Retired principal of Columbine High School, Frank DeAngelis, joined us for an insightful webinar discussion on critical lessons learned from that fateful day on April 20th, 1999. From both response and recovery standpoints, we dive into why student safety is as important as ever, especially given the impacts of remote learning over the past year.
Frank DeAngelis has consulted with communities across the country following violent incidents, most recently at Sandy Hook Elementary. He has been recognized as a Colorado High School Principal of the Year and was a finalist for National Principal of the Year.
In this webinar, Lightspeed Systems shares how Lightspeed Alert™ is becoming an integral part of districts’ safety prevention programs to prevent school-based tragedies. Get a free demo of Lightspeed Alert, or any of our other edtech solutions, to see how Lightspeed can enhance the safety of your districts’ students and staff.
0:03 (Marissa Naab from Lightspeed Systems)
Good morning, everyone, and thank you so much for joining us for our presentation today. My name is Marissa Naab, I am on the webinars team here at Lightspeed Systems. Very excited to have Frank DeAngelis on today to talk about seven lessons learned from the Columbine tragedy.
Before we get started, I’m just going to go over a couple of quick housekeeping items. First and foremost, this session will be recorded, and we will send you the recording once the session concludes so that you can view at a later date or share with any colleagues. Secondly, there will be a Q&A session at the end, so if at any point during the discussion you have any questions for us, please enter those into the chat box, and we will make sure to get to your question and answer it.
And last but not least, we will have a survey that pops up at the end of the webinar; if you would be so kind to fill that out, we would appreciate it.
Without further ado, I am thrilled to introduce Frank DeAngelis. Frank, would you like to tell us a little bit more about yourself?
Sure. And it’s just fantastic to be here. And so we’ll get this going.
Cassie Bernall, Steven Curnow, Corey DePooter, Kelly Fleming, Matthew Kechter, Daniel Mauser, Daniel Rohrbough, Rachel Scott, Isaiah Shoels, John Tomlin, Lauren Townsend, Kyle Velasquez, and Dave Sanders. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of my beloved 13.
They walk into Columbine high school on April 20th, 1999, and they never really came home.
I can remember on that evening, just playing back, everything that had happened in everything that I had witnessed.
I couldn’t go back to my house because the FBI was concerned about the safety.
And as I was sitting at my brother’s house, I realized that there was nothing that I could do to bring back the 13 loved ones that I lost on that day.
But I was going to continue to speak on their behalf. And that’s why I’m here today, and I know people will say, Frank, I know you’ve been speaking on behalf of these kids and Mr. Sanders for the past 22 years, but we continue to hear about school shootings. But what we don’t hear about is how many have been stopped, because of things we have in place now, things at Lightspeed are doing, and that’s why I want to share this story today with you. In memory of my 13, it’s definitely a time to remember my 13, but also a time to hold on.
Colorado native, lived here my entire life. Love Colorado, 300 days of sunshine.
And I grew up in an Italian-American community. And if you saw me in person, or if I stood up, you’d see a full blooded Italian because I have those genes that my parents gave me, I’ll never be tall. I do have olive skin.
So, all age gracefully growing up in North Denver.
It was an Italian-American community, and it was built around the church and I went to a parochial school, was instructed by the nuns K through ninth grade, and then all of a sudden, in the state of Colorado, many of the schools in the Catholic School system started losing money and they started closing a lot of the schools. And one of them was a high school. I was going to go to and my parents couldn’t afford to send me to a large Franciscan School or Jesuit School, so I switched schools, and talk about a cultural shock.
I went from a school of about 400 to a school of over 2000 kids in three grade levels.
And, fortunately, I, you know, I was involved, of course, in academics, but also in activities. I participated in sports.
And so, 1972 comes around, And if you want to figure out how old I am, I’m going to help you. I’m 67 years old. So, I graduated from high school in 1972.
And my parents were excited when I came home and said, I want to go to college, because I grew up in a blue collar family.
And I was going to be the first to attend college, and I thought I wanted to be an accountant. And, they were so proud, because they’re saying little Frank is going to be an account. We had a family member who owned a CPA firm, and he said, Frank, once you graduate, you pass all your tests, you’re going to have a job here.
And so I had this great plan. I entered college, I was 17 at the time, and I went to Metro State University down in downtown Denver, and all of a sudden, now taking classes and all the prerequisite classes. But I was also taking accounting classes. And so, the first year, I started doubting my decision to be an accountant.
But I said, I’m going to give it another shot until I go back my sophomore year, and I had signed up for 18 semester hours first semester.
By the end of first semester, I think I had 10 hours, I dropped eight, second semester, I go back.
Same thing happened. And the turning point for me is when my colleagues, my professor, a cost accounting professor said, “Now students, today, you’re going to have to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal.” And I said, “No, we’re not. I’m out of here.”
So I dropped out of school, and I went to work in a grocery store. And I was a frozen food manager. And back in the day, 1972, I was living at home, making $5.20 an hour. And I said, “This is great!”
Then I realized, is this something I wanted to do for the rest of my life?
Well, being Italian, I had an Uncle Vito, and Uncle Vito shared something with me that was life-changing.
He said, “Frank, choose the job you love. You’ll never have to work a day in your life. Love what you do, and do what you love.”
