Lessons from Columbine; school principal talks with WSAZ

Published: Nov. 16, 2022 at 7:19 PM EST
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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Schools are supposed to be a safe place for children, but time and time again they are the scene of deadly violence.

April 20, 1999, marks one of the deadliest school shootings in the United States.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who were both students at Columbine High School, shot and killed 12 classmates and a teacher before taking their own lives.

WSAZ’s Marlee Pinchok sat down with Frank DeAngelis, who was the principal at that time. He recounted the initial moments.

“My secretary runs in and she opens the door and says ‘Frank there’s been a report of gunfire,’ and I said ‘No, this can’t be happening.’ I had been there for 20 years as a teacher and a coach … the first thing that caught my mind is this has to be a senior prank. We’re a month away, you know, firecrackers, balloons…”

DeAngelis would soon realize the situation was life or death.

“I come out of my office and then my worst nightmare becomes my reality, because about 75 yards away there’s a gunman coming towards me,” DeAngelis said.

With students’ lives on the line, DeAngelis says he knew he had to act fast.

“I pull on the gym door, and it’s locked. The girls are crying, ‘Papa D, Papa D, what’s happening?’ -- gunman’s coming around the corner, and I literally had about 30 keys on a key ring. I reach in my pocket-- first key, I stick it in the door and open it on the first try, or I wouldn’t be here for the interview,” DeAngelis said.

DeAngelis says back then, preparing for the worst meant conducting fire drills.

In the days that followed, DeAngelis says survivor’s guilt was eating him alive.

“I was questioning my faith, everything I witnessed. I said ‘God, how could you allow this to happen?’” DeAngelis said.

However, DeAngelis says he realized he could take lessons from the experience and use them to help others -- recently traveling to West Virginia to speak at the state’s school safety conference.

DeAngelis says administrators and leaders learned a lot from the tragedy.

“Back in the day, it was called ‘secure the perimeter’ and we did have a school resource officer who was exchanging gunfire, but he was told not to go in until SWAT arrived, and that was a protocol. Since Columbine happened, that changed. We have single officers who are supposed to go in and things of that nature,” DeAngelis said.

He also says one of the biggest takeaways comes down to communication.

“One of the things that’s important is adults say a lot of times -- we want safety, safety, safety, but you also need to talk to our kids,” DeAngelis said.

Plus, when a child cries out for help, DeAngelis said schools and communities need to have the resources to respond.

WSAZ’s Pinchok asked DeAngelis if he thinks safety measures are enough.

“It’s a start, I’ll use the example: people ask me ‘What’s one thing?’ There’s not one thing. I refer to it as a jigsaw puzzle. The first place people want to go is gun legislation. Well, that’s one piece of the puzzle. But what I worry about is when school districts are removing social workers, counselors, and mental health workers because our kids are crying out for help-- especially after this pandemic, we’ve seen an increase in violence,” DeAngelis said.

He said we have to look out for all students.

“If you would have told me Columbine could’ve happened -- I’d say no, and unfortunately it does continue to happen … we have to say ‘enough is enough’ and we have to come together, because they’re all of our kids. It doesn’t matter -- West Virginia, Colorado, Florida -- they’re all of our kids, and one more death is one too many,” DeAngelis said.