Some leadership skills are acquired through seminars and training. But the most important leadership lessons are found through experience, even the most unfortunate ones. Retired educator Frank DeAngelis sits down with Steve Farber to discuss what it takes to be an inspiring leader by looking back on his experiences as the Principal of Columbine High School. He narrates the stories of how he connected with the students and employees through the power of love, even if it means sprinting towards a gunner on that fateful morning of the Columbine High School Massacre in 1999.
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A Time To Remember And A Time To Hope: Leadership Lessons From The Principal Of Columbine, Frank DeAngelis
My guest is my dear friend, Frank DeAngelis. He’s retired now but he was the Principal of Columbine High School. Frank was the Principal during that particular time that has taken a place in history here in the US. He started out at Columbine as a staff member. He was a Social Studies teacher, the head baseball coach, the assistant football coach, the dean of students, the assistant principal, and then finally became the Principal of Columbine in 1996, and retired in 2014 after 35 years at Columbine. The choice that Frank made as to when he retired and why he decided to retire at that time is one of the things that I’m going to ask him to share with us here. Nowadays, in addition to spending his time serving on lots of different boards, speaking at events, both virtually and in-person around the country, acting as a consultant to the Jeffco School District where he spent many years. In these days of virtual classrooms, he is also putting in some good time as a grandpa, helping with his granddaughters’ at-home studies, many of which are in Chinese. His wonderful book is called They Call Me “Mr. De” as in DeAngelis. Mr. De, Frank, thanks for being on the show.
Steve, it’s great to be here. We were reminiscing. The last time we were in person, times were good. I always remember it was a leap year. I remember there are 27, 28 and 29, and then flew back as our lives changed since that time.
You spoke at our Extreme Leadership Experience, which we’re having this conversation in December 2020. It was a leap year. It was over the leap weekend. As many of our audience know, LEAP is our methodology for Extreme Leadership: Love, Energy, Audacity and Proof. We had that event over the leap weekend, February 27, 28 and 29. You were one of our speakers. You had an impact on people. That’s the second time that I’ve had you as a guest speaker at one of our events. It’s been wonderful not only seeing the impact that you have on people through your story, but also through your authentic heart and the way you show up. It’s been a real honor getting to know you over these many years since we first met. We managed to squeak that one in right under the pandemic, and things have changed a lot since then. I would like to find out what you’re doing nowadays. Take us back to the earlier days for you at Columbine, leading up to that rather infamous experience that you went through. Take us back to, “I remember the day that I was born.” Take us to the early days of your story.
I share this all the time. I’ll give away my age but I graduated from high school in 1972. I grew up in a blue-collar family. I’m so fortunate that my parents are still alive. They instilled many good values in me. Being Italian, it’s easy to wear my emotions on my sleeve. I learned many things from them early on. They work 2 to 3 jobs to make sure my brother and sister and I all had a good life and things of that nature. When I got to high school, I decided I was going to go to college. I was going to be the first person to go to college. I thought I wanted to be an accountant. My parents were happy. I had a family friend whose dad was a CPA and he said, “Get your degree, pass the test, you’re going to be a CPA.” I said, “Yes.” Everybody was proud of Frankie. I went to college and in the first year, I was in these classes. I was taking some general accounting class.
Something you’ll hear me talk about throughout this episode is passion. It’s about having that passion and love. It wasn’t there. I said, “I’m going to give it another chance. I’m going to go back to my sophomore year. I then signed up for eighteen hours by the end of the first semester. I dropped nine hours and spent more time at the coffee shop than I was in the classes. I went back for the second semester of my sophomore year. The professor said, “Students, it was a cost accounting class. What you’re going to do is you need to subscribe to The Wall Street Journal.” I said, “We don’t. I’m out of here.” I went home. I was working at a grocery store part-time and I got promoted to frozen food manager. My parents were disappointed because I dropped out of school but I was doing all right. This was 1972. I was making almost $6 an hour living at home. It was a pretty good life and having a good time. I kept thinking, “Is this what I want to do with the rest of my life?”
I’m full-blooded Italian and if you saw me in person, you would be able to detect that right away by my dark hair and shortness and things. I had an uncle, Uncle Vito and he said, “Frankie, choose a job you love and you never have to work a day in your life. Love what you do and do what you love.” I can think back to a teacher that I had and I had so much respect for him. He was my Psychology teacher and my baseball coach, Mr. Dittman. I still can’t call him by his first name. It’s either going to be Coach or Mr. Dittman because I have that much respect. It’s almost 50 years since we were together. I decided to be an educator. I can remember coming home and I’m excited like, “Mom, Dad, I’m going to go back to school.” They were like, “We’re excited.” I was like, “I’m going to be a teacher.” You could see them and said, “Why do you want to live in a state of poverty for the rest of your life?”