And that forced me to go back to be a teacher, something I wanted to do.
And it was the best decision I ever made in my life, even with everything that I went through that I’ll share with you in a few minutes. I never regret choosing that job to be an educator.
And I remember coming home and telling my mom I was going to be an educator. And the first thing they said was, “Frankie, why do you want to live in a state of poverty for the rest of your life?”
They weren’t too far off. My first contract, I think, was $10,000.
This was 1979, but one of the things that I tell people now they’re entering the profession of education, as I said, you can’t put a price tag on that. Because when a kid comes up to you and says, “Mr. D, thanks for believing in me when no one else cared.”
And every year I get invited to 8 or 9 weddings, and my former students are getting announcements to their college graduation. And as a result of that, I am one of the richest people on the face of this earth, so choosing that job you love is so important. I made the right choice back at 19.
Actually, ‘73 or ‘74 when I changed my major, then 35 years at Columbine High School.
And I loved the job, and it always bothered me — I don’t know if any of you work with people that are counting the days until they retire. I had staff members that would mark the days on their calendar, saying, “I only have 15 more Mondays. I only have three more faculty meetings where I have to listen to you.” And it broke my heart not because I didn’t want them to listen to me, but it impacted students, because I could come into any school around this country, sit in a classroom or stand in the classroom, and within five minutes I could tell which teachers love what they’re doing. It’s because of the relationships that they have with those kids.
Those kids want to be in those classes and they do not, they do not need attendance policy for these kids. They do not need tardy policies because of these teachers that have such a major impact.
And a little bit later, towards the end of my presentation, there’s going to be a gentleman named Chris Dittman, he was my high school psychology teacher.
He was my assistant baseball coach, and that’s the reason I got into education, and 50 years later we’re still dear friends.
I wore many hats at Columbine high school.
I started out, I was a social studies, American history teacher. I was an assistant football coach, head baseball coach, served as a dean of students. Then, I decided to get into administration, And I can still remember, to this day, when they said to me, some of my teaching colleagues said to me, “Why do you want to become one of them? Go to the dark side?”
And I was struggling, because I loved teaching.
I knew that once I left the classroom, those daily interactions I had with the kids, they would not be there, but a dear friend of mine said, “Frank, let me share something with you. Right now, your position is going to change if you decide to get into administration, but you don’t have to change as a person. And think about it: you work with about 150 students each week in social studies classes. You get to coach a certain amount of kids. But now, if you decide to be a principal of this school, you’ll have 2000 kids in which you could have daily interactions. You will have 150 staff members that you can work with, and so now you can take your vision and your passion, and your love, and expand that.” And that’s the reason I chose to be an administrator.
One of the things that I did not like about my job as an administrator was all the meetings and all the paperwork, and I made a promise to myself every morning I woke up. I said, “I am going to find a way to spend time in classes each and every day.”
And I was one of the few high school principals that did. I loved cafeteria duty because I got to talk to my kids at Columbine High School. It’s a fantastic high school. It’s located in Littleton, Colorado, Part of the JeffCo School System, second largest school system in the State of Colorado behind Denver.
88% of our kids went on to college; 94% of our kids graduated on time. One of the lowest dropout rates. We had advance placement classes.
When I was principal there we were an International Baccalaureate program, with outstanding co-curricular and extracurricular activities.
And one of the things when I go share my message with people and talk about Columbine High School, they say to me, “Your school, your community is just like the school in which my kids go to school. It’s just like the school in which I graduated, and I cannot believe what happened at Columbine.” And I’m here to tell you today that, if you would have told me back on April 20th, or April 19, 1999, that that could happen at Columbine, I would have said, “No.”
And when I visit these other communities, whether it be Parkland, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech . . . the first thing they say to me is “I cannot believe it is happening here!”
Well, everything was going extremely well, it was April 20th, 1999, it was a beautiful Colorado spring day. And there were things that happened that day that I can’t explain. And I keep thinking back.
Almost 22 years ago. What happened? And I didn’t start out that day at Columbine, which was very unusual. I was usually at Columbine at six o’clock, usually having a cup of coffee with my dear friend, Dave Sanders on April 20th.
I was not there, I was actually at a breakfast that was recognizing some of our students, the Future Business Leaders of America, and I was there to give them awards. So I’m late getting back to Columbine.
And so, I was getting ready to offer a teaching position to Kiki Lay, but the young man sitting there. We were at a conference together, but this young man taught at Columbine, he was on a one-year contract, and just a fantastic teacher.
We interviewed him the previous day. So I was going to welcome him to the family. Well, unfortunately, I could not locate him. I finally located him about 11:15, invited him into my office.
The reason I’m sharing this is probably out of 175 days, in which we work, I was down in the cafeteria probably 170 days, while on this particular day, because I was talking to Kiki, I was not down there.
And all of a sudden, I’m getting ready to welcome him into the family and just saying, “We’re so pleased to have you here, and we’re going to have a long career together.”
And before I could start that conversation . . .
To this day, I don’t know if I ever offered him a contract, and he doesn’t remember. But he’s still working at Columbine 22 years later, and the reason that I’m not sure if that contract was ever offered was that my secretary comes running towards my door—I had a door in which there was a little window—and I can still remember her face, and I knew something was wrong.
