20 Years Later: An Interview with Frank DeAngelis, Former Principal of Columbine High School
It’s been 20 years since two students stormed the Columbine High School campus in Littleton, Colorado, killing 12 students and one teacher. For 20 years, former principal Frank DeAngelis has been sharing his story of the tragedy at Columbine — an event that was the turning point in this ongoing saga of school massacres.
“Columbine was a watershed moment,” said DeAngelis “It wasn’t the first school shooting, but it was the first one within a 24/7 news cycle and the media actually brought our event into living rooms, and I think that’s why we’re talking about it even still today.”
DeAngelis life’s work since April 20, 1999, has been dedicated to creating awareness around school safety and sharing his story with others. He made a promise at first to stay on as principal until every student who’d been at the school that fateful day had graduated. Then, he expanded that promise, remaining until every local child who’d been in class that day, down to preschoolers, had earned a diploma.
Here’s our latest interview with Frank DeAngelis:
Guard911: How do you feel the world has changed since Columbine?
Frank: “When I think back to 20 years ago, and what we had in place…the only drills we did prior to the tragedy at Columbine were fire drills. I look at the event and we did have a resource officer on campus exchanging gunfire, but he wasn’t allowed to enter the building until the S.W.A.T. team arrived to secure the perimeter. So as a result of what we learned, we now have proper lockdown and response plans in place, protocols to follow and technology like mobile apps to aid in alerting others and first responders.
We’re doing things differently. Police are now engaging and single officers are responding because one thing we have learned through all of these shootings that they’re usually over in 10 minutes. If we can engage immediately it can save lives.”
Guard911: What do you say to those schools who haven’t adopted a piece of technology like SchoolGuard?
Frank: “What ends up happening when I go out to visit other communities who have encountered tragedy, the first thing so many of them say is, ‘I can’t believe it happened here.’ There are people who believe that if we don’t talk about it it’s not going to happen and that’s really a disservice. People get in the mindset that if we talk about it more and have regularly scheduled drills to practice response plans that we’re going to cause anxiety in our communities and school. But in reality, what we’re really doing is making people aware. Similar to how you would tell your child to hold your hand when crossing the street or not getting into a stranger’s car. We’re making people aware and taking proper action and safety measures.”
Guard911: How have protocols changed throughout the years?
Frank: “Well, after each event we learn something new. These lessons learned allow officials to pivot protocols and change the technology, response plans, and even what they make school windows out of. For example, Sandy Hook. Sandy Hook was on lockdown, but they had never anticipated active killers shooting through the glass windows. So now — case in point— they have a protective film on the windows that makes it more difficult for bullets to penetrate the building.”
Guard911: Earlier you talked about the 24/7 news cycle, do you think it’s desensitized our society?
Frank: “Now as a society, I think people are scared of these lessons learned. We as a society should stop being so reactive and more proactive to tragedies like this. So Guard911 and Standard Response Unification are all proactive programs that are preparing people to prevent these situations from escalating into something like Columbine if they were to enter into a community.
But something that I think we saw even back during Columbine is that law enforcement joined hands with firefighters who joined hands with school officials who joined hands with parent groups who joined hands with mental health professionals so now instead of working as separate entities, we’re all working together as one to protect our kids — our most precious commodities. This is something we need to continue to do and build upon because they are all our kids.”
Guard911: Tell us about your new book, “They Call Me Mr. De.”
Frank: “After the tragedy, I was approached to write a book and that was the last thing on my mind because I wanted to rebuild the community. Once I retired in 2014, I went around the country sharing my story and doing presentations; I kept getting approached to do a book. And so I contacted a friend of mine, who had approached me years ago, to see if he was still interested and he was, so we wrote this manuscript and here we are.”
Interested in purchasing a copy? All of the proceeds go to Columbine Memorial, Frank DeAngelis Academic Fund, and Frank DeAngelis Center for Community Safety.