You want to make a move from being a frozen food manager to become a teacher, what a step-down.
They weren’t too far off because my first contract at Columbine High School was $10,000 for the entire year. I had to get them to cosign for me to purchase a home. I truly believe it’s all about relationships. What I tell people when I mentor young people, “You’re never going to be rich being an educator but something you can’t put a price tag on is when a kid comes up to you and still calls you Coach De or Mr. De.” Every year, I get invited to 8 or 9 weddings. I get invited to a college graduation. As a result of that, I’m one of the richest people on the face of the Earth. I would go back and do it again, even when I experienced one of the worst days of my life, it was the best thing. People ask me now that I’m retired. They said, “What do you miss?” I don’t miss all the testing. I don’t miss all that bureaucracy stuff that’s going on, but I miss the kids. I made a good choice.
You miss the kids. You miss the experience of working with those kids every day. A lot of those specific kids that you shepherded through all those many years, certainly they’re no longer kids. You’re still a part of their lives. They keep drawing you in because of the impact that you had on them. What an incredible legacy that is. When you started at Columbine, did you have designs on being a principal? What was your motivation? What was it that brought you into the school every day before your principalship?
It was interesting because I loved what I was doing. I loved teaching History, mainly American History. As you stated, I am a football-baseball coach. I can remember my mentor, Ron Mitchell, came up to me one day and he said, “Have you ever thought of being an administrator?” I said, “Why would I want to be one of them?” He said, “Frank, I think you have some leadership qualities.” I also realized if I made that choice to be an administrator, I would have to give up my coaching and some of those daily interactions I had. I was afraid any time I move up whether it’s in business, if you’re a police officer and all of a sudden, you leave the streets to go be a captain or things like that, you lose those daily interactions. I was worried about that.
A dear friend of mine, Susan Peters, was an English teacher. We did a class called American Studies. She did the American Literature piece of it and I did the American History piece. She said, “Frank, I’m going to give you some advice. Your position is changing. You don’t have to change as a person. Do you realize the impact that you can have? You have 150 students that you work with throughout the week, when you coach in football, you have 50, 60 kids in baseball. If you decide to be a principal, you’re going to have an opportunity to work with 2,000 kids on a daily basis. You’re going to have an opportunity to work with 150 staff members. Do you realize the impact? If it’s important for you to still be involved in those kid’s life, I know you. You’re a smart person. You’ll find a way to do that.”
That’s one of the things that I made a vow. Every day I would block out time. When I was at our school, I blocked out time to be with the kids and be in those classrooms. Whenever I was having a bad day and there were parents that might have been upset with some things that were going on, I would find a way and I would walk out of my office into a class, and it made all the difference in the world. It was the right thing to do. Probably one of the best compliments I received when I retired is when the staff came up to me and they said, “Mr. De, you never became one of them. You were always one of us.” Even though I was an administrator for over twenty years, I never forgot what it was like to be that teacher. I would love to go back into the classroom and teach classes and have fun with kids. I think that’s what helped my career.
What you demonstrated is the reality that being an administrator doesn’t automatically equate to being a leader. An administrator is a position of authority. The leadership part of it is more about the connection with your whole constituency, which includes your teachers. In other words, you never became one of “them.” That shows the connection with that aspect of your constituency and also the kids. You maintain them and deepened your connection with them simply because you love them and you spent time with them. You put it on your calendar. Not every administrator will do that, nor every person. Correct me if I’m wrong because you’re the educator here. From what I’ve seen, not everybody that takes that position of principal or superintendent for that matter, does it with maintaining that connection in mind. Many times, people use that as an escape from the thing that they’re supposed to be making a difference in.
One of the things that used to break my heart is I had teachers and fellow administrators counting the days until they retired. I had teachers have calendars saying, “I only have thirteen more Mondays or I only have five more faculty meetings where I have to listen to you.” What bothered me is it was affecting the kids. I truly believe that if I walk into any school in California, in San Diego and Colorado within five minutes, I can tell which teachers love what they’re doing. If I walk into any building, I could tell which principals love what they were doing. It’s about relationships and it breaks my heart.
How could you tell?