She opened the door and said, “Frank there’s been a report a gunfire.” And the first thing that crossed my mind is ‘this has to be a senior prank. This can’t be happening at Columbine High School.’
In the 20 years I had been there, I could count on two hands the number of fistfights we had.
This was a great school, and so I’m thinking it has to be a senior . . . until I come out of my office.
I encounter a gunman that is coming through the doors, and my life just flashed before me and I thought I walked out very calmly. I was experiencing something that was later explained to me as to me as “fight, flight, and freeze,” and everything just slowed down.
But in actuality, after talking to Kiki and my secretary, I ran right towards a gunman. And when they saw me on the street a few hours later they were shocked, because they thought I had died that day.
And the reason that people say to me, “Frank, you were unarmed!” Police officers say, “Why would you run towards the gunman?”
One reason, and one reason only: some of my students were in trouble. I had about 20, 25 girls that were coming out of the locker room to go to a physical education class. Their life is in danger. And as educators, we put our lives, we would do anything for our kids, and they were my kids.
And so, this was back, mind you, in 1999. The only drills we did in Colorado at that time were fire drills. And around the country, I’m sure there may be tornado drills, hurricane drills, but we only got fire drills. We didn’t do many of the drills that these kids are doing now, from a very early age, whether they be “Run, Hide, Fight,” whatever.
But I knew the building, the layout of the building.
And I said, If I could get our girls into this gymnasium area, and then I could put them in a secure place, check to make sure it was safe to go outside, we would be able to evacuate the building.
Everything was going as planned until I reached the gymnasium door. And it’s locked.
And the gunman is actually coming around the corner. We hear the sounds and the shots getting louder. The girls are crying.
I’m trying to keep them calm, and then something happened that I can explain, but I’m just so grateful.
I had a suit on that day, and I reached in my pocket.
This is the actual set of keys I had, I reached my pocket and just as the gunman is coming around the corner, I reached and the first key I pulled out I stuck in the door, and it opened on the first try.
This key was not specially marked, and this is a lesson to be learned. If you need the key that you need to get through, to get to in an emergency situation, you need to be able to do it, because I was not prepared for that.
At the 20-year reunion of the event that happened that day, I had some girls come up to me that were with me that day. And they were crying, and I was crying. It was very emotional.
They said, Mr. D, I want to introduce you to my son and daughter, and this is my husband, and we’re so glad that you found that key! Because if you didn’t, they wouldn’t be here with me.” And all I said is, “I had very little to do and finding that key.”
And for the 15 years that I stayed on afterwards, I reached into my pocket every day, and was never able to pull that key out.
So it was something that I can’t explain. It just happened. But allowed me to continue to pursue, to explain what I did at Columbine after what happened on that day.
It was a warzone, and I want you to think back to 22 years ago. And I know many people on this call were probably in elementary school. There may be some people that weren’t born that day , and you’ll read about Columbine in your history books.
But on that day, the protocol was to secure the perimeter, and we had school resource officers that were exchanging gunfire, but they were told they could not go in until the SWAT team arrived.
And that was one of the most frustrating things that day.
Because once I got outside and I was helping the police officers, they are ready to break protocol to go in, they said ‘we were sworn to protect and serve’ a were standing outside waiting for SWAT.
And by the time SWAT got there, 58 minutes had elapsed.
And I truly, truly believe this and not to blame the police officers, because I testified on their behalf. They were doing what they were taught, they were doing how they were trained. But if we have the protocols that we have in place today, I truly believe we would not have lost 16.
We would not have lost, excuse me, 13, and 24 that were injured, because now first officers are being trained to go in. By the time they got to Dave Sanders, it was three and a half hours later, and there’s a good chance he may have survived if we had the protocols that we have today.
It was a very difficult day and I can remember them coming to me when I was helping, saying “Please stay. Frank, we know this is beyond the call of duty, but would you be willing to put on body armor to go in the building? Shut off the fire alarm because we need to go in. It’s a SWAT team that needs to go in. They need to be able to communicate, and that sound is so deafening.” And I’m getting ready. I’m gearing up and, all of a sudden, they said, “No one is going in that building other than SWAT.”
And, so, they transport me down to Leawood Elementary. This was before we had any thing called a reunification plan. But we went down to that elementary school.
It’s something that will be on my mind for the rest of my life, something I experienced that evening. So, as I get down there, I saw one of the teachers who helped drag Dave Sanders into a room where kids were administering first aid.
And someone said, “Frank, it doesn’t look good for Dave.”
And as time went on, there were parents that were meeting their kids. And needless to say, it was very emotional.
But it was at that point in time that I decided I had to continue to go on.
I had staff or parents coming up to me saying, “Frank, did you see my son or daughter, they were in a math class, or they were in an English class?” And I had not.
Then I had a parent come up and say, “Frank, for about the last four hours, there have been yellow school busses that have been transporting kids to this site. I haven’t seen my kid on a school bus.”
And that’s when a grief counselor came over to me. She spoke to me instead about something I was never prepared to hear with the education that I received with my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. I was never prepared to deal with the words that came out of that grief counselors mouth.
She said to me, “Frank, we need to take these family members into a room, and you need to tell them that there’s a good chance their loved one died in your building.”
And all of a sudden, I’m preparing for this. My mind is no longer wearing that principal’s hat.
