Two days after two students killed 12 classmates and one teacher inside Columbine High School, Frank DeAngelis was on the verge of empty. He hadn’t eaten in two days. He hadn’t slept. He didn’t think he had anything left to offer his students.
But a counselor prodded the then-principal to follow him to an auditorium in West Bowles Community Church in Littleton where about 1,000 kids were waiting. Their chants filled the air: “We love you, Mr. De! We love you, Mr. De!” And “We’re Columbine!”
DeAngelis began crying and hyperventilating, unable to even look into the sea of students.
“All of a sudden, the counselor spins me around to look at the kids. And he said, ‘What do you see?’ And I said, ‘Oh my gosh, these kids are so upset and they’re crying and they’re hugging.’”
It wasn’t a breakdown, DeAngelis said, it was a breakthrough.
In the same way that clouds open to release rain, students began confronting their emotions. For those who were stoic, struggling to know what to feel and how to show it, their leader’s tears assured them it was OK to express themselves.
“I think what people saw is, gosh, you were strong but you’re also vulnerable, and it’s alright,” he said.
DeAngelis, now 66 and a safety and security consultant for Jeffco Public Schools, has brought that balance of strength and vulnerability forward as one of many lessons that helped him cope with the Columbine shooting. He’s applied those lessons to the trauma he’s felt this year as his life — like so many others — has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic. The catastrophes are shaped much differently, of course, but the former principal sees parallels in how to overcome the hardships and heartache both created.
One of the most critical lessons he learned when trying to wrap his head around the loss of 13 members of his school community on April 20, 1999, was that grief looks different for everyone. Now he sees varying ways people grieve during the pandemic.
And grief has also taken on a new form in the virtual world the pandemic has created. After the Columbine shooting, kids and community members were able to console one another face to face, including at Robert F. Clement Park, which became a makeshift memorial. People could visit the wounded in hospitals, but now people often can’t step into a hospital to see a loved one.
The lack of in-person support during the pandemic has worn on people, including educators and kids who depend on relationships built face to face, he said.
Although people are able to connect virtually and console one another through a screen, “there’s something to be said about in-person (support),” DeAngelis said.
And some may be coping for the moment, he said, only to be triggered down the road — a scenario that played out for those recovering from the school shooting.
“There were people that seemed to handle the Columbine situation fairly well,” DeAngelis said, “and then all of a sudden something happens in their life five years, seven years, 10 years (later), and they go into a state of depression, and they’re saying, ‘Oh my gosh, where did that come from?’”
DeAngelis added that “people are in different places” and that their individual experiences with trauma color the ways they deal with it. During the shooting, for example, some staff were trapped in the school for three hours before SWAT team members rescued them. Others weren’t at school that day. DeAngelis escaped the building within the first half hour. All of those circumstances impacted how people moved forward.
Similarly, people have been facing different situations throughout the pandemic. Some haven’t been closely affected by the coronavirus, but others have lost loved ones or been separated for months from family members living in nursing homes or across the country.
“We’re all experiencing the pandemic, but how we deal with it is different,” DeAngelis said. “There are people that want to do Zoom meetings every day. They want to talk about it, ‘tell me how you’re feeling?’ And there’s others that are saying, ‘I don’t want to talk about it. As soon as I can get back to doing what I was doing prior to the pandemic, that’s going to help me heal.’”
That’s where much-needed empathy is lacking.
“We’re judging others for what they’re feeling,” DeAngelis said, pointing to flaring tempers over masks and traveling.
“The only thing that we can control is what we do,” he added.
The divisive nature of politics this year has only made empathy all the harder to find. In the same way that politics have permeated responses to the major events of 2020 — from the pandemic to demonstrations against racial injustice — politics quickly dominated conversations in the wake of the Columbine shooting. Tougher gun laws and pushes to outlaw some video games were part of the rhetoric that DeAngelis recalls.
He offers a simple remedy: Agree to disagree.
“And some of my dearest friends, I mean, we did not agree,” DeAngelis said. “And I think that’s so important.”
“That’s not happening now, and that’s the frustrating thing.”
A marathon, not a sprint
DeAngelis has felt lasting effects of trauma as he’s trudged through the pandemic this year. One of his close friends ended up on a ventilator. He also watched as young family members contracted COVID-19 early on.
He’s moved forward by relying on many of the same things that pulled him through his own pain and suffering in the years directly after the shooting. A man of deep faith, he attends church regularly at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church and wakes up early for a morning routine of devotional reading and working out. He’s also long leaned on a counselor for support, vocal about the difference that therapy has made in helping him steer to the other side of tough times.
One of DeAngelis’ biggest takeaways for educators who are coping with tragedy — whether it be a school shooting or the losses wrought by a global pandemic — is the need to prioritize themselves before all else.
That’s often tough for teachers, who tend to pursue a career in the classroom because of how much they want to help others.
“It’s just natural for educators to always put others’ needs ahead of your own,” DeAngelis said, adding, “If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of the others.”
He recognizes how much more challenging it has become for educators to put themselves first, given that many are teaching remotely while also parenting their own kids at home, leaving them drained. He recommends that teachers block out time for themselves in the same way they schedule a meeting on their calendar. For the past 21 years, that time for him has been the first sliver of the day.
DeAngelis has also navigated the ups and downs of the year by remembering the hurdles that the Columbine community overcame two decades ago and how resilient it was in banding together.
He hopes that, within the next year, the country can patch up the deep divides it’s faced “and not dwell upon the negative, but build upon the positive.”
That mindset is one that anchored his response to tragedy at Columbine High School as he eventually shifted his focus from the enormous loss of his students and colleagues to a celebration of their lives.
He’s come a long way and wants to see the country make the same kind of progress.
“It’s a marathon and not a sprint,” DeAngelis said, “but we will find a way to get through and we’ll look back upon this.”