When you have teachers that are struggling to connect with kids, they’re the ones saying, “We need tougher laws. We need attendance policies. We need tardy policies.” When you walk into classrooms in which the kids love to be in those classes, those kids show up on time. They don’t want to leave. It’s those interactions and how they deal with them. There are times I walked into classrooms and within five minutes, I can see why these kids are bored. You try to help these teachers. There are many people that feel that anyone can teach because they went to school. We think of all the negative things that come out of this pandemic, but there are some positive things that come out. I truly believe that because of parents having to be involved in remote education and things, I think there’s a whole new appreciation for teachers because they’re dealing with one or two kids. Can you imagine having 30 of those little kids running around or 15 or 20 high school kids that are copping an attitude with you? I use this statement and I did not make it up. I used to tell my staff all the time, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
That is important. We had someone who worked on projects for NASA. He decided he was going to be a teacher. Anybody can teach. He comes in and he’s got his Doctorate in Mechanical Engineering and things. He was bright but I put them in front of 15 or 20 ninth graders and he could not connect. He was smart as can be but he could not relate to the kids. He missed that relationship piece. One of the things I stated all the time, if I’m interviewing two people, I would never hire someone incompetent. If someone came in and all he or she did was, “I have this award, I have this degree,” and someone else comes in that may not have the education that that person has, but that person talks about the kids and working with others, I’m going to hire someone with the least amount of education. I could send him or her to get that education, but I can’t give someone a personality. I think that’s what it’s all about.
You built your career on the basis of those relationships. Knowing you the way that I do and having had the opportunity to see you in action for a day when I visited Columbine when you’re still in your principalship, I know that connection is deep, real and it’s reciprocated. It’s not just your love for the kids, they love you right back. All of that played a role in what happened on and after that fateful day that we’ve all heard about, at least to some degree or another, the tragedy at Columbine. Can you share with us the story of that day? I would also like to delve into the aftermath of that and where that has led people since.
One of the things I want to touch upon is what kind of leader was I, prior to the event and then after? We talk a little bit about this because people ask me this question all the time. I want to share that because it’s important. On that day, April 20th, it was a beautiful Colorado spring day, about 70 degrees, blue skies. One of the things is I tried to be in the building as much as I could. I was not a big proponent of going to meetings and things of that nature. On that day, I started out off-campus. I was at a breakfast for some of our kids. They are the Future Business Leaders of America so they were being recognized by the Chamber of Commerce.
I was late getting to school that day and the reason that’s important is out of 175 days, I was probably down in the cafeteria in 170 days. I love cafeteria duty. Most people give it to their assistant principals. I loved it because I got to walk around at the table and talk to the kids. I was the type of principal pushing a broom and they’re saying, “You’re the principal. Why would you do that?” I said, “It’s important that we have a clean school.” What I learned in leadership is I could be that person that says, “Throw the trash in there. Pick up this.” All of a sudden, they do it begrudgingly. If you’re doing it and they say, “Why would you do this? You’re the principal,” and I said, “It’s important for all of us to do this,” then you see kids picking up. It’s how you deliver the message. I loved it.
On this day, I wasn’t down in the cafeteria. One of my all-time favorite teachers, his name is Kiki Leyba. He taught at Columbine. He was on a one-year contract and I had interviewed him the day before to offer him a full-time job. I couldn’t find him and he was late getting to my office. I was going to give him, “Welcome to the Columbine family. You’re welcome. You’re a rebel now.” To this day, I don’t know if he was ever offered a contract. He’s still working at Columbine many years later, but the reason is as soon as we sat down, my secretary comes running in, Susan White. The door was shut and there was a little window on the door. She literally was faceplant and I knew that something was wrong. I opened the door. She said, “Frank, there had been a report of gunfire in the school.”When you go up in position, you don't have to change as a person. Click To Tweet
In my mind I’m saying, “This can’t be happening. I’ve been in Columbine for 21 years. You could count on two hands the number of fistfights.” They had the sinking feeling and she said, ‘What should I do?” I said, “Call 911.” All of a sudden, I come out of my office and I went through something I didn’t know back then but something I learned later through people I worked with. I thought I walked down slowly to the thing and in actuality, I sprinted down the hallway. In my mind, everything seemed to slow down. All I can remember thinking, and it’s weird after years later, what it was going to feel to have a bullet pierce my body? I had never been in a situation like that. As I come out of my office, shots are being fired, glass is breaking behind me. I thought I walked fairly slowly, but Kiki Leyba and my secretary said I sprinted right towards the gunman.
I don’t remember any of that. Even when I went into counseling later, I tried to relive that and I couldn’t. The police officer said, “Frank, you’re unarmed. Why would you sprint towards a gunman?” I said, “There’s only one reason. Some of my kids were in trouble. I had about 25 girls that were coming out of a locker room to go to a Physical Education class. They were unaware of what was happening. They were right in the crossfire. I run down the hallway and all of a sudden they’re saying, “Mr. De, what’s going on?” They said, “We’ve got to go.” I knew if I got them into the gymnasium, then some doors would allow me to get them outside to a safe place. Everything was going as planned. All of a sudden, we go down this hallway and we heard the boots of the gunman coming towards us sound and the shots being fired. The girls are in a state of panic. Everything is going as planned until I pull on this door and it’s locked. We’re trapped and girls are screaming literally. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Things happened that day that I can’t explain that I’m thankful for. I was the old-time principal. I wore a suit every day or a sport coat. I reached in my pocket and I had about 30 keys on a key ring. Keys weren’t specially marked. The first key I pulled out, I stepped in the door and opened it on the first try.
