20 years after Columbine killings, the principal talks about the murders and the fallout

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Suicide, addiction, divorce and legal troubles.

That is just some of the wreckage that followed in the decades after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. And those reverberations will likely not end there, nor will the blessings and the lessons learned.

So says Frank DeAngelis, who was principal of the school 20 years ago when two student gunmen killed 13 people and injured 24 in an assault they had planned for a year in one of their basements.

Speaking Wednesday to an audience packed with first responders at Monument Mountain Regional High School, DeAngelis describes how the horror, sorrow and trauma cascaded and spawned guilt and more despair, but also many miracles that revealed the tenacity of the human spirit.

"I refuse to be helpless and hopeless," he said.

The event, sponsored by Fairview Hospital and the Southern Berkshire Regional Emergency Planning Committee, was a stop on the speaking circuit for DeAngelis, who has written a book about the shooting.

All the proceeds of his book, "They Call Me Mister De: The Story of Columbine's Heart, Resilience, and Recovery" go toward a permanent memorial, and safety and academic nonprofits.

DeAngelis, a 20-year employee at the school who retired in 2014, began his talk by listing the names of the dead as their photos flashed on the screen above him.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of my beloved 13," he said.

He traverses a vast and murky psychological terrain of the day and beyond: what it was like to move toward a gunman; to somehow choose, on a first try, that one key out of a stack of many that would open the one door that could save him and a group of students; how later the fire alarm bell had to be changed because the original sound would trigger terror; and how the tragedy sucked him away from his family, leading to divorce.

There was the increase in drinking that swept through the school community — even he started pouring a glass of whiskey in his basement some nights "after a tough day."

But he cut himself off.

"I realized that if I was going to continue being the principal I couldn't do that," he said. "Because it was controlling me."

And for the last 20 years, he struggles when April rolls around.

School culture

He talks about the Columbine High before the gunmen — Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris — struck a thriving public high school with more than 2,000 students, and a wide array of extracurricular and academic programs.

And there is DeAngelis, appearing in photos and video as one of those gregarious, high-fiving administrators and coaches students adore. For such a large, teeming high school, everything appeared to be under control.

"I could count the number of fistfights," he said of his two decades at the school.

But like at most American high schools, there are the students who go unnoticed, feeling rejected amid a school's high-achieving, rah-rah culture. And later, DeAngelis made it a point to more aggressively reach out to those students — it was one of the lessons learned.

He let about 100 of them have at him in the auditorium one day for the way the school culture divides kids and celebrates only the high achievers.

"They ripped me," he said. "But we had to change the culture."

Then there were parents who weren't paying attention.

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"You cannot go in his room; no one's ever been in his room," the mother of one of the gunmen told police, DeAngelis said.

DeAngelis is a man of much faith, though the shootings made him question it. A priest insisted he come see him after DeAngelis said he didn't have time.

He shows a photo of the packed key ring he had on the day of the shootings, and describes taking a chance on that one key that worked on a nearby door. It was their only escape from the gunman, whose boots could be heard marching closer.

"If you didn't find that key that day, I wouldn't have this child," he quoted one of his former students as saying while introducing him at a reunion.

Imagine trying to run a large school after that, he said. Popping balloons and slammed doors would send people running for cover.

Five former students committed suicide in the years that followed. So did a parent. And subsequent school shootings would also send DeAngelis and others into a tailspin.

"When everything happened in Parkland, I had a meltdown," he said about last year's mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

It's about relationships

DeAngelis doesn't claim to have all the answers; he doesn't get into the gun control debate and he's not presenting a technical schematic for stopping school violence.

But what he does say is that people are everything, that heart-centered leadership works.

"It's about relationships."

DeAngelis said there is a "red flag" to watch out for: the veneration of school shooters, particularly the Columbine shooters.

"What scares me about this is that there were kids out there that weren't even born [in 1999] that were glorifying the two killers," he said, blaming the media. He said news organizations have since learned how not to play this up.

Yet, he added, several mass shooters in recent years have mentioned the pair and Columbine.

He suggested the 1992 shooting at Bard College at Simon's Rock, which killed two students and a teacher, is lesser known because it came at a time when the media attention on such events was less intense.

The question of "why" resounds endlessly.

In the case of the Columbine shooters, the FBI blamed mental illness. And DeAngelis bemoans government cuts to mental health services. He is a supporter of armed resource officers in schools — Columbine's officer did exchange gunfire with the killers that day. Whether he saved lives has entered the longstanding national debate about arming school staff.

Then there are all the factors thought to have possibly influenced the shooters — everything from video games to music, antidepressants and bullying.

Is deficient parenting left out of the school-shooting debate?

DeAngelis says he laments giving teenagers too much latitude and not enough consequences, something he saw a lot of as an educator.

"You're going to love your kids no matter what," he acknowledged, "but I just wish that those two sets of parents of those two killers would have went into their rooms."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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