But I had my parent’s hat on because I had a daughter who was a sophomore at another school in another school district, and I kept thinking, what would it be like to hear those words for me?
That they had to go home, and the police were telling you, they had to fill out a missing person report. Missing person reports. That’s something I was never prepared for.
And I made a promise that I would never, ever forget those parents to this day. I call them every April 20th. I call on birthdays. And I’ll never forget the look in their eyes.
It’s sometimes just finding the words. I could not say, “I know what you’re feeling,” because I didn’t just lose a loved one.
But I said I would be there, and all of a sudden, I’m preparing to have these talks.
I started getting advice from attorneys and people saying, “You’d better be careful. You’d better not communicate with them because there’s potential lawsuits.”
And I’m thinking the last thing I care about right now are lawsuits. These parents, Mrs.
Sanders and her daughter just lost their husband and father, and my parents! I’m so blessed that they’re alive today. They’re 91 and 87 years old. They taught me a lesson growing up: Sometimes you have to stand up for what is right, even though you’re standing alone.
And it was that weekend that I went to visit every home of the victims’ families.
And I walked in, and I didn’t know what to say, and we just held each other, and we cried, and we shared stories. And when the attorneys found out, they said, “What are you thinking, Frank?”
What I told you, I’m a full blooded Italian and I’m stubborn, and I didn’t care what they told me because it was two weeks later. I returned to those homes, only this time it was with bouquets of flowers, because it was Mother’s Day and I knew how difficult that Mother’s Day was going to be for those families.
It was the right thing to do.
This year, on April 20th, when I called those families of the 13, I had conversations with 10 of them.
And we had those relationships that were developed on the very evening in which the worst day of their life appeared.
As I tell people now, it’s a marathon and not a sprint.
And a lot of the things that we’re dealing with now with the pandemic and the recovery period, are very similar to what we had to do.
The enemy back then was the two killers. The enemy right now is the pandemic, or the coronavirus, but it is a marathon, not a sprint, and you’re not going to wake up some day and everything’s going to be back to normal. I know it’s a term that you hate to hear, but we have to redefine what normal is. And there were times, just as I’m sure many of you have experienced, over the past year, where you’re saying, “Oh, gosh, things are getting better,” and then something happens and you’re saying, “Did not see that coming.” But do not, do not, do not give up hope.
I had so much support. I had my family, who was there for me with the peace that I need to give to you. Another lesson learned today is you need to find that support system.
And I can remember, I had a dear friend of mine, his name was John Fisher, and my mom worked for him. He was a chiropractor, but he was also a Vietnam veteran. And he called me 24 hours after.
He said, “Frank, you’re going to be pulled in so many different directions, But if you don’t help yourself, you’re not going to be able to help anyone else.”
And I listened to that advice and I got into counseling and I had people say, if you talk to a counselor, that’s a sign of weakness.
No, it’s not, it’s a sign of strength and I would not be able to continue my mission from what I said 22 years ago if I was not in counseling.
I just met with my counselor about a week ago to check in, and so what I’m telling you is you need to find that support.
And the next time you get on a plane and a flight attendant comes on and he or she says, if this cabin loses pressure before you put that mask, before you give a mask to help someone else, make sure you put it on yourself. And that’s what I learned so importantly, back then.
Now I am not here to preach. I told you, I grew up Catholic, and I don’t know if any people of faith ever question your faith. Well, I was questioning my faith on that horrific night.
It was two days later, Father Ken Leoni called me down where I’d been a member of the parish. He said, “Frank, you need to come down, we’re going to do a candlelight vigil.”
And he said, “We need you down there.” And I said, “Father, great. I can come down. He said, You need to come down, please.”
So I walk into the sacristy at Saint Francis Cabrini, and he calls me up on the altar. And there’s about 1200 people there. Many students were there because they were part of the youth group at Saint Francis Cabrini, and he whispered something in my ear and said, “Frank, you should have died that day. God’s got a plan.”
And he quoted Proverbs. This heart, a man, plants its course but the Lord determines the steps. And he said, “It’s going to be a tough road, Frank, but you don’t have to walk that journey alone.”
And the message that I’m sharing with you is, it faith is important to you, that’s another support system.
If your spouse is important to you, which they are, that’s a great support system, but you need to find that. For me, it was my faith, and the counseling piece of it. I can remember going to a Colorado Rockies game.
It was the fourth of July and all of a sudden it’s time for the fireworks display and the fireworks start exploding and I have a meltdown. I am in a fetal position, and I’m crying and my family’s looking at me saying, “What’s wrong?”
And I finally realized what post-traumatic stress disorder was.
And I can remember walking into Columbine three days after, and I walked through that building, and I was numb.
And I didn’t walk into the library until a month later, and my counselor said, “Are you sure you want to go in there?” Because that’s where a majority of our students had died, a majority of our students were injured, and I said, “I need to go in there.”
I was with an FBI agent for over two hours, and he walked me through the crime scene in the outline of the bodies, and the all the evidence that was there. He showed and told me how each kid had died, he showed me where the two killers had taken their own lives. And I did not even flinch.
And I think back prior to Columbine, I would have walked in that library, and turned around, and ran out. And that’s when I knew my life had changed. If I was going to continue to fulfill what Father Ken Leoni asked me to rebuild that community, then I needed to continue to get the support and counseling.
