Frank DeAngelis used chilling details Tuesday morning from a 1999 tragedy to weave a narrative explaining why every agency in north Alabama that deals with child safety is important.
DeAngelis should know. He was principal at Columbine High School during the April 20, 1999, school shootings in Littleton, Colorado.
“People ask when it will get back to normal,” DeAngelis said about the situation in Colorado. “It never will. We had to redefine normal.”
The shootings by two teenagers at the school led to many changes in school systems nationwide. DeAngelis encouraged the more than 500 educators, social workers, law enforcement officers, volunteers and elected officials present at Epic Church during the 15th annual Alabama Child Safety Conference to connect to students beyond academics because the connection can possibly rescue a student who may be falling off the cliff.
Morgan County District Judge Shelly Waters said the reason for the conference is to put together resources and agencies that serve children and to bring in speakers so participants can learn from their experiences.
“We all share the wellness of our children as a common interest, but this conference gives us a chance to interact and put faces to names,” she said.
DeAngelis, who retired in 2014, spent the first two hours of the all-day conference talking about Columbine and lessons learned. The gunmen, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, were students at the school. They killed 13 students and a teacher, and wounded more than 20 before turning the guns on themselves.
DeAngelis said they spent a year planning the attack and selected April 20 as the date for it because it is Adolf Hitler’s birthday. A lesson for parents, he said, is to know what your children are doing at home.
When law enforcement agents went to Harris’ and Klebold’s homes after the shooting, DeAngelis said their parents said “no one ever goes into their bedrooms.” This is where the gunmen videotaped their plans, stashed weapons and built explosives used in the attack, he said.
“This is amazing,” Morgan County Deputy Superintendent Lee Willis said. “As educators, we want to connect, but we need help from parents and in some cases they need to bring information to us.”
DeAngelis said that April 20 was a beautiful spring day in Colorado and he started the day away from school at an awards ceremony. One of the first things on his schedule when he arrived on campus was to meet and offer a contract extension to a non-tenured teacher.
The teacher told DeAngelis there were reports of gunfire at the school. “This is when your worst nightmare becomes a reality,” he said.
DeAngelis said he was trying to get 30 physical education students to safety when he came face-to-face with one of the shooters. Dave Sanders, a coach and teacher at the school for 25 years, momentarily distracted the gunman.
DeAngelis said they were trapped, but he had a key ring holding 35 keys. He immediately pulled out the keys and the first one opened the door, allowing DeAngelis and the students to escape.
Sanders was shot in the back of the neck. The father of four children and five grandchildren died at the scene as a student tried to keep him alive. DeAngelis said the student took Sanders' wallet and showed him pictures of his grandchildren to try to keep him alive.
DeAngelis gave examples of how the shooting has impacted the community, including the “untold number” of students who turned to drugs and alcohol. He said this is the reason counseling and substance abuse agencies — such as the ones at the safety conference — are important. He also touched on the importance of districts knowing school layouts.
When the Columbine shootings happened, DeAngelis said law enforcement asked him to put on a bullet-proof vest to enter the school and cut off the fire alarm. He also was asked to explain the layout of the school’s heating and cooling system because SWAT members were looking for ways to enter the building because they believed Harris and Klebold were still alive.
DeAngelis said one of the toughest parts of the day was going with grief counselors to tell parents their children were dead. “I was not prepared for this,” he said.
Dwight Satterfield, director of operations and school safety for Decatur City Schools, said his district implemented numerous safety changes after Columbine. He said they now have detailed layouts of each school and exit strategies in case of an emergency.
DeAngelis, who has had counseling himself, said he continues to talk about Columbine because of a promise he made to parents while they were at a reunification center about six blocks from the shooting scene.
He said at about 7 p.m. that day, buses reuniting students with their parents stopped rolling. There were about 50 parents left in the elementary school auditorium, and DeAngelis said they kept asking if he had seen their son or daughter.
“I didn’t have an answer for them,” he said.
DeAngelis said district leaders warned him not to talk to parents of the dead because of the risk of lawsuits.
DeAngelis, who was eventually a defendant in eight lawsuits, said he kept talking to parents because sometimes “you have to stand up for what is right even if you are alone. ... I told the parents I would never forget those kids.”
He said the school’s 150 staff members made a commitment to stay, but four years after the shooting, almost half had retired because it was too tough to walk back into the building.
He said the school no longer serves Chinese food in the cafeteria because this is what lunchroom workers were serving on April 20. DeAngelis said parents no longer put up arches with balloons on them for their kids to walk through during programs because if a balloon pops, kids fall to the ground. No one wears camouflage to Columbine because this is what the shooters wore that day.
Union Hill principal Robert Elliott said DeAngelis' message was informative, especially when he talked about the aftermath of Columbine.
“I really never thought about people being scared and worried so many years later,” he said. “It makes you think twice when you look at students.”