Frank De Angelis recited every morning for the last two decades the names of the 13 deaths in Columbine High School, where, during the 1999 massacre, he was the principal in a contemporary era of mass school shootings.
“The first thing I do is recite the names when I wake up in bed every morning. Then I go to my office and pray,” said DeAngelis in an interview with Reuters at the age of 64. “Since that day they have been with me and they will stay with me in the Columbine community for the rest of my life.”
Two highly-armed Columbine students stormed the school in the suburbs of Denver on 20 April 1999, killing 12 classmates and a teacher before turning on their weapons and committing suicide. At that time, it was America’s most deadly school shooting.
On Saturday, 20 years from the Columbine tragedy was commemorated, and DeAngelis, who retired 5 years ago as principal, spoke at the commemoration to honor victims.
DeAngelis never forgets the details of the day. DeAngelis came face to face with one of the shooters, who fired at but missing him as he shook about twenty students in safety through the hallway as the shooting erupted.
“I saw a gunman coming to me and all was moving slowly,” he told me. “But I recall the gunshots ripping the glass behind me so vividly.”
DeAngelis has become Columbine’s face in the days and weeks after the massacre, giving countdown interviews to tell the story about the devastated shooting.
But some of the toughest moments had yet to come. DeAngelis led students, teachers, and parents through the dark days after the shooting, and through other grief-stricken events that followed months and years later.
A girl’s mother left paralyzed by the shooting committed public suicide six months after the massacre. A little more than a year after the rampage, a Columbine student who witnessed assassinated teacher Dave Sanders in the opening salvo of gunfire inside the school hanged himself
“I’ve just joined a club where nobody wants to be a member,” said DeAngelis. “And I realized my life was ever changing.”
He sought professional help in dealing with his feelings of grief, sorrow, and guilt, and relied on his Catholic faith to give him strength to share his experiences with other schools and communities that have suffered mass shootings, from Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook to the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland, Florida.
Recently, DeAngelis, who had risen from teacher and athletic coach to principal before retiring at Columbine after 35 years, published a book, “They Call Me ‘Mr. De’: The Story of Columbine’s Heart, Resilience, and Recovery,” with all the proceeds going to different charities.
This book describes DeAngelis’s journey through therapy and trauma healing, which he hopes will “support” those who have suffered similar tragedies.
“Not just in communities like this, but people who have experienced difficult times in life,” he said. “Columbine is now a lightning light of hope.”