Columbine principal speaks in Myrtle Beach about gun control, protecting schools

Each morning begins much the same for retired Columbine (Colorado) High School principal Frank DeAngelis.

Before opening the daily newspaper or brewing a cup of coffee, he ticks off the 13 names of the fallen students and staff at his former school, keeping a promise made to himself almost two decades after tragedy changed his life and countless others.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about those 12 students and one staff member,” he said. The students, he said, “they were my kids … the staff was like my family.”

The retired principal served as the keynote speaker Monday in Myrtle Beach for the opening session of the At-Risk Youth National Forum, an annual conference hosted by the National Dropout Prevention Center.

On Valentine’s Day this year, 17 were killed and more than a dozen injured at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida when a former student opened fire.

According to DeAngelis, he recently spent more than an hour speaking with the Florida principal. During the conversation, the retired principal shared how he dealt with his own tragedy, including the potential for lawsuits by grieving families.

“I could care less about lawsuits, I needed to talk to parents because the tragedy is much bigger than that,” DeAngelis said. “I couldn’t tell them what they were feeling.

“You can’t replace the holidays, the birthdays they are now missing because of that day. Every morning I recite their names, because as a principal, I let them down. Schools are supposed to be safe, and that day it wasn’t.”

During the presentation, he recounted the events of April 20, 1999, when two Columbine High students — Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — shot dozens of their schoolmates before the pair was killed hours later. The memories serve as a wound that will never heal for DeAngelis, but helped shape his life’s mission.

“I’ve often been asked whether I get tired of giving hope,” he said. “And I wonder how many (school shootings) have been stopped because of things (staff and administration) have to prevent them. Kids are our most precious commodity and we must do everything in our power to keep similar events from happening.”

‘This must be a senior prank’

According to DeAngelis, the main reason he got into education was he loved pouring into young lives.

With that said, the former Columbine principal was a common sight in the school’s hallways and the lunchroom, often talking with students.

“I wasn’t one for sitting in my office,” he said. “It would make teachers upset because they wanted me in my office, where they can come to me.

“But I loved things like cafeteria duty because I got to talk to students. I wanted to make a concerted effort to get to know the kids in my school.”

However, on April 20, 1999, a school function kept him from taking his usual position in the Columbine lunchroom for what was called “A-Lunch.”

“A secretary called me and said there was a report of gunfire,” he said. “My first thought was, ‘we’re a month away from graduation, this must be a senior prank.’”

Upon receiving the report, DeAngelis said he almost instantly was faced with questions of his own mortality as one of the gunmen sprinted in his direction.

“I can recall the long gun, it seemed like it was the size of a cannon,” he said. “All I could think at that time was the thought of a bullet piercing my body.”

DeAngelis stayed out of the gunman’s line of fire, and was able to help protect several students.

“It’s one of those things where you run out of the office and your mind is playing games with you,” he said. “Is it flight? Is it fight? Or do you freeze? It was one of those things in a situation like that you block out.

“My natural instinct was to protect the kids.”

While able to save his share of students, it is those who were forever left scarred who remain on his heart, particularly those not here to tell their story.

“I can’t imagine what it felt like to be one of those parents,” DeAngelis said. “Their kids left home at 7 a.m. for school, and in a few hours their lives changed forever. Their kids will never walk through their door again.

‘This is why I continue to fight’

In the days following the Columbine tragedy, plenty of media reports attempted to offer motives for the shooters’ actions.

DeAngelis heard them all — bullying, the music they listened to, video games and other theories to explain the unimaginable.

One the former principal said tended to get overlooked was the role — or lack thereof — of Harris’ and Klebold’s parents in their child’s lives.

“They planned this in their parents’ basement,” he said. “If parents would have walked downstairs while they were drinking Jack Daniels or playing with guns, I might not be standing here.

“When dad receives a phone call from a gun shop saying ‘your ammunition is here’ and your father says the wrong number, or there’s a pipe bomb in the closet but no one has even been in the room. Parents need to have more of a role in their child’s lives.”

Often, DeAngelis is confronted with the question of what can be done to thwart future schools shootings.

The retired principal said the media’s role during such incidents could change, shifting focus from the culprit toward the victims and the recovery process. “At-risk kids are seeing this and finding ‘this is a way for me to get attention,’” he said.

Gun control also tends to be a popular talking point following school shootings, but the retired principal claims the problem is much more complex.

“We also need to talk about mental health,” he said. “I don’t understand why there is a need for semi-automatic weapons, but this is about kids and their cries for help.

“The bigger need is for work on the hardening of hearts. There may be a fix out there … but this isn’t a Republican, Democrat or independent issue. We must come together for our kids, because that is the difference.

“This is why I continue to fight, because one more death is one too many. Our children are our greatest commodity.”

Joe L. Hughes II: 843-444-1702, @JoeLHughesII