I truly believe that if I would have done that, there’s a good chance that we would not be doing this episode. It was interesting. A couple of years ago, it was an emotional time. It was a twenty-year remembrance back in 2019. Some of those girls that were with me, I invited them all back and they came up. They see me and they’re crying. I’m crying and they said, “Mr. De, I want to introduce you to my son, daughter and my husband. We want to thank you for finding that key because if you didn’t, they wouldn’t be with me.” All I said was, “I had little to do in finding that key. I’m glad we’re all here together. It was at that point, I got outside and I got the girls outside.” A little bit of humor, I said, “I’m going to lock in this area because I’m going to go outside to make sure it’s safe to get out there.” I knew they were safe and it was in a storage area. Imagine all these are teenage girls and they said, “Mr. De, how do we know it’s you?” I said, “We need a password.” All of a sudden for about ten minutes, they’re being high school girls like, “Let’s do this and this.” I said, “Come up with the password.” They said, “Orange peels.” We laughed and lightened the moment but needless to say, we didn’t need a password because I had a key to get back in there anyway but it eased the moment.
I want to interject one thing. You can take responsibility or credit for finding that key. What you did have through all that was the clear presence of mind to act in every way in the heat of all that on behalf of the safety of those girls. The presence of mind to have those keys, to remember to reach for those keys, to go to that door, that you did have. You then got that assist of not having to search for that key.
They interviewed some of the girls and they said, “Were you scared?” They said, “No, Papa was with us.” Talk about heart-warming and that’s the relationship you want to build. There are many things that resonate in my mind that horrific day but part of the reason that I’m doing what I’m doing now, as far as helping others end up going down to Leawood Elementary. That was a reunification site. I want people to think back to over twenty plus years ago. The only drills we did were fire drills. We never did some of the drills that we have kids doing now, these lockdown situations or run, hide and fight. We did the best we could but one of the things we did is we didn’t know anything about reunification. We went down to an elementary school and buses were transporting the kids from Columbine down to the elementary school.
Can you quickly explain what reunification means?
Reunification means that parents were informed that they needed to come and get their kids. We would have an administrator down there, the parents would come up, show ID and they would be reunited with their kids. Needless to say, it was emotional, there are a lot of tears and hugging because back then, the cell phone service was not good. A lot of these parents, when they heard, you could imagine if you’re working or you’re doing whatever and saying there have been gunshots fired at your son’s or daughter’s school, your heart would start racing. As time went on during that evening, I had many parents come up to me because I had been there for twenty years. They said, “Frank, could you see my son or my daughter? They were in a math class or science class,” and I had not. One of the things that haunt me to this day is I had a father come up and say, “Frank, for the past 5 or 6 hours, there have been yellow school busses driving up and dropping kids off. We haven’t seen a bus in about the last 30 minutes.”
That’s when a grief counselor came over to me. With all the education I received, I was never prepared for this. He came up and said, “Frank, you need to take these family members and we’re going to take them into a room. You need to tell them there’s a good chance their loved ones lost their lives in your school.” I can remember walking in there. There are times in our lives where we are finding the right words but you can’t. Mr. Sanders, they walked into the school at 7:00 in the morning, they never returned home. That survivor’s guilt. Those parents entrusted me to take care of those kids. I felt I let them down and it was difficult. I can remember and this is where my parents raised me with the motto, “Sometimes you have to stand up for what is right even though you’re standing alone.” I remember being in that school that night. There were media people, attorneys representing districts and such and they said, “Frank before you talk to those parents, you better be careful because of potential lawsuits.” I said the last thing on my mind is lawsuits. These parents had lost their kids.
I can remember being advised, “You’ve got to say this. You’ve got to do this.” Being a full-blooded Italian, I’m very stubborn and at times, I’m going to do what’s right. In the first case where that came up, it was Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I went to the homes of each of those parents who lost a child. I went to those houses and I didn’t know what to say. We held each other and we cried. When the district leadership found out, some of the attorneys were upset. They said, “Frank, if you do that again, you’re on your own because you cannot continue to go down there.” I didn’t listen because a few weeks later, I went back to those houses. This time, I had bouquets of flowers because it was Mother’s Day. I brought flowers for the moms and it was tough. What I did back then shaped the relationships that I have with those parents now. I can remember that night, I couldn’t go back to my house because the FBI was concerned about the safety and welfare of my family. I ended up going to my brother’s house and needless to say, I couldn’t sleep. I made a promise that night there was nothing I could do to bring them back, but I was going to make sure they didn’t die in vain. I was going to continue to speak on their behalf. That’s what I’m doing now.
