On what was a warm, almost perfect spring day 19 years ago, Frank DeAngelis was telling a probationary teacher that he was being recommended for rehire at Columbine High School when the face of his secretary turned a dreamlike day into a nightmare that continues to haunt the former principal to this day.
“She said there had been reports of gunfire in the school,” DeAngelis told about 100 people who attended a town hall meeting Thursday at Yukon High School.
DeAngelis said he suspected the report was a prank. He left the office and headed down the hallway, where he too heard pops. Then he encountered a gunman.
“Everything slowed down. I ran directly toward the gunfire,” he said, pointing out that a group of girls, unaware of the danger, were leaving the gymnasium.
He quickly gathered them and pushed them toward a classroom. The door was locked, but somehow, he was able to pull the correct key from a ring, and led them to safety as the shooting continued.
Thirteen innocent people, including 12 students, died that day. More than 20 others were injured. The two teenage shooters took their own lives.
DeAngelis said he is haunted by the memories.
“Those kids walked into my school at 7 a.m. and they were never going home,” he said.
DeAngelis spent most of his career at Columbine, a school of 2,000 students located near Denver. He retired in 2014 and now helps schools who have gone through traumatic situations.
The visit to Yukon, sponsored by the Yu-Can Coalition, was designed to help the district learn how to prevent violence at school.
He talked for almost two hours about that bright, sunny day in 1999, and about the aftermath of how the district recovered.
DeAngelis has helped with recovery efforts after shootings at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and more recently in Florida.
DeAngelis said that while his school wasn’t perfect that day, it was among the elite in Colorado. The school had a graduation rate of 95 percent with more than 88 percent of those students moving on to college.
No one expected that such violence could happen.
He said Columbine was very similar to Yukon.
“We had the lowest drop-out rate in the state,” DeAngelis said, adding that more than 300 students from other districts attended class there.
Then April 20 happened.
Since then, schools across the nation have learned lessons, including the addition of school resource officers.
He said that while he doesn’t support teachers being armed, he very much believes in having police officers in the school.
He also believes in looking for signs that students are in trouble.
“They did not wake up that morning and plan this. They planned it in their parents’ basements. They planned it for more than a year,” DeAngelis said.
And there were signs that were missed including a pipe bomb that one parent found and was told was a science project. There was a call from an ammunition dealer who said their bullets would be available by April 19.
There was a gun found in a backpack well before the incident that was ignored because the parents wanted to be their child’s friend.
“If you see friends or children who are struggling, get them help,” DeAngelis said.
Because of what happened at Columbine, schools are safer.
Many have metal detectors, most have school resource officers and virtually all have a plan.
“Schools are safer now than they were in 1999,” he said.
And DeAngelis is getting better.
The majority of the teachers who were at the school when the shooting occurred stayed until the class of 2002 graduated. He remained as principal until 2014 because he wanted to stay until every student that was enrolled in the district graduated.
It was, he said, a promise kept.