EAST PEORIA — Frank DeAngelis was the principal at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., when, on April 20, 1999, two teens went on a shooting spree.
The not-for-profit AAIM Employers’ Association hosted a presentation by DeAngelis entitled “Columbine: Leadership Lessons Learned,” Tuesday at the Performing Arts Center, Illinois Central College East Peoria Campus, where DeAngelis discussed the experience.
On the day of the shooting, when notified of gunfire in the building, DeAngelis ran out of his office to investigate the incident. One of the first sights that greeted him in the hallway was a gunman moving in his direction. At the time, he thought he had exited his office in a calm manner but was told later he had sprinted in the direction of the gunfire.
“I’ve had law enforcement agents ask, ‘Frank, why in your wildest dreams did you run toward the gunfire?’ 'One reason,'” he said. “My kids were in danger.”
When a group of students sought sanctuary in the school’s gymnasium, the doors were locked and at least one of the gunmen was coming nearer. DeAngelis had a set of keys in his pocket and little time to open the gym before the shooter was upon the trapped students.
“Girls were screaming, shots were getting louder, and I pulled out my keys,” he said. “The first key opened the door on the first try. Very fortunate.”
The Columbine mass shooting left 12 students and one teacher dead and wounded 20 other people. DeAngelis survived that day and went on to retire as Columbine’s principal in June 2014. He now speaks to professional and school audiences across the United States on the topic of recovery after a school-based tragedy. About 120 people attended the event at ICC. Following his presentation, DeAngelis answered questions from audience members.
“I think it’s important to understand tragic events that occur and how others have learned from them,” said Dani Brauss, training and development business partner at AAIM. “I think, oftentimes, business leaders get really caught up in the day-to-day of changes that are thrust upon them by executives or by economic changes or other battles they might be having. But it’s important to take a step back and realize what we can learn from people who have actually had to lead in the face of crisis.”
DeAngelis began by reciting the names of the 13 people killed in the Columbine shootings.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of (the victims of the shootings),” he said. “These were 12 of my students and one of my dearest friends who walked in the high school at 7 a.m. on April 20 and didn’t return home.”
One of the leadership lessons DeAngelis took away from his own experience with a crisis situation was the importance of leaders staying involved and particularly not ignoring warning signs. The Columbine shooters had made three hours of videotape in which they described their plans and engaged in other activities that should have raised suspicion.
On one occasion, a shooter’s father found a pipe bomb in the house and took his son into the mountains to dispose of it by detonating it, according to DeAngelis. Six months before the attack on the high school, the shooter’s father received a call that his large order of ammunition had arrived and had dismissed it as a wrong number.
“One of the most disheartening things is there were some warning signs,” said DeAngelis.
A key to recovering from a tragedy, DeAngelis added, is for survivors to view the process as a marathon rather than a sprint.
“The question I get asked most frequently is ‘When does it get back to normal?’” he said. “It doesn’t. We have to redefine what normal is. It’s not that you can never heal. But to think it’s going to be the way it was prior to this event? It’s not happening.”
Vital to helping tragedy survivors run the recovery marathon are support, faith, and, if necessary, counseling, said DeAngelis.
“All of us can experience an event,” he said. “How we deal with the aftermath is going to vary for all of us.”
DeAngelis cautioned against setting arbitrary timelines on recovering from a tragedy.
“Some people seem to be doing OK the first three years or five years out,” he said. “Then all of a sudden something happens in their lives that triggers some emotion, that traumatizes them.”