I want to pick up on that thought but first, take us back to what happened after that moment when you decided that the password was orange peels. Take us forward from that moment again.
All of a sudden, I shut the door and they’re laughing and I said, “Orange peels,” and they said, “Orange peels.” I said, “I promise you I will be back.” I went out of that little area where I put them and I opened the door. That’s when I realized the severity of what was happening. All of a sudden, I stuck my head out the door because there was a report coming in, a sniper is being outside and having the building surrounded. There was someone that was working on the air conditioning for the building that was up on top and they thought he was a sniper. He was confronted by the police. All of a sudden, I get outside and I’ve told a police officer, “I have my kids there in the school, I need to go get them.” They said, “We’re going to cover you. You get them and bring them back out in.” That’s exactly what happened. I got them outside. As I was getting ready, I said, “There are more of my kids in there, they need me.” They said, “You’re not going back in that building.”
One of the most disheartening things, there had been many lessons learned since that horrific day. We had a school resource officer that was exchanging gunfire. This was not the police officer’s fault, but the protocol at the time was, “Let’s secure the perimeter and then we have to wait for the SWAT team to arrive.” They did that and probably one of the most frustrating things for the 300-plus people that were stacked in the building was they were looking out like you would look at your window and you see all these law enforcement agencies out there. You see all these paramedics and no one was coming in the building. They had to wait for SWAT. Unfortunately, it took 58 minutes to get there before an officer entered. By the time they entered, the two killers had taken their own life.
They looked at the protocol and people said, “Frank, are there lessons learned?” There are and we’re doing things. I truly believe that schools are the safest place and they are. There are a lot of lessons learned. We lost those thirteen and they opened up this podcast. In 2019, I met with Mr. Scott. Rachel was our first young lady that was killed. Mr. Scott said, “Frank, did you realize Rachel’s been dead longer than she was alive? These kids now would be 38 and 39 years old if they had survived.” One of the things that I learned early on is if I was going to continue to be principal at Columbine, I learned this through counseling. He said, “You can’t relive that day. I know it was horrific but if you’re going to continue to be that principal, you need to celebrate their lives.” That’s what I tried to do and moving forward even though they died at the ages of 15 through 18, I have those fond memories of the time I got to spend with them and how lucky the person I was.
You made a commitment to the community around that time as well. Am I getting this right? Did you go and visit with some of the younger kids at the elementary school after the tragedy?Sometimes, you have to stand up for what is right even though you're standing alone. Click To Tweet
I did and I made a promise, even though they were not there, they were impacted by it because over at Columbine High School, there’s a park over there now where that memorial was built. These little kids remember what it was like in the community. The streets were closed off. They had makeshift memorials. They had the truck of John Tomlin, which they decorated with flowers. I told them, “This is a great community. These are 1st and 2nd graders. I said, “I’ll make a promise that if you come to Columbine, I will be there to give you your diploma. Rebels for life. We are Columbine.”
When I made that promise, I’m getting to retire in 2012. I had fulfilled my promise and getting ready. Words got out that I’m getting ready for my retirement. The parent calls up and said, “Frank, you can’t retire.” I said, “No, I made that promise.” They said, “No, you don’t understand. My kid was in the first year of a two-year preschool program so you need to stay for a couple more years,” so I stayed to 2014. It was the right thing to do. People tell me that I needed Columbine because when I left the kids that came in, which was the class of 2017, they were not even born yet when it happened. I felt I fulfilled that promise and helped them.
You said earlier that it always bothered you when you knew educators that were counting the days until they retired. They were counting those days for a different reason. They were counting those days until I can get the hell out of here. You had a countdown as well, counting the days until you retire to fulfill that obligation to those kids that you’ll be there when they grow up, when they go to high school and when they graduate. I can’t imagine what your graduation celebration must have been like.
It was unreal. Unbeknownst to me, I was there and my boss read a letter from President Obama and the kids. I said, “Even though I’m old, I’m going to do something.” I took a selfie and that selfie all of a sudden got a lot of hits. It was important. Those kids were at that last class. It was phenomenal what we went through. The thing that was amazing to me. One of the things that I’m proud of is there are about 30 staff members at Columbine, teachers that were students of mine. I either taught them, coached them or as their principal. They come back and they give. I tell people, Columbine is probably stronger now than what it was prior because we had to come together. That’s what I’m hoping for now during this pandemic, that we come together to help each other. That empathy piece, I cannot overemphasize the importance of that.
Didn’t you go flying into that on a zip line or something?
It was interesting. I was your typical principal. There are people saying, “You could pull that stuff off at elementary school or maybe middle school, but in high school, you can’t pull that stuff.” To give you an idea, one year I came in as Willy Wonka. Another year I came in as a mermaid. That’s probably one of the dumbest things I ever did and I’m lucky to live to tell that. One year I came in as Rocky Balboa. I come in and I’m running up the bleachers and the whole thing. All of a sudden, I have to give my speech while I’m having a hard time speaking. Meanwhile, I said, “I want the toughest kid in the school to come down.” We had this planned. I come in with my hands on one of the kids and he’s my manager. The kid that was going to come down was a heavyweight champion at Columbine. He outweighed me by 150 pounds. He said, “Mr. De, do you think we could surprise them.” I said, “We got it.” All of a sudden, he comes down and he was relentless. I went to tackle him and he’s dragging me around the mat, and then he picks me up and he starts spinning me up above. The kids are chanting my name.
I said, “Travis, if you don’t set me down, you’ll never graduate from high school.” He took me on the mat and I said, “I’m going to knee in the stomach. You’re going to roll on your back. I’m going to pin you and I am going to come up. Do you understand?” He said, “Yes, sir.” We did that. I did crazy things. I came in one year as Sinatra singing New York, New York. I realized and I said, “I want my last assembly to be memorable.” I’m scared to death of heights so I decided I was going to fly in. I got the idea that we did to play Peter Pan. They were able to bring a kid across this small little area. I said, “I’m going to find a way to do it.” I went to this place where they did zip lining. My assistant principal said, “Frank, if you’re afraid of heights and you get up there, and you’re flying and you get sick, they’re going to remember you for all the wrong reasons.” They said, “Maybe you need to practice this.”
We went and all of a sudden, they’re pulling me up by 5 feet and I’m Hamlet. All of a sudden they said, “We’re going to put something on you.” They put me up about 20 feet and put this little belt around me and I’m spinning around. I said, “I don’t want to be an astronaut, just get me from point A to point B.” They figured it out and lo and behold, it’s time for a presentation. My parents were there and they had no idea because if they knew I was doing that thing with these overprotective Italian parents, even when I’m 60. All of a sudden, it’s dark and I’m going up on this large crane. I put on the song, “My Way by Sinatra, hit it. That crane goes, I go flying. My wife’s there and my mom said, “That’s Frankie.” I’m going across and then the kids start cheering. One of the most memorable things of that day is talking about love.
We had a kid. His name was Kevin Yagovane. One of the things that I did as a principal, I have a good memory. I knew most kids by their first name and last name. I would see them in the hallway. There is this one kid who came to Columbine but he was not part of the elementary and middle school. He came one day to our school and I met with him. Within five minutes, I’m crying. He’s telling me his life story and his parents. Every time he said, “I love someone,” they get rid of him. His parents passed him on to his grandparents who passed him on to foster homes. He said, “Mr. De, you’re my 9th principal. I’ve never been able to trust anyone but there’s something different when you called me in here. You know my name. I think you care about me.” I used to give every kid a chain link that they would be connected at Columbine. He said, “I never got this little link but I’ll always be connected to Columbine.” All of a sudden, it’s my last assembly. I knew what I was going to do but I wasn’t sure what I was going to say.
Kevin Yagovane put something in my mailbox wishing me goodbye. He talks about the climate at Columbine High School. He said, “I didn’t understand what love was until I was a part of the school.” I went flying across and I came down and I brought Kevin Yagovane down and I gave him this link. All of a sudden, the entire student body and parents are standing up cheering this kid for the first time. Here’s a kid who tried to harm himself several times because he didn’t feel wanted. He’s standing up fist pump and fist-pumping. I see kids crying and teachers crying. I said, “This is what I want to do. This inclusive environment,” and love went go out and it was important. That day and on my very last day of school is one of the things that I’ll always remember. I tell people this, in education, you need to bring your best because you don’t know when you’re going to impact a kid’s life.
There is this kid, big, large kid. Every day he would come by and he’d give me a big bear hug, “Mr. De, how are you doing? You have a great day.” I said, “Yes, young man. You have a great day.” The last day I’m getting ready to leave, he comes up to me and he gives me a bear hug, shakes my hand. He said, “Thanks for being more of a father to me than my dad ever was.” It’s those types of things that can make a difference. Those are the things I miss. We all believe that you want to leave it better than the way you found it. I hope I did that.
Your whole approach to leading was to create that inclusive environment. One of the things that you learned from the tragedy is that maybe the place wasn’t as inclusive as you thought it was. That recommitted you to that. Since your zip line assembly in your official retirement back in 2014, I’m sure this was true before you retired as well, we’ve had many school tragedies. It seems like there are many and oftentimes, I will see you on one of the cable news networks afterward commenting on what has happened. Do people reach out to you a lot in those scenarios?
