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5:49 am
Sat May 24, 2014

Retiring Columbine Principal Turned Guilt Into Action

Originally published on Sat May 24, 2014 12:09 pm

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Today is Graduation Day at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. And, of course, it will be an emotional time for the school's principal, Frank DeAngelis. He'll be giving his final sendoff to a senior class. Mr. DeAngelis is retiring at the end of this school year. He's one of just a few staffers who stayed on at Columbine after the 1999 mass shootings there. Fifteen people died, including the two gunmen, who were also students. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, the massacre and the school's response to it defined Mr. DeAngelis's career.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: You can't miss what Frank DeAngelis calls The Wall of '99, in his narrow, windowless office.

FRANK DEANGELIS: There's pictures of President Clinton and the support he gave us for raising funds. A picture...

SIEGLER: From floor to ceiling, it's covered with memorabilia. Plaques, photos commemorating April 20th, 1999 - the day this suburban high school was put in the national spotlight.

DEANGELIS: Now, many people ask me - how can you, day after day, look at those pictures as a constant reminder? And I said, I look at those pictures and I look at the names up there, and it gives me the reason for walking back in here. That what I want to do in their memory is to rebuild this school.

SIEGLER: DeAngelis, who will turn 60 this fall, has a salt-and-pepper mustache and a warm smile. He's just about as a humble as they come. He's often praised for his decision to stay on as principal, helping the school rebuild and recover. But DeAngelis says he needed to stay.

DEANGELIS: Something that I have to live with for the rest of my life is 13 people died on my watch. And the damage and the devastation that was done, was done by two of my kids.

SIEGLER: DeAngelis has tried to channel his guilt into action. Today he's outspoken on school safety issues. He's one of the first people who gets called in for crisis counseling when there's a mass shooting. He's been to Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. But it took him a while to be able to talk openly about his experiences. Early on, he even had a hard time leaving his office at Columbine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOL HALL)

SIEGLER: But he realized he needed to be the face of this school and just be there for his grieving students and staff. Today, walking the halls, dropping in on a class, knowing students on a first name basis, is still the thing he loves the most about his job.

DEANGELIS: How are you? You have a good weekend. Thanks for the lunch.

SIEGLER: One of the things he'll miss the most are Friday afternoons when he joins the choir outside his office to sing the school song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOL CHOIR)

SIEGLER: This has happened every week since the school reopened in the fall of 1999. Afterword, DeAngelis gives some high-fives and a few fist bumps to students and teachers. It's clear he'll be missed here.

TOMMY TONELLI: To be honest with you, it's- it's crushing for us.

SIEGLER: Social studies teacher Tommy Tonelli says DeAngelis deserves a lot of the credit for turning this school into a regular school again.

TONELLI: It's hard, I know, for a lot of people to imagine that. Because what they know of us is so different. And that's certainly understandable 'cause that's part of the collective memory of our nation. But at the same time, you wish everybody could see what you're seeing today. And that's that we just have a great school and a great community.

SIEGLER: Frank DeAngelis gets a lot of credit for helping Columbine rebound, but he also took some criticism over the years. The shootings drew attention to what some described as an environment of bullying that was long tolerated by administrators. Lawsuits accused DeAngelis of failing to heed warning signs about the two gunmen. Devon Adams was a sophomore when the shootings happened. She says DeAngelis rose to the occasion and became a different principal - one who truly listened to and treated teenagers with respect, including her.

DEVON ADAMS: Mr. D. stepped out, and was willing to own up to his own failures. And he was willing to listen to students and teachers, and he was willing to make changes.

SIEGLER: The two are still in touch today. In fact, DeAngelis still keeps in touch with a lot of his former students from 1999 and the years that followed. He says some are still struggling, battling alcoholism and drug abuse.

DEANGELIS: Lessons learned that kids, or people, when they go through a traumatic experience, are going to be affected at different times of their life. And the funds ran out to provide mental health for these kids. And all of a sudden, 10 years out, students start calling me, saying, Mr. D., I'm struggling. Can you help me?

SIEGLER: During retirement, DeAngelis wants to get more involved in helping his former students, but also take his counseling and advising work further.

DEANGELIS: And I approach it from the standpoint, where, I think, money needs to be spent and programs need to be in place - is to identify these troubled kids. You know, these kids do not come out of their mother's womb hating.

SIEGLER: He wants to devote his work to preventing future incidents, not just reacting to them. The other thing that DeAngelis hopes to do - you remember The Wall of '99 in his office? He's planning to write a book that tells the story behind every photo and memento on it. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.