Kentucky School Advocate
By Jennifer Wohlleb
The way most districts and emergency responders react today during a school shooting comes from lessons learned during the April 20, 1999 attacks at Columbine High School, when 12 students and one teacher lost their lives.
Communication is better, schools and law enforcement share more information, plans are in place and practiced in the event of the unthinkable and emergency responders are more aggressive when entering the building.
But those weren’t the lessons Frank DeAngelis, right, wanted to share during the annual Safe Schools and Communities Conference in June. The recently retired principal of Columbine High School shared his story of what happened that day during the third year of his principalship and the aftermath for everyone involved.
“I think there’s that misconception that you’re going to wake up one day and things are going to be back to normal,” he said. “I’m here to tell you that you, it never gets back to normal, you have to redefine what’s normal.”
DeAngelis said he remembers getting a phone call from Bill Bond, who was principal of Heath High School in McCracken County when a student shot and killed three students and wounded five others in 1997.
“He told me it was going to be tough and that I was going to have about a 75 percent turnover in your staff. And I said that doesn’t happen at Columbine,” DeAngelis said. “… lo and behold, in 2002, which was the last class, they were freshmen (during the shooting), 75 percent of the staff left. They stayed until those kids left and then it was like they had permission to leave.”
DeAngelis himself had made that promise, to stay until the last students from that day had graduated, yet when the time came, he felt he had more to do, and stayed until retiring in 2014.
“People asked me why I stayed. There are a couple of things,” he said. “No. 1 is my faith, and I’m not up here to preach. I’m here to tell you that when you experience something (like this) you need to find the help that will get you where you need to go; for me, it was my faith.”
He said forgiveness also was part of the healing process, as was counseling. DeAngelis recalled the words of a friend who was a Vietnam war veteran.
“He said to me, ‘Frank, if you don’t help yourself, you can’t help anyone else.’ That was the first great piece of advice (I got), because people were telling me, ‘You’re a man, you’ve got to be tough, and if you seek any kind of help, it’s a sign of weakness and you can’t be a leader,’” he said.
DeAngelis compared it to the emergency instructions on a plane to put an oxygen mask on yourself before helping others. “It’s the same thing. You’ve got to help yourself if you want to help others,” he said.
DeAngelis is an advocate for extending the timelines for when help is offered by trauma groups following such events.
“Where people need the help is three months out, six months out, a year out, and everyone goes home and we forget about that,” he said. “There is no timetable on when the help is ultimately needed. Unfortunately, agencies felt three years was that time mark. Well, unfortunately, we had kids who did not start experiencing post traumatic stress disorder until five or six or seven years out. Parents had nowhere to go.”
He said they also learned that the most seemingly random things could trigger trauma among their students and staff.
“We could not serve Chinese food for a year after because that was the meal the kids were eating when the gunmen walked in the building,” DeAngelis said. “They would be retraumatized. It could be a smell, it could be a song. When we had fire drills, I had to tell the kids and parents (in advance) because there would be kids who would have meltdowns when they heard that sound.”
He said the teachers and staff also needed support.
“Teachers got into the business of helping kids and they were going to do that no matter what, even if it was hurting them,” he said. “But at the same time one of the things that we did, we had a pool of substitute teachers, because they might be going along fine and all of a sudden there’s something that triggers something and we need to get a (substitute) teacher in there. And these are things we learned about along the way.”