originally there were not some issues. But 10 years out, 15 years out, 20 years out, they’re struggling.
I met with the students and I said this is not going to make sense until you become parents, and I said that better not happen anytime soon. I said, ‘When your parents heard today that there was gunfire at Columbine High School, their hearts started racing, and they weren’t sure if they were ever going to see you again.’ I said, ‘You need to go home, you need to hug your parents, you need to love your parents. Because your fathers were wondering at that moment if they would ever walk you down the aisle. Your mothers were wondering if they’d ever hold that first grandchild, you need to trust me that you need to go home and start a conversation.’
Fast forward to 2012, a student comes in crying uncontrollably, first day of the 2012 school year. She said, ‘Mr. D,’ I said, ‘What is wrong?’ She said, ‘Mr. D, do you remember that conversation you had with us back at Chatfield about being parents?’ I said yes. She said, ‘I never realized the impact of that conversation until today when my little girl was walking into that building to start kindergarten. And I ran up and I grabbed her and clenched her to my chest. And people were around saying ‘Are you alright?’ And the little girl is saying ‘Mommy, mommy, you’re hurting me.’ And I was afraid to let her down and walk in that school because I wasn’t sure she’d ever walk out again.’
So it’s those types of stories that you know, now people are reaching out to me.
Frank DeAngelis is the former principal of Columbine High School who was fired upon by one of the shooters but survived uninjured. He now speaks about around the country about school shootings and the road to recovery from fear and trauma. He is often contacted by other principals from around the country whose schools have been attacked.