As I mentioned several times, I’m full blooded Italian.
And I was told by some people, “Frank, you’re a leader. You’re male. And if you cry, that’s a sign of weakness.”
Now, mind you, I’m full blooded Italian and I get emotional at the grand opening of a Wal-Mart if people are telling me that I can’t cry.
I’m in trouble, because my parents taught me to wear my emotion on my sleeve, to speak from my heart.
And many times in our life, and I’ll read this quote, and it makes so much sense: “Character and integrity is who you are when no one is watching.”
Well, the reason I’m sharing that is we could not go back to Columbine. We were going to finish the school year. We had about a month left, and we were going to finish it at a school just about six miles west of us. And we were going to go in the afternoon. But I asked our superintendent and school board president if we could wait two weeks, and they said, why? I said, because we had 13 memorial services that we need to attend, of our loved ones. And I said the last thing I want to do is have our kids and staff go to a memorial service and then try to go learn math and science. So they obliged my request, but we also needed to make sure that we provided support for our staff.
We met every day with our staff, and we had voluntary help for our students over at the local church.
It was on the afternoon, before I went down to Saint Francis Cabrini.
A counselor came in and said, “Frank, your kids need to see it,” and I said I had nothing to give. I haven’t eaten in 20 or 48 hours. I hadn’t slept. They said, “You need to come with us, walk into this auditorium.”
And as I walk in, the kids start chanting “We’d love you, Mr., we love you, Mr. D, Mr. D, we’re Columbine!”
Well, I emotionally lost it. And I turned my back on them, and I am hyperventilating, all of a sudden the counselor turned me around and he said, “Frank, what do you see?”
And I sit, I see these kids that are so emotional and so upset. He said, “Frank, what you don’t understand is that for 48 hours they didn’t know what to feel. They were stoic. They kept everything inside and by your crying, you gave them permission.”
It was OK to feel the way that they were feeling.
He said, “Frank, I have heard you speak for many, many years, but what you did today spoke more loudly than any words that you could have expressed to your kids.” And that was an important lesson learned.
We had to change the way things were taught, just as now when teachers and kids go back to full-time, in-person learning this fall. After the pandemic there’s things we need to learn, something that I never envisioned. Our parents put an archway of balloons up to welcome the kids back to Chatfield high school—a great idea until the balloon started popping.
Kids started diving on the ground. We could not do fire drills with the alarm. We had to change that sound of the alarm, but even those alarms would trigger emotions.
Teachers had to change the curriculum. They could not show a movie or a video with a war scene in which there was gunfire.
And the thing that I can tell you is in situations we can always experience the same event but how we deal with it, we can deal with it differently.
We had teachers and students and parents that wanted to constantly talk about what they had experienced just like with the pandemic, whether it be through social media. They want to talk about it, and we had other teachers who said the sooner I get back to doing what I was doing prior, that’s going to help me heal. Some others say the most important thing is we’ve got to agree to disagree and just respect where everyone is.
Another lesson learned, and I don’t know if you ever had your children experienced something, where it’s almost like war veterans when they come back, they do not want to share their experience with their loved ones because they want to protect them.
Well, the same thing was happening with our parents and our kids, parents were coming up to me and saying, “Frank! Even though our kids did not die that day, we’ve lost our kids.” And they said, is there any chance that you can talk to them?
Because they are finding out from their kids’ friends that they were hiding in a cabinet or they were in the locker room or they were in the freezer as a gunman walked by.
So I met with the kids over at Chatfield High School and I said, this is not going to make sense to you until you become parents. And I said that may or may not happen anytime soon.
But when your parents hear there were shots fired at Columbine High School, their hearts started racing, because they weren’t sure. Your dads were wondering if there would be that day, that they would walk you down the aisle on your wedding day, or your parents were wondering if they would ever get a chance to hold that first grandchild in years to come.
So you may not realize it now. But you need your parents, and they need you, and you need to go home, and you need to hug, and you need to love your parents, and this will make sense to you.
Well, so many of us learn, the older we get, the smarter our parents become.
Well, it was 2012, the beginning of the school year, one of the girls who was at Columbine came up to me first day of school, and she is crying, shaking. I said, “Michelle, what’s going on?” She said, “Do you remember what you told us about being parents?” I said yeah.
She said, “It didn’t make sense until today.” And I said, “Michelle, why today?”
She said, “My little girl just started kindergarten, and she got out of the car. And all of a sudden, I parked my car and I went running up where the teachers were clapping and the administrators were clapping to welcome our children to kindergarten. And all of a sudden, I grabbed my daughter and clinched her to my chest, and she said, “Mommy, Mommy you hurt me,” and teachers are saying, ma’am, ma’am, what are you doing?
And all of a sudden, I let my daughter down on the ground. And as she walked through those doors, I looked at her and tears are flowing down my face and say, “If I allow her to go into that school, is there a chance she may not come back?”
And so that’s exactly what happened on that day. Lessons learned.
Leadership. You know, one of the things, I was so fortunate, and I think with leaders, the key is getting people to follow you. And that was what was so important, and the advice I give to people is you treat people the way you want to be treated in my career as an educator.
