The principal at the school had to forgive those behind the attack there to rebuild the community, writes Jonathan deBurca Butler
Frank deAngelis didn’t know Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold well. Of the 1,600 students attending Columbine High School in April 1999, Harris and Klebold were exceptional only for their apparent hunger to graduate and get ahead.
“I did not know them well, but they were not kids who were in trouble or in my office,” says the former Columbine principal. “They were very clever young men; in advanced college classes and involved in performing arts. They were planning for the future.
“Klebold had been accepted into the University of Arizona and had gone there to visit with his parents during our spring break, less than a month before the shooting. Eric Harris was trying to get into the military.”
“They had a lot of people fooled. Unfortunately, we only discovered those basement tapes after the shooting and found out it was all planned. In fact, if it had gone to plan, it would have been a lot worse. They had placed propane tanks in the cafeteria and were going to shoot any survivors who were coming out but when the bombs didn’t detonate, their plans changed, so that’s when they came into the school. So they didn’t just wake up that day and decide to blow up the school this was planned and if it had been fulfilled, hundreds of people would have been killed.”
Frank deAngelis joined Columbine High School as a history teacher in 1979. For a period of time, he was the baseball coach. He also spent some time coaching American football. Columbine became his life and rewarded him with the post of principal in the mid-90s. He had been in his post for just three years when the shooting happened.
The details of the massacre are well known. On the morning of April 20, 1999, 17-year-old Klebold and 18-year-old Harris entered their own school and over the course of an hour shot 13 people dead. They injured dozens more.
DeAngelis himself was shot at but somehow managed to escape.
Various theories have been put forward for the students’ actions. Everything from Goth culture to video games and, of course, America’s liberal gun laws have been blamed but, for deAngelis, those explanations miss the central point.
“Lots of people say if we had tougher gun laws, these shootings would just disappear,” he says. “I’d agree to an extent; guns shouldn’t be so easy to get, but where I struggle is the fact that if someone is intent on killing someone else they are going to find the means to do it. There are places in Europe and Asia where people use knives. Should we ban knives? It’s too easy to say if we had tougher gun laws the shootings would stop because I think you’re underestimating the mind and the mindset of these people. This is my point really. The thing that we can’t underestimate is mental health.”
He will be at the Mansion House in Dublin next week to give a talk on mental health.
“These two young men did not come into the world hating,” he says. “I saw pictures of them when they were kids in their boy scout uniform and then I look at the guy who shot at me. Something happened to them and society in a way let them down somewhere.”
DeAngelis, who describes himself as a “stubborn Italian”, points the finger, in part at least, at a society that pressurises men to fit a stereotype of the “strong man”. He recalls how, a few days after the shooting at Columbine, he was approached by a colleague who advised him not to tell anyone he was seeking mental health help because it would be seen as “a sign of weakness”.
“I was told that if I was going to be a leader, I couldn’t cry because I was a man,” he says. “What are we telling these kids? We present them with these images and then we don’t give them the support they need.”
Luckily for deAngelis, he didn’t listen and, along with the people of Columbine, he gratefully accepted all the support he could get both from within and without the community. For deAngelis that support was key to the district’s survival.
“If I was going to go back to Columbine and rebuild that community, I knew I needed support and you have to get as much support as possible,” says deAngelis. “I had a staff of 150 and they were all in different places. Some of them dealt with the tragedy by constantly talking about it but there were others who felt that if they didn’t have to talk about it they didn’t have to think about it and so trying to provide for all of these different people was hard.
“Then there were the parents who were concerned about their child’s safety and then of course the students. I really believed that if I could make 70% of the people I was dealing with happy on any given day, then that was a day of celebration. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I think people believe that you’re going to wake up one morning and everything goes back to normal but, and I know people don’t want to hear this, we had to redefine what normal was.”
For a long time, deAngelis felt the heavy weight of survivor’s guilt. He had, as he said himself, “walked straight into the gunfire” but survived. Others were not so lucky.
“I can’t forgive those kids for what they did,” says deAngelis. “I see three of the kids who were paralysed all the time. I saw my best friend being killed and I meet parents of the kids that died. But as the saying goes, you have to forgive the sinner but not the sin. I had to forgive them to rebuild that community.”
And rebuild it is exactly what deAngelis does every day.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved