"When Does It Get Back To Normal? It Doesn't": Columbine's Former Principal Calls His Peers After School Shootings To Counsel Them
"First thing I say: 'You just joined the club that no one wants to be a member of,'" Frank DeAngelis told BuzzFeed News.
Frank DeAngelis was the principal of Columbine High School in Colorado when 13 people were killed in the 1999 massacre, a tragedy that led to a hyperawareness of school shootings and to the modern debate over how to prevent them and how to tend to the surviving students.
Since then, DeAngelis has made it his personal mission to call every high school principal that has ever found themself in a similar position, offering his empathy and counsel.
"First thing I say: 'You just joined the club that no one wants to be a member of,'" DeAngelis, who retired as principal of Columbine in 2013, told BuzzFeed News.
Now, those phone calls will become more formalized.
Last Wednesday, 17 principals of schools where a shooting took place on campus met for the first time in Washington, DC, as the Principals Recovery Network.
The group, a creation of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), aims to reach out to a principal after a school shooting and connect them to others who've gone through a similar nightmare.
Members include included Ty Thompson from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida; Jake Heibel from Great Mills High School in Maryland; Stacey Ting-Senini from Sparks Middle School in Reno, Nevada; and Elizabeth Brown from Forest High School in Ocala, Florida.
"A lot of it is based around the practicalities of running a school community after a traumatic event," said NASSP spokesperson Bob Farrace, who noted that people expect principals to be the main community leader after a shooting.
"They’re the one who has to take care of everything," said Farrace. "They’re the ones taking care of faculty, making decisions, making sure students are okay, talking to media. We have to remind them that it’s okay for them to find a group to lean on and find the help they need — because they’ve been through the trauma just as much as everyone else has."
The network decided that either Thompson or DeAngelis would be the first to make contact because the names of their schools are instantly recognizable — and in the aftermath of a shooting, principals are inundated with hundreds of messages.
"Having Frank DeAngelis, the former principal of Columbine High School reach out, that is the kind of call that’s going to get through," Farrace said. Thompson is not currently performing day-to-day operations as principal while the school district investigates the shooting.
Educators used to dealing with tests and bullying may struggle to know how to handle distraught students and families, police investigations, and media requests.
"People will ask me all the time: 'When does it get back to normal?' It doesn't. We have to refine what normal is," DeAngelis said.
DeAngelis just published a memoir, They Call Me "Mr. De," based on the recovery process the school experienced after the 1999 shooting and the lessons he learned.
"There was no plan to follow," he said.
On the day of the Columbine shooting, the cafeteria served Chinese food. Students and staff associated the smell with the shooting, and DeAngelis ensured it was not on the lunch menu again.
But other triggering moments were hard to prepare for. Parents organized a balloon arch welcoming students back to the school.
"That was fine until the balloons started popping and kids started diving on the ground," DeAngelis said.
At the first meeting of the Principals Recovery Network, held on Wednesday, another school chief mentioned nearby construction that involved blasting noises that had students and teachers in tears. The principal begged the workers and local municipality to ensure blasting was done in off-hours.
Memorials can also be a difficult topic. Principals at the meeting shared ideas of different ways to remember the dead — "to help heal rather than traumatize," as Farrace put it.
One principal spoke about the first school dance after a shooting. In the middle of it, a memorial slideshow with photos of the victims played, which made students deeply upset.
After shootings, principals become inundated with information about new expensive school safety gadgets and therapy programs, and it can hard to sort the grifters and scams from the legitimate services. The network hopes that by connecting principals in the immediate aftermath of a shooting, they can help guide them through what helps and what doesn't.
In December 2017, a former student walked onto campus at Aztec High School in Aztec, New Mexico, and shot and killed two students.
Warman Hall, the principal and now a member of the Principals Recovery Network, said, "These things impact schools in a significant way."
"Sometimes we tend to try and pay too much attention to body count at incidents," he said. "We assume it’s proportional — fewer kids killed, easier to deal with it with. We need to move away from that assumption."
In the months after the shooting, Hall has relied on advice from other principals, including DeAngelis, who encouraged that he seek counseling in order to keep himself strong.
"One of the first questions I ask all these principals or staff: Are you talking to someone?" DeAngelis said. "At this meeting, principals said, 'It's been a year, I don't have time, not enough hours in the day.' Stop. You want to continue helping? You need to get the help."
Hall said the recovery network also plans to advocate for legislation on school safety, most importantly mental health policies.
"I’d honestly say PSTD and anxiety can impact the learning of the school for years after a shooting," Hall said. He noted that like Parkland and Columbine, his community has been affected by suicide since the shooting.
DeAngelis said they noticed a strong uptick in risky behavior of Columbine students, such as drugs and alcohol and driving too fast, after the shooting. The class of 1999, who graduated one month after, struggled with moving away to college and being away from the community.
"But the class you've got to worry about the following year is the incoming freshman," DeAngelus said.
"These kids could not do anything right," said DeAngelis of the class of 2003. "Because if they were laughing or joking, upperclassman would say 'Do you realize you’re at Columbine and what we went through?' And at the other times, they’d say 'Why are you crying? You weren't here.' So these kids were in a no-win situation."
April 20 marks the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. A service will be held honoring the 13 killed, the last public memorial event likely to be held.
"I know many are believing this will never get better," DeAngelis said, referring to principals dealing with traumatized schools just recovering from a shooting. "But I'm sitting here, 20 years later, saying there is hope."
Warman Hall's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.