A National Treasure

Frank DeAngelis, who led Columbine High School through its darkest days, spreads a message of hope.

By Janalee Card Chmel

Publish Date: October 20, 2014

Frank DeAngelis, an MSU Denver alumnus, retired in May 2014 after
35 years at Columbine High School. Photo: Mark Woolcott

Frank DeAngelis is perhaps best known as the principal who led the Columbine High School community through its darkest days and beyond. He recently retired, but he’s not done spreading his message of hope to schools across the globe.

“Frank DeAngelis is a national treasure,” said John McDonald, executive director of Security and Emergency Management for the Jefferson County School District. “Every once in a while, you have a transformational person who can help redefine the conversation. That’s Frank.”

The conversation that McDonald (B.A. criminal justice  ’92) is referring to is the epidemic of school shootings. The Columbine High School massacre, which occurred on April 20, 1999, was not the first school shooting but it is among the most notorious. DeAngelis (B.A. physical education ’78) believes that’s because it unfolded live in the national media.

Since that day, when 12 students and one teacher died at the hands of two young gunmen who took their own lives, there have been hundreds of school shootings. Jefferson County alone — where Columbine is located — has had five in the 15 years since the  tragedy.

As a result, school administrators and teachers nationwide operate in an environment that emphasizes security nearly as much as education. Finding the balance between those often-conflicting realities has been DeAngelis’ quest for 15 years. He learned personal lessons from the discoveries made since the tragedy. He honed his leadership skills to help the school emerge from fear and worked 60 to 80 hours a week to create a culture that, above all, respects every individual.

In the wake of the Columbine shooting, DeAngelis accepted a calling that many principals in his situation are simply unable to accept. And he continues to accept that calling. In his “retirement,” DeAngelis will work part time for the Jefferson County School District’s Security and Emergency Management Department, with the goal of helping to create schools that are more “proactive than reactive.” He will also continue visiting schools around the country that experience shootings and will speak locally, nationally and internationally about this incredibly difficult issue.

DeAngelis has a very personal motivation for his efforts: He recently became a grandfather. Looking at a picture of little Mia Isabella, DeAngelis’ voice became soft and he said, “I can’t imagine how I’d feel if one day she walks into a school where they have armed guards in the hallways.”

The Tragedy

At approximately 11 a.m. on April 20, 1999, DeAngelis was in his office interviewing a candidate for a teacher position. Suddenly, school radios announced that gunshots had been fired in the building.

The teacher candidate, Kiki Leyba, who was later hired, recalled, “That day, I saw Frank run directly toward gunfire. He never hesitated. Frank is a guy who always reacts from his heart.”

The events that day took hours to unfold with now-iconic images playing out on national television: Children emerging from the school with hands above their heads; Patrick Ireland falling from a broken window into the arms of police officers; helicopter images of SWAT team officers rushing onto campus.

DeAngelis, who describes himself as a “cradle Catholic,” said his faith was never shaken during the tragedy or the aftermath. He drops a heavy ring of dozens and dozens of keys on the table and tells this story to explain:

“Here is a set of keys I had in my pocket that day. A gunman is coming toward me and I’ve got 20 girls with me. We’re running to get away from the killers, and I reached into my pocket and pulled out the one key that opens every door in the building. I have tried to do that again for the last 15 years and I can’t do it. I reached right in, pulled that key out and got us in to safety. God had to be there.”

In the days, weeks and months that followed, DeAngelis confronted his own emotions as he faced — and led — a shattered community.

According to Jefferson County’s McDonald, the average time that a principal can “make it” after a school shooting is three years. DeAngelis himself admits that he struggled to figure out his role and how long he could and should stay at Columbine.

“I promised the class of 2002 that I wouldn’t leave because they were freshmen when the tragedy happened,” DeAngelis said. “But then I realized that wasn’t long enough because I had made a promise to myself and to my priest, who told me that I needed to rebuild the community. My life was spared that day for a reason, and if I really wanted to rebuild that community, it wouldn’t happen in three years.”

So, he promised to stay until he handed diplomas to the children who had been in preschool during the tragedy, which would have been 2012. But then he was approached by parents who said, “My child was in the two-year preschool program back in 1999; you can’t leave yet.”

DeAngelis laughed thinking of how the requests to stay continued.

