Former Columbine Principal: They Died "On My Watch"

Get counseling. It is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength.” - Frank DeAngelis

SCHOOL SAFETY - so others don't have to die


Frank DeAngelis says it still haunts him - 13 people “died on my watch.”

The retired principal of Columbine High School escorted 30 girls to safety, after staring right at one of two active shooters in a hallway of Columbine High School, April 20, 1999. His priest told him, because he lived, God has a plan for his life.

DeAngelis spoke in chilling tones Monday morning to the employees of District 56 about how he chose the exactly right key from a ring of 35 that let the girls into the gym as a gunman toting automatic weapons drew a bead on them. DeAngelis got them to safety, then tried to re-enter the building to save more of his students and teachers; a law enforcement officer blocked him.

That - entering the building before SWAT got there - was not protocol. That was 20 years ago, at the first mass shooting at a school in modern times that ignited a national debate about what’s right - and what’s wrong - to do when students are shooting other students inside a school.

“There were 500 law enforcement officers standing outside the building and, inside, students were dying,” DeAngelis said. Today, the protocol is this, first officer on the scene enters the building and kills the gunman.

The commonly known story about Columbine is that two students entered the building with automatic weapons and fired. DeAngelis now knows there was more to it than that - much, much more.

It was a plan a year in the making.

“The mistake they made with their bombs was they should have used metal-on-metal. They used plastic.” The gunman were not even supposed to enter the building. They rigged bombs to explode inside, and when students ran outside, they were going to shoot their schoolmates. They had timed law enforcement response, and knew where law enforcement officers would park, so they rigged for five minutes after the first bombs went off, their cars to explode in the parking lot that would have been filled with officers. All that before SWAT would even have been activated.

Just a few pipe bombs went off, so the gunman entered Columbine. That was their fatal mistake; the gunmen died, too.

DeAngelis remained the principal at Columbine for 15 years after the massacre. He retired five years ago, and now his life’s work is preventing more mass school shootings. “We hear about the shootings,” he said, “but how many have been stopped?”

New protocols are in place now. The District 56 staff was trained in those protocols on Monday, a day before students came back to CHS after the winter holiday. DeAngelis said it is important that bus drivers, custodians, district staff and, of course, principals, teachers and students know exactly what to do if a gunman enters a school. Children as young as kindergarten practice active-shooter drills.

“You’ve got to talk about it,” DeAngelis said. “The feeling is, ‘If we don’t talk about it, it’s not going to happen.’”

DeAngelis said the Columbine community dealt with many unexpected, aftermath traumas. The mom of two students at the school that day, one of whom was wounded, died by suicide. A student who tried to keep alive the one faculty member who bled to death also died by suicide. Four students were paralyzed by gunfire; DeAngelis met regularly with them and one rose from a wheelchair to walk to get his diploma.
In the aftermath of the Columbine massacre, DeAngelis ignored a lot of advice. A district attorney told him not to talk to the parents of the 12 students who died; he did it anyway. An administrator told him not to cry, because it showed weakness and the district would transfer him; he cried anyway. Someone else in authority told him not to talk to a counselor, again a sign of weakness; he went to counseling, and still receives counseling. 

He advises anyone dealing with a trauma, “Get counseling. It is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength.”

Also, lean on faith, he said. “You don’t have to travel a journey alone.”


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