I made a comment within the week it happened. I said, “I joined a club in which no one wants to be a member.” I truly believe what happens is I start getting text such as, “You’re in my thoughts and prayers. I’m thinking about you if you need anything, let me know.” Within five minutes, the media starts calling. I know it’s another shooting. They do reach out. Unfortunately, what ends up happening is you relive a lot of things. Even though I can remember where I was when Parkland happened., I remember where I was when Sandy Hook happened. Even though it’s in Connecticut, Florida or there was a shooting in California in Saugus High School, even though it’s different places, 15 to 20 years later, it takes you back to that day.
Even though those kids run out of high school at Parkland, they remind me of the kids running out of Columbine. The one thing is, I have a great support system in place and that’s important. Even with what we’re going through now, I found that support system. I received a great advice from a Vietnam veteran. My mom worked for him. His name was John Fisher. He called me within 24 hours of the shooting at Columbine. He said, “Frank, I got back from Vietnam. I never got the help I needed like flashbacks and things. I didn’t think anyone can help and I’m paying for it. Don’t do that to yourself. You’re going to be called to help many other people. You’re going to be pulled in many other directions. If you don’t help yourself, you can’t help others.” I use this analogy all the time that when you get an opportunity to get on a plane and the flight attendant comes on and says, “If this cabin loses pressure, oxygen drops down. Before you help that child or person next to you that may need help, you need to put that mask on yourself.” That’s important in dealing with it. It helped me get to where I needed to be.If you don't help yourself, you can't help others. Click To Tweet
When we look around and see all of the shootings in all these various schools and other public scenarios, it’s easy for fear to take over. It’s easy for a lot of us to get cynical that life is dangerous. This is what society has come to. It’s revealing certainly some deep challenges that we have as a society. What advice would you give us? What is your perspective on it? How do we move forward together in the face of or maybe even because of these various tragedies?
One of the things that’s important is we do hear of the shootings that continue to happen, but what we don’t hear about is how many have been stopped because of things we’re doing differently. I truly believe that if some of the protocol that we have in place now were being placed back then, we could have prevented Columbine. They always ask me, “What are you going to do?” I said, “What are we going to do? They are all our kids. That’s where we need to come together because schools are safe.” One of the things that I will always wonder is if the two that did what they did at Columbine or the person who did what they did at Parkland or throughout Sandy Hook. Did they share that information with anyone and did people take it seriously?
I think that’s the thing that we have to realize. Many times in our minds, we feel that these incidents happen at certain places. If you would have told me that a Columbine could happen at Columbine, I would have said, “No.” One of the responses I get many times when I go on present and talk about the Columbine community, they’ll come up to me and say, “Frank, I can’t believe it. This is a community in which I live or in which my kids go to school or I went to school. On any given day it could happen but we can’t give up hope.” It takes parents and it takes kids. One of my biggest fears now is the role that social media is playing in our lives, but even more so in our kids’ lives. If these potential shooters are out there, these people that want to harm themselves or others are out there, and people know about it, we need to take care and report it because we owe that to each other. That’s the most important thing.
Your example is so inspiring. Thank you for sharing that story. In these hyper-politicized days. There’s a tendency for a lot of people to make a political issue out of these things. It’s more of a community issue or a relationship issue. It’s not the sole responsibility of teachers to cultivate our kids’ success. It’s teachers and parents and the business people in the community. I’m involved in a group called the Community Alliance for Youth Success, which was started by Stedman Graham and Bobbi DePorter. The whole premise behind that is it’s all of our responsibility in every community to raise our kids up, give them the right kind of education, support, encouragement and opportunities. If we can all do that, then the response to tragedy is always going to be important, but the consistency with which it happens should lessen. As you look back over your career so far and you look forward to expanding on this next chapter for you, which is involving a lot of speaking, writing and helping others. I don’t want to simplify this into, “Give us the top three important things,” because life is more nuanced than that. Having said that, are there a couple, 2 or 3 principles that have emerged for you as being important leadership elements for all of us?
I think something that’s important is it is all about the passion for what you do, but it’s all about love. That’s why we connected well. One of the things that I worry about many times and I tell people this, is there are no guarantees in life. I look at people that way until an event happens and tell them how they feel. That was never me. I told you I wanted to share this. It was the Friday before the tragedy happened. It was a prom assembly. As parents, educators, community members, you always worry about your kids during certain times whether it be prom weekend, homecoming weekend, graduation and you hope they make wise choices. We were high school kids one-time and we’ve got some choices that were not the wisest choice. I got my kids in front of 2,000 kids at Columbine and this was about April 17th, 1999. I had them close their eyes. The prom assembly was one more serious like dress normally.
