Shoelaces and Support: A principal’s journey of healing and leadership after Columbine

Frank DeAngelis, a rehabilitation advocate and past principal of Columbine High School stands at the Columbine Memorial on April 8, 2024. (Photo credit: Bear Gutierrez)

Frank DeAngelis, a rehabilitation advocate and past principal of Columbine High School stands at the Columbine Memorial near Littleton, Colo. on April 8, 2024. / Photo by Bear Gutierrez. Credit: Bear Gutierrez

In the days following the shooting at Columbine High School, its principal, Frank DeAngelis, started leaving his shoes untied. The loss of his students and a teacher, who was also a friend, left him feeling he had no control over his life.  “People would say, ‘Tie your shoe!’ and I said, ‘That’s the only thing I have control over,’” he said.

But piece by piece, and with the help of his community, DeAngelis started his journey toward healing. It was just like tying his shoes, one lace over the other.  He still thinks of the tragedy every day — reciting the names of the victims who were killed before he gets out of bed. But his journey to heal hasn’t been lonely. In the years following the tragedy, he has leaned on his community and channeled his energy to help others — and still does, even in retirement.

DeAngelis started working at Columbine in 1979, right after he graduated from college. Before he became the principal, DeAngelis had been a history teacher, football coach and baseball coach there. He worked closely with students, and enjoyed that his role gave him the chance to get to know so many of them — in the cafeteria, on their sports teams and on the stage.

On the day of the shooting, like so many others, he said, his life changed forever. After the tragedy, he led the school until every student in the area who was in class on April 20, 1999 — down to the preschoolers — graduated. “Because they were impacted by it,” he said. “Even though they were not there, they saw everything.”

His leadership in those years is a common theme among students and staff connected to the school. They say DeAngelis helped the community to heal, and they call his leadership a model for how to live. They consider him a bedrock for the community and say he brought people together in the wake of tragedy.

One Jefferson County School District staff member said the community would not have recovered without DeAngelis — and that his impact goes far beyond Columbine. “He’s the reason today that schools all over this country are able to move forward after tragedy,” said John McDonald, who was the executive director of school safety for Jeffco Public Schools from 2008 to 2022.

DeAngelis recognizes that his community leaned on him for hope and survival, but said this relationship went two ways. “People said that Columbine really needed me — I needed them,” he said. “If I would have gone somewhere else, I would always be concerned about them.”

Since retiring in 2014, DeAngelis has dedicated his life and career to helping others face tragedy in their own lives. He is a member of the Principal Recovery Network, a group of “current and former school leaders who have experienced gun violence tragedies in their buildings,” across the country. “You can’t determine what happens to you, but you can determine your response,” DeAngelis said. “No one would ever wish that a Columbine (would) happen, but it did. And, so, how can I go out and help others?”

In the 25 years since the shooting at Columbine, mass shootings at schools have become tragically common. DeAngelis has reached out to other school leaders in the wake of some of those tragedies, sharing advice on things that helped him — like going to counseling, finding a support system and taking care of one’s family and spouse. He is also part of the JeffCo/DeAngelis Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting school and community safety. DeAngelis travels around the country, sharing wisdom with first responders, administrators and students. “I just talk about my journey and taking care of yourself,” he said. “(I talk) about where we were and lessons learned, but then also the recovery piece.”

DeAngelis lives by his own advice. He still goes to counseling to take care of his well-being. Getting help and leaning on others are the main pieces of advice he gives to people recovering after tragedies. “You’re not in the journey alone,” he said.  Part of the foundation, the Frank DeAngelis Center for Community Safety, trains law enforcement and school safety officials to respond to emergencies in a real school environment. The center conducts about 200 training sessions a year, he said.

DeAngelis said his Catholic faith is a large part of what drives his work. He said there is no clear reason why his life was spared, but he believes God has a plan for it. That’s what drove him to stay at the school for so many years, and what still drives his work in supporting and educating others today.

He said his remembrance of the 13 victims each morning helps drive him forward. “They give me a reason to do what I’m doing,” he said. He laments the world’s obsession with returning to the topic of the shooting at the school. DeAngelis said Columbine and the community that surrounds it, including its alumni, are focused on helping others, moving forward and working to make the world better.

Although he is not the principal anymore, DeAngelis is still intimately involved with the school and its community. “I can assure you, 25 years later, our community is stronger than what it was,” he said. “Because that’s what happens when families go through troubled times or tragedy — they come together.”

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