“It made me feel good that no one was asking, ‘When is that guy going to retire?’” he said.  “I feel bad for people who count down the days until their retirement. For me, I was counting down the days thinking, ‘I only have two more days with my kids.’”

MSU Denver’s Influence

DeAngelis has always loved kids; they were the inspiration behind his choice to become a teacher. He is “full-blooded Italian” and grew up in North Denver’s Catholic Italian neighborhood. The son of working-class parents, he paid for his college tuition and says that MSU Denver was instrumental in shaping his career.

“At Metro, one of the things I loved about their program was that we got a lot of field service,” DeAngelis said. “We ended up going to elementary schools where I got hands-on experience.”

“It was the best decision ever. When I talk to kids at Columbine and they say they’re going to Metro, I say, ‘What a wise choice.’ I had such a fantastic education. I feel it prepared me to do what I did for 35 years.”

DeAngelis got his first full-time teaching job in 1979 at Columbine and never left the school. He taught and coached until he became assistant principal in 1994 and then principal in 1996.

That experience as both a teacher and administrator, combined with his personal encounter with school violence, help DeAngelis understand things that perhaps no one else can, McDonald said.

“Frank has helped us design our school security program,” McDonald said. “I consulted with Frank for many crisis events, including the recent Arapahoe shooting, the Jessica Ridgeway tragedy and the Deer Creek shooting. Frank is the bridge between education and school safety.

“We are setting the standard nationally in school-shooting preparedness in large part because of Frank.”

Teacher as First Responder

McDonald said his first goal with DeAngelis on board is to “do a full debrief” on the Columbine shooting.

“I hope to capture lessons learned that may never have been identified before and create a repository for others to come from around the country to learn from Frank’s experience,” McDonald said.

From there, DeAngelis will help train principals and teachers across the Jefferson County School District.

“Today’s teacher is an emergency responder,” McDonald said. “They are the first responders at our schools.”

Teacher as first responder: That is a very different picture of education than many teachers envisioned upon entering the profession. One of DeAngelis’ personal goals is to help schools establish cultures in which respect, high-quality education and security work in tandem rather than in conflict.

No one knows more clearly how difficult that balance can be.

“How do you create these inclusive, respectful, educational environments?” he asked. “Prior to April 20, I was so naïve. As a principal, you may find the people who tell you what you want to hear, but that doesn’t give a true barometer of the school. I could find student senators or students doing well academically or kids in the performing arts, but it never occurred to me to walk to the skate park or go to the area where kids smoke cigarettes to find out why they’re not buying into what I’m selling.”

After the tragedy, that’s exactly what he did.

“Once I did that, I learned things that I needed to do differently. I changed. Now, even though those kids may not be the top students, they know I care about them. If I can plant the seed for other communities and schools to create that atmosphere, it would be great.”

An Environment Where Kids Feel Welcome

Today, Columbine students, faculty and alumni boast of being a “family.” DeAngelis realizes that changing a school’s culture is only the first step to ensure safety. However, he hopes that a positive culture can diminish a school community’s demand for invasive security measures.

“I can remember, right after the tragedy, people were talking about metal detectors. We were putting parents at every door. We had armed police officers and security cameras. But students came up to me and said, ‘Mr. D., this isn’t like a school anymore; it’s like a fortress.’ Bottom line, you have to prepare for threats but you have to create an environment where kids feel welcome.”

DeAngelis brightens when thinking about his future. In addition to working with Jefferson County schools, DeAngelis, who divorced in the aftermath of the tragedy, recently married his high school sweetheart. He also plans to continue taking his “message of hope” to other schools that face shootings. He has been to Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary, Deer Creek Middle School, Platte Canyon High School, Chardon High School and Arapahoe High School.

“My biggest message is that I’m doing this work in memory of the 13 who died. Then I talk about the things that will happen in recovery from a shooting. People think they’ll wake up someday and life will feel normal again, but it won’t. But you can’t give up hope. When I stand up in front of people, I give them a message of hope. I can say, ‘I’ve been there for 15 years. Look at Columbine; we’re stronger than ever.’”

He ends his presentations with pictures of his granddaughter.

“I will continue carrying this message so that she doesn’t have to face what those kids at Sandy Hook faced.” 

WATCH "Frank DeAngelis' Last Day," a 9News video montage.