I talked to the kids and I said, “I want you to close your eyes. You are a valued member of this Columbine family. Each and every one of you brings so much. Even though we have 2,000 people, we’re all together. We’re all family. I envisioned being at your graduation class of 1999 in about a month. I’m looking forward to all of your ten-year reunions. I’m looking forward to being at your weddings if you decide. Follow your careers when you leave here. Just because you’re leaving, it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop caring about you. I want you to open your eyes and imagine what it would be like on Monday morning if that person that’s sitting next to you is not here because of a choice they made. I’m asking you as your principal, don’t ever deny me of those opportunities to watch you grow as my kids. I want to see each and every one of your smiling faces on Monday morning. I love each and every one of you.”
There’s yelling out, “We love you, Mr. De.” We went to prom on Monday. Kids come by my office like, “Here’s my smiling face, Mr. De.” Twenty-four hours later, a tragedy happened. I can remember then on the following day, April 21st, I had to meet with the kids. I had to meet with the staff and political leaders. I am not sure what I was going to say. I got up there and I said, “Do you remember what I told you last Friday? I’ve never loved you more. We’re going to come together as one.” It wasn’t like, “We didn’t even know how DeAngelis felt until something hard happened.” How many times we hear people say, “I wish I had one more time to hold them or tell them that I love them.” I always wonder when I go to these memorial services and people get up and they deliver these great eulogies, did people ever take the time to tell them how they felt when they were on the face of the Earth? I said, “I’m never going to allow that to happen. Those kids knew how I felt.”
That’s important. People feel. I remember I had a leader tell me when I started out as principal. She said, “You can’t smile for the first six weeks.” I said, “You got to be kidding me.” She had all that type of thing. You can talk to people. There are people that feel you got to lead out of fear and I don’t agree with that. I never had to tell anyone whether it be an employee, “You’re going to do it because I’m your boss.” I never had to tell a kid, “You’re going to do this because I’m your principal.” You will lose that respect. You can discipline someone but you do it with love and love conquers all. That’s why I’m frustrated now when we talk a little bit politically. You can have different views. You can agree to disagree but I wish we wouldn’t stop listening to each other. We need to come together more now than ever. It’s people like you that allow it to happen.
That’s kind of you to say that, Frank. It’s people like you that have made it happen and continue to make it happen every day. Your story and your example is such an inspiration. I hope that people will reach out to you because they’ll receive a great gift of friendship in return. I encourage people to read your book, They Call Me “Mr. De” but also, how should people reach out? What’s the best way to get in touch with you if I want you to come in and speak to my students, my school, my community or any of the above?
I have a Twitter account, @FrankDiane72. That’s my high school sweetheart. We reconnected after the tragedy. My email account is my name, FrankDeAngelis1@Yahoo.com. I would love to do it and to reach out. It’s my passion. There were many lessons to be learned. I feel if I got an opportunity to help others, that’s what I want to do. Each day I wake up before my feet hit the ground, I recite the names of my beloved thirteen and they inspire me to do that. I’ll share one last story with you. One of the things that I did is every year that one of the kids who lost their lives was supposed to graduate, I would invite their parents to my office and I would give them a cap and gown and a diploma. Some parents said, “Frank, we appreciate it but we don’t feel the need for that now.”
One family, Kyle Velasquez’s mom and dad came to my office. All of a sudden, they walk in and they’re crying and I’m crying. They said, “Frank, let’s cry because we lost him. Let’s smile because we had him.” We shared wonderful Kyle stories. I present them with a cap, gown and diploma for Kyle. When they’re getting ready to leave, Mr. Velasquez comes back and he had a baseball cap on. He took his hat off and he said, “Mr. De, I see you have a little space on your wall.” I had a wall called The Wall of 1999. It offered inspiration to me. People said, “How can you look at that every day and continue to be in this school?” I said, “That’s the reason I keep coming back is doing it in memory of the thirteen.” He said, “There’s a little space there and I want you to take Kyle’s hat.” I said, “I can’t take his hat.” He said, “No, you need to take it. Every day, I want you to put it right there. Every day you walk out of there, we want you to know how much you love your kids and how much they love you. You never give up hope. Kyle’s going to be with you, even though not physically but spiritually. He’s going to help you get through it.” Stuff like that inspired me to continue to do what I’m doing.
You said you start your day reciting the names of the thirteen. If you wouldn’t mind, we could end this episode. If you would do that for us, recite the names of the thirteen and we will sign off after that.
Cassie Bernall, Steven Curnow, Corey DePooter, Kelly Fleming, Matt Kechter, Danny Mauser, Danny Rohrbough, Dave Sanders, Rachel Scott, Isaiah Shoels, John Tomlin, Lauren Townsend and Kyle Velasquez. It is time to remember and time to hope. What I want to do is offer one last challenge as we leave, do thirteen acts of kindness where you could make a difference in this world and never giving up hope. When you do that, remember the thirteen that I read because you could make the world a better place, just as they did for us. Thanks, Steve.
Thank you, Frank.
- Frank DeAngelis – Twitter
About Frank DeAngelis
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