Frank DeAngelis, former principal of Columbine High School, gives a talk about the violence that befell the Colorado school in 1999 and the pain and hope that followed during a presentation Feb. 13 at Georgian Court University. Photos courtesy of Phyllis Schiavone for Georgian Court University
Frank DeAngelis, former principal of Columbine High School, gives a talk about the violence that befell the Colorado school in 1999 and the pain and hope that followed during a presentation Feb. 13 at Georgian Court University. Photos courtesy of Phyllis Schiavone for Georgian Court University

By Lois Rogers |Correspondent

Frank DeAngelis may have illustrated his talk Feb. 13 at Georgian Court University with a slide presentation, but he never relied on notes to tell the story of Columbine High School.

He didn’t have to.

Throughout his two-and-a-half hour talk at the Lakewood institution, it was clear that DeAngelis, the principal who steered the Colorado High School community through its darkest hours, remembers every moment of the tragedy that began unfolding April 20, 1999.

As described by DeAngelis, who retired in 2014, that was the day “two of my kids” entered the school with bombs and guns and killed 12 fellow students, a teacher and finally themselves in an episode often described by the media as an event that redefined the nation.

It was his journey – at times painful to hear, at others, brimming with determination to restore and rebuild the community – that DeAngelis shared with more than 300 people in attendance. Many were students, faculty and staff of the university community, including its president, Dr. Joseph R. Marbach.

Also present were representatives of GCU’s community college and high school partners including Dr. David Stout, president of Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, and several members of his administration. Students from a number of Catholic high schools in the Trenton Diocese and the Central Regional school system where the university hosts a Humanities Academy were present as well.

His talk came just one day before another school shooting in Florida would take 17 lives. 

Faith Through Guilt

Articles over the years have drawn attention to the fact that while there had been school shootings before, Columbine was, at the time, the deadliest on record. It was also the one, which for the first time, was watched on television as it unfolded