As It Happens·Q&A

Every time there's a school shooting in the U.S., Columbine's ex-principal reaches out

Frank Deangelis keeps making the same phone call.

Frank Deangelis says he's made more than 20 phone calls to schools since the Columbine shooting in 1999

Former Columbine High School principal Frank DeAngelis pauses while speaking outside the school during a National School Walkout to honour the 17 students and staff members killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Storry Transcript

Frank Deangelis keeps making the same phone call.

Deangelis was the principal of Columbine High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999, when two seniors killed 12 of their fellow students and one teacher. At the time, it was the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. But that grisly record has been topped several times since. 

Since that day, Deangelis has made it his mission to reach out to every U.S. principal dealing with the aftermath of a school shooting. 

He estimates he's made more than 20 such calls, including most recently to Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman slaughtered 19 children and two teachers on Tuesday.

Deangelis is a member of the Principles Recovery Network, a network of principals and other school leaders who have dealt with school shootings, and help others going through the same. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host David Gray.

Frank, when the school shooting happened, did it take you back to the tragedy you experienced at Columbine High School?

Yes, most definitely. 

Whenever, on my phone, I start getting the texts coming across saying, "Thinking about you. If you need anything, let me know. You're in my thoughts and prayers," and usually within five minutes I start getting calls from the media, and I know exactly what's going on.

And so when that happened on the 24th, it took me right back to what I experienced 23 years ago.

I understand you've reached out to the principal and teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. What do you say to a principal who's just gone through something like this?

I made a comment 23-plus years ago. I said: "I just joined a club in which no one wants to be a member."

And when I do reach out, whether it was to Sandy Hook or Parkland or other places where school shootings have occurred, the first thing I say [is]: "I know what you're feeling."

Vincent Salazar, right, father of Layla Salazar, weeps while kneeling in front of a cross with his daughter's name at a memorial site for the victims killed in this week's elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, on May 27, 2022. (Dario Lopez-Mills/The Associated Press)

What lies ahead for them?

It's a slow journey. 

What I would tell them is: "Let's talk about what it's going to be like when you return to school in the fall."

Because right now [they're] just overwhelmed. They're in the process of grieving, in the process of denial. But next up comes the different services. I can remember having to attend 13 memorial services, and each one just tears at the heart. And so they're dealing with that right now, and the last thing on their mind is what it's going to feel like returning to school.

I can remember a statement that I made probably within 24 hours after the Columbine shooting. I said, 'I just hope my beloved 13 did not die in vain.' I guess I was naive.- Frank Deangelis, former Columbine High School principal

I don't imagine making that first call ever gets any easier.

No, it doesn't. But they are grateful. And one of the first things that I tell each principal that I talk to is something that was so important to me.

Right after Columbine happened, within about 24 hours, I received a phone call from a doctor, a chiropractor my mom worked for, and he was a Vietnam veteran. And he said, "Frank, you know, I never got the help I needed. I felt I could do it on my own." And he said, "I'm paying for it professionally and paying for it personally." 

He said, "I am begging you to get help because right now you are being pulled in so many different directions — you know, your students, your staff, the community. You're being asked to do so much. But if you don't help yourself, you're not going to be able to help others."

And that piece of advice was so sound, and that's one of the first comments that I ask them. I said, "What are you doing to take care of [yourself]?" Because most of the time they said, "I don't have time." And I said, "You need to find time because your community is going to need you. But if you can't help yourself, you're not going to be able to help the others."

You're now part of a grim fraternity of principals that have experienced school shootings. What does it tell you that there are now dozens of members of your group, that these shootings seem to never stop?

I couldn't help but think of Parkland and how the students from Parkland stood up and said, "As adults, you've let us down. We've got to make changes."

And right now, the rhetoric, everybody's talking about changes that need to be made. And we had these discussions over four years ago after Parkland. But what has been done? And that's what worries me.

Cassanda Sadusky, a survivor of the Columbine shooting, looks at a line of crosses commemorating those killed in the attack. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Let's talk about some of that rhetoric. In the last 48 hours, we've heard from some Republican lawmakers that schools need to be hardened in the U.S., that as [Texas Sen.] Ted Cruz said, there should be one open door with an armed person guarding it. What's your reaction to that?

The thing that I realized — and I know there are school districts that have metal detectors and things of that nature — but if someone wants to commit an act, they're going to find a way.

After Columbine happened, we were probably the safest school in the world. We had more security. But I had a student come up to me and say, "Mr. D., we know you love us. You want to keep us safe. But this is no longer like a school. It's almost like a prison. And we are more anxious now because we see all of these guards."

We need to make the school safe. But at the same time, we need to make sure that it is a welcoming, inclusive environment. And that's the fine line. 

There are also, in the United States, renewed calls for teachers to be armed. As a former principal, can you imagine that?

No, and let me share my story on that. 

On April 20, 1999, I came out of my office and I encountered the gunman.

Now, people said, "If you would have been armed, just think, you could have stopped it."

Now, I can be trained in gun safety. I can be trained and adept at firing the weapon. The thing that I don't know if I could do is the mental state — the mindset. Because as educators, it's all about the kids.

And [when] I think back, if I would have been armed that day, I would have saw the gunman coming towards me, and I don't know if I would have had the mindset to say, "Here is a killer." I would have tried to help saying, "What are you doing? Put down the gun. There's got to be a better way."

I don't know if I could've pulled the trigger, shooting one of my students.

The Columbine shooting happened more than 20 years ago. At that time, if I told you that school shootings would keep happening, and in fact get worse, what would you have said?

I would have said no way. I can remember a statement that I made probably within 24 hours after the Columbine shooting. I said, "I just hope my beloved 13 did not die in vain."

I guess I was naive.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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