I never had to tell someone you won’t do it because I’m your boss, because I, in my humble opinion, you do not develop, you do not develop a team or organization by getting them to do things out of fear. I never had to tell a student you will do it because I’m your principal.
Now, and I’m sure people are saying, Gosh, he must have been a pushover, No, it was all about respect. And I presented at a university. It was a graduate class.
And one of the students that was in the class sent this to me after my presentation. And you call it, you can look at this, whether you’re an education, whatever line of work you’re in. But these are good things to follow and it’s not because I came up with them, but look at some of these things.
Visibility: how many times do we hear from our kids, our parents, remember they’re forced, honesty, flexibility. Guys, I’m going to call you out on this, being a good listener.
My wife and I had a heated argument this past week and she works up at CU Boulder.
She came home, and all of a sudden, she’s telling me some issues she was having. She’s the coordinator for parking for faculty.
Within an instant, I’m telling her what she needed to do to fix it, and she said, Frank, I don’t need you to fix it.
I just need you to listen, and how many times do we do that with people in our lives each week? We interrupt immediately, and we’re trying to figure it out, we’re going to say even before a sentence comes out of that person’s mouth. So these are things to live by.
It’s back in the day, I have this quote on my desk: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. While I was presenting at a conference, it was a teacher’s conference or an administrator’s conference, and they said, “Frank, we really value that quote, but it’s been a tough year, and this is what we came up with—Lord, grant me the serenity to accept stupid people the way they are, the courage to maintain my self-control, and the wisdom to know that, if I act upon it, I will go to jail, so it’s all in the perspective.
Just quickly, I had decided after I retired, I was asked many, many years prior to write a book, and I did not. My major goal in life was to help that community. But I did produce a book and I know if you’re interested in finding out the true story of Columbine High School, you can read it: They Call Me Mr. De: The Story of Columbine’s Heart, Resilience, and Recovery. And all the proceeds from sales go to the Columbine Memorial Fund.
It’s all about the team. Things were out of control for me. I was named in eight lawsuits.
And, once again, when people came up and said, don’t take it personally, you have a tendency to take it personally. But I realized, in order for parents to find out answers, they had to file lawsuits, and it made sense to me.
I talked about ways of coping. And I’m sure we see this now even during this time of the pandemic. So I sought counseling. You know my faith was important to me, but there were several nights that I came home after a tough day that I went down in the basement with a glass of whisky, and that was not the way to cope.
And we saw a lot of this with our students that were indulging in drugs, indulging in alcohol. And I think we probably see a lot of this now with the pandemic and everything that’s been going on.
We have to find healthy ways to cope, and that is so important. Lessons learned.
It was a tough road, every move we made was under the microscope.
And I love this quote: We don’t even know how strong we are until we’re forced to bring that hidden strength forward.
And I truly believe every day following Columbine, I felt if I could get through the worst day of my life I can get through any of these things. And during this pandemic it helped me because it prepared me.
And if you find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.
I can’t imagine if social media was in effect then as it is today.
Because back when Columbine happened we had the only thing that I can remember. We had myspace, and we did have that 24/7 news cycle.
And I’m out there talking to people. And they said I remember where I was when Columbine happened. And it’s because the media brought the Columbine community into your living rooms. You know for me I remember where I was when President Kennedy was assassinated and when Challenger exploded.
So, I am really blown away when people say, “Gosh, I was in third grade and my parents were watching what was transpiring at Columbine.”
And, unfortunately, a lot of times, with the media, the information that comes out is not accurate.
If I had more time to share with you, and you could ask questions, the media that came out immediately was not accurate, And they came out and said the reason that these two kids did this is they were bullied, and that was not accurate. And I and I am not saying Columbine was a perfect school, but if we have time later, I’ll tell you why that was not accurate.
You know, the power of attitude. We can’t determine what happens to us, but we can determine our response.
And one of the things that allowed me to get through what I did is I can’t dwell upon the negative, but have to build upon the positive, and think about in your own lives for you, around people, that, all of a sudden, you’re in a pretty good frame of mind.
And you get around them, and you become negative, and they drag you down, and I would never be rude to someone and say, “God, you’ve just, this really sucks. Get out of my life.” I was very polite, but I decided I needed to surround myself with people that were positive. And it’s not that we did not have bad days, but it was building upon the positive, not dwelling upon the negative.
In that term that I’ve said, I’m sure you have seen it ad nauseum, “what is a new normal,” and we had to redefine what that is.
And there were so many lessons learned from Columbine. And I think people are looking for one thing.
And there’s not. People want to go to gun control. That’s one piece, But I look at that being one piece of it. I look at the mental health piece, and, again, not everyone that has mental health issues is going to commit a mass shooting or acts of violence. But that’s another component. We look at social media. We look at parenting. Now, when you put all these pieces of the puzzle together, we can help combat some of the senselessness that’s happening.
When people ask me, What are you going to do? I said, What are we going to do? They’re all of our kids, and I can assure you, we have things in place today. Firefighters are working with police officers that are working with the judicial system. We have systems in place now, that Lightspeed is producing out there that we did not have back in place during April of 1999.
No, there’s organizations like the I Love U Guys. It has a standard response protocol.
We have Safe and Sound Schools.
It was started by Michele Gay, whose daughter was killed at Sandy Hook. These are all programs.
