Frank DeAngelis keeps on making the same phone calls.
DeAngelis was principal of Columbine High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999, when two superiors killed 12 of his fellow students and a teacher. At the time, it was the deadliest school shooting in American history. But that terrible record has been on top several times since.
Since that day, DeAngelis has made it his mission to reach every American principal dealing with the aftermath of the school shootings.
He estimates he has made more than 20 such calls, including most recently at Rob Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers on Tuesday.
DeAngelis is a member of the Principals Recovery Network, a network of principals and other school leaders who have dealt with school shootings, and help others get through it. Here is an excerpt from his conversation as it happens Guest host David Grey.
Frank, when the school shooting happened, did it lead you to the tragedy you experienced at Columbine High School?
Yes, most definitely.
Whenever, on my phone, I start getting messages saying, “Thinking about you. If you need anything, let me know. You’re in my thoughts and prayers,” and usually takes five minutes. Inside I start getting calls. Media, and I know exactly what’s going on.
And so when it happened on the 24th, it took me to exactly what I experienced 23 years ago.
I understand that you have contacted the principal and teachers of Rob Elementary School in Uvalde. What do you call a principal who has just gone through this?
I made a comment 23-plus years ago. I said: “I just joined a club that no one wants to be a member of.”
And when I reach, is it to Sandy Hook either parkland or other places where school shootings have happened, that’s what I say first [is]: “I know what you’re feeling.”
What’s next for them?
It is a slow journey.
What I would tell them is this: “Let’s talk about what it will be like when you return to school in the fall.”
because now [they’re] Just amazed. They are in the process of grieving, in the process of denial. But after that come different services. I remember attending 13 memorial services, and each one just had tears in their hearts. And so they’re dealing with it right now, and the last thing on their mind is what it’ll feel like to return to school.
I remember a statement I made within 24 hours of shooting Columbine. I said, ‘I just hope that my dear 13 doesn’t die in vain.’ I think I was naive.– Frank DeAngelis, former principal of Columbine High School
I don’t imagine making the first call ever gets easier.
No. It’s not like that. But they are grateful. And the first thing I tell every headmaster I talk to is something that was very important to me.
Right after Columbine recovered, about 24 hours later, I got a call from a doctor, a chiropractor my mother worked for, and he was a veteran from Vietnam. And he said, “Frank, you know, I never got the help I needed. I thought I could do it on my own.” And he said, “I’m paying for it professionally and paying for it personally.”
He said, “I’m begging you to get help because right now you’re being pulled in so many different directions — you know, your students, your employees, the community. You’re being asked to do a lot. But if you don’t do ‘don’t help yourself, you’re not going to be able to help others.’
And that advice was great, and it’s one of the first comments I ask him. I said, “What are you doing to take care of yourself? [yourself]?” Because most of the time they’d say, “I don’t have time.” And I said, “You need to take time out because your community will need you. But if you can’t help yourself, you won’t be able to help others.”
You are now part of a serious fraternity of headmasters who have experienced school shootings. What does it tell you that now that there are dozens of members of your group, it seems that these shootouts never stop?
I couldn’t help but think about Parkland and how the Parkland students stood up and said, “As adults, you’ve let us down. We have to make a change.”
And right now, rhetorically, everyone is talking about the changes that need to be made. And we had this discussion four years ago after Parkland. But what has been done? And that’s what worries me.
Let’s talk about some such rhetoric. In the past 48 hours, we’ve heard from some Republican lawmakers that schools in the US need to be toughened up, such as [Texas Sen.] As Ted Cruz said, there should be an open door guarded by an armed man. What is your reaction on that?
The thing I realized – and I know there are school districts that have metal detectors and things of that nature – but if someone wants to do something, they’re going to find a way.
After Columbine arrived, we were probably the safest school in the world. We had more security. But a student came to me and said, “Mr. D., we know you love us. You want to keep us safe. But it’s not like a school anymore. It’s almost like a prison. And We are more worried now because we see all these guards.”
We have to make the school safe. But at the same time, we need to ensure that it is a welcoming, inclusive environment. And that’s a fine line.
There has also been a renewed call for teachers to be armed in the United States. As a former principal, can you imagine this?
No, and let me share my story on that.
On 20 April 1999, I came out of my office and came across the gunman.
Now, people said, “If you were armed, just imagine, you could have stopped it.”
Now, I can be trained in gun safety. I can be trained and specialize in wielding weapons. The thing I don’t know if I can do that is the mental state – the mindset. Because as teachers, it’s all about the kids.
And [when] I think if I were armed that day, I’d see the gunman coming towards me, and I don’t know if I’d have the mentality to say, “Here’s a killer.” I’d try to help by saying, “What are you doing? Put down the gun. There must be a better way.”
I don’t know if I could have pulled the trigger by shooting one of my students.
Columbine was shot more than 20 years ago. At that point, if I told you that school shootings would keep happening, and would actually get worse, what would you say?
I would have said no way. I am reminded of a statement I made within 24 hours of shooting Columbine. I said, “I just hope my dear 13 doesn’t die in vain.”
I think I was naive.
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Harbour. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.