We have Christina Anderson. These are people that experience what I termed after Columbine happened, I said I just joined a club in which no one wants to be a member, and unfortunately that membership continues, but we are reaching out to help other communities. We need to be proactive and not reactive.
Now, as we get close to the end of my presentation, one of the things that I want to share that was really a wakeup call for me because I could walk down the halls of Columbine High School and kids would say yeah, mister … family, we’re rebels, we’re Columbine.
And when I became a better principal, when I walked outside the doors at Columbine High School, and I went over to the smoking pit where kids were smoking cigarettes, cutting classes. Or they were over at the skate park or they were up at the food court. And I said what are you doing? Why are you not in class? And they said, “Do you even know who we are?”
Unfortunately I knew most of their names and they said to me, “You tell us you care, but there’s kids that could care less. If we walk back into that building, we don’t fit that Columbine image, we have body piercings. We don’t belong there.”
My heart broke, I literally broke down and cried, and I said, “I want you to get all of your friends that feel the way that you feel, and I’m going to meet with you, just me and your friends, and we’re going to figure this out.”
I said, I want you to come to the next assembly and they said, “Why would we come to one of your assemblies. All you do is you recognize the top students, you recognize athletes, you recognize the kids in the band or in the plays. Where do we fit in?” And I said please come to the next assembly, so I had to come up with a plan.
So they walk into the next assembly and that’s the first time they attended an assembly since they entered Columbine High School. And I gave every kid, every student that was there, and every parent: I gave them a link.
And I said each of you represent a link at Columbine High School, and what makes you so important and what makes us such a great school is all of us as individuals, what you contribute to this school.
And I said: Some people contribute in the classroom, others contribute on the fields, others contribute your work, but you are part of it. But I said: moving forward what is going to make us stronger than we’ve ever been at Columbine High School is when you take 400 individuals from the class of 2017, and you put them together. Now you have 400 strong. And imagine what we could do, as a school, what we can do as a community. If we take 400 links, from the class of 2017, and connect them to class, of 2016, and 15, and 14.
Then I said, I want to try this, and I wasn’t sure it was going to work.
I said, I’m going to put on the song about family, and by the end of this song, we are going to find a way to connect as one, even though we are individuals, even though we have different likes, we can agree to disagree. We’re going to find a way to come together because we are Columbine. So the music comes on, and by the end of the song, they amazingly hooked up with people on both sides of the bleachers across the gymnasium floor, and they’re holding it up chanting ‘we’re Columbine.’
So I told them, next week, that chain is going to be in the hallway, and there’s going to be days that you may fail a test. You’re arguing with your parents, boyfriend, girlfriend, remember that you will always be connected to someone at this school.
And so, then, I said, what I did is when every senior graduated, I gave them a link, and I said, even though you’re graduating from Columbine, you will always be connected, because once a Rebel, always a Rebel, Rebel for life, in that one of them changed it.
And I would encourage you, if you want to try this in your place, I would encourage you to do it, it brought us together. I’ve seen police officers do it. I’ve seen schools do it. I’ve seen different organizations, and I would ask if you would do it, if you would send me a link because on my backpack, I have links, where this is taking place, that we are coming together as one.
Well, as time goes on, you wonder if lessons are being learned.
Here was the kid, he’s one of those kids that he was in 8 or 9 foster homes.
I was this eighth principle and he said I called him into my office because I would meet with all the kids who did not necessarily go through the elementary schools or the middle school to Columbine.
And I called him in, and within five minutes, he said Mr. D, this is the first time I’ve felt welcomed. He said, my parents told me they loved me.
And they no longer wanted me, then they gave me to my grandparents, who passed me onto my aunts and uncles and now I’m in my ninth foster home.
But there’s something about Columbine High School. Your students care, and I can see it, they talk to me in the hallways. They sit with me at the tables.
Well, that is outstanding. And he said, Mr., even though I didn’t get my link, I feel connected to you, because I gave links to incoming freshmen, and he came the middle of his freshman year, so I’m getting ready for my last assembly.
Not sure what I was going to say, but I knew what I was going to do. All of a sudden, I go out to my mailbox in the main office, and I will pull out a letter that Kevin had put in there that morning.
I said, Thank you. This is how I want to end.
18 years. Promised himself, he would find a way to fly.
Afraid of heights? You’re going to face many barriers in your life, you’ve got to believe, believe in that link, and things happen in our lives that we can’t explain. But I want to read you something. Kevin transferred here.
“The acceptance and family atmosphere that you help create there at Columbine has really grounded my life. It’s helped me create friendships that I will always remember. Thank you for being such a great principal. And it’s still the best school pride I’ve ever had.
The one thing that I can say, whether it was teaching, coaching, being a principal, I gave it my best.
Kevin went on to be the editor of the school newspaper, graduating, and attending Colorado State University.
Know that what I want to end with is, you know it was Martin Luther King Junior that had a dream. And I guess that’s what I’m asking you.
What are we going to do to stop all these violent acts that are occurring?
And I refused to give up hope, and this is my little granddaughter. Mia is in ballet, and she just finished first grade.
And I made her a promise that I never want her to go through what those poor little kids get at Sandy Hook. She won’t be hiding under a table, like the kids at Columbine begging for their life.
Or running across the campus, as the kids at Virginia Tech, or Parkland, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that she has a long, productive life.
I guess what I’m asking you is I stayed at a time to remember, at a time to hope. If you want to honor the 13 from Columbine, let’s make a commitment, and figure out 13 acts of kindness that would make this world a better place. If you would do that, we would be so indebted and I know the families of the 13 would be so appreciative and would mean so much to me, I can assure you. I refuse to be helpless, I refuse to be hopeless, and I refuse to ever give in.
Thank you for your time this afternoon or this morning or this afternoon. Thank you.
Right, thank you so much for your time. What an amazing presentation, and really just, gut wrenching honestly, so we really appreciate your time. I’m going to introduce Brett Baldwin and very quickly, he’s going to go over some of the ways that Lightspeed Systems can help with this and provide an early warning system for school violence and threats. Brett, would you like to go ahead?
Frank, thank you! I just want to say thank you for sharing your emotional story. I think, not only the story itself, of the tragedy, but what you collectively have done, with that community, to get everybody to rally behind each other and overcome adversity. Just can’t tell you how much gratitude I have towards you for coming on, and sharing that with everyone today. And I think that really brings us into why we’re here today, which is really, collectively, how can we each provide something to help prevent this happening in the future? And that’s been a question we’ve had inside of our organization for quite some time, on how can we help districts address this. And I think you nailed it. It’s not one silver bullet that prevents an incident like this, it’s, it’s a cumulative approach with many different avenues.
And a big part of that is we really took a strong look at what we’re doing with our software. To determine, could we help prevent an incident like Columbine? Could we help prevent the Sandy Hook, or a Parkland incident? And we came up with the software, recognizing that we had visibility into students, and what’s happening with those students digitally, And really gave us the ability to create a software that allowed us to provide early detection of a student that’s maybe having a mental health crisis, or looking to potentially harm themselves, or somebody else. And we spent years in doing this, and as we started looking for this, to the statistics, as we started to develop the software. So they became very clear to us. And this was an outstanding statistic. And these are some of the top ones that we found as we started doing research into that one-on-one, that 75% of the school shooter incidents, the shooter themselves revealed their plan ahead of time.
And much of that was done via online activity or social media. And I think you nailed this at the time, you guys didn’t have social media, but this has become an avenue for kids to communicate. And we realized that if we can identify these things in advance. If we can help get that student the help they need in advance, make them feel like they belong, and, Frank, kudos to you again, with those kids that you’ve gone that felt like they were outliers and making them feel a part of the school? I think that’s what this is about and it’s, it’s not, it’s a cry for help. And a lot of it is we find as we look at these retroactively and analyze what happened, so just to really talk through it.
What does the software do is we really are analyzing what the students are doing, trying to provide you real-time alerts and escalating the response to those alerts and making sure that there’s follow through. As you run into an incident like that, that includes real-time threat analysis. That includes the ability to escalate, those are Lightspeed adjusting those threats. And we all know, my mom was an educator for 35 years that retired two years ago. And I will share with you. My mother could not accept one more thing in the classroom, because she’s much like you. Her students were everything. Nothing else mattered in the classroom but her students, so asking her to go through these reports, or do all these other things, will just kind of just take away from her students. And so, one of the things that we’ve done is, we will actually ingest these Alerts. We’ve hired ex police officers, retired school resource officers, and various other people that can actually ingest these reports, analyze them, and help you and your school district determine if there is an imminent risk at the district.
Help them get the mental health that they need. And ensure that you don’t ever have to deal with an intruder in the long term.
Getting that visibility. And having those workflows and making sure that people were following through with instances, You’re getting those students the help that they need. I think that’s really become a big part of this, and I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, because truly Frank, I think your story is what I want to focus on. And give her the opportunity to ask questions, that I really want to note that those of you that are looking for meaningful ways in your districts to try to get ahead of instances like this, please reach out to us. Please let us know how we can help. But, more importantly, and I want to go back to what Frank said, it’s not a single silver bullet.
There’s a collective, as a collective group software, conversations with students. Whatever it may be, these items have to collectively come together to successfully support students, and give them the ability to feel like they belong. I think a lot of the things we’d look intuited, students didn’t feel like they belonged, and, Frank, kudos to you again.
I can’t thank you enough for talking to the students that didn’t feel like they belong and figuring out a way to make them belong, that that’s everything. And so, with that, I will pause. I think that most of the questions Frank, I imagine, are coming your way, but I’m just grateful to have had the opportunity to listen to that. Got rather emotional a couple of times in their presentation today, and I’m really, really grateful for the opportunity.
Thank you both so much for your time and all of your insights. Thank you, Frank. We really appreciate having you on today. And thank you, Brett, for talking about how I see the work can assess for some of these issues.
Unfortunately, we are running over time, so we won’t have time for Q and A However, if you fill out the survey that’s going to pop up on your screen when you exit the webinar, you will be able to ask questions, and we will make sure that a member from our team or Frank’s team, will follow up with you to get your questions answered. And thank you all so much for joining us. You know that your schedules are very busy, and so we appreciate you taking the time to join us. We have a webinar coming up June 10th, excellent CoSN, and AWS, talking about returning to normal and going back to school. I really mean, so, you would like to join us. You can register for that on our website. Thank you all again so much, and thank you, Frank, I hope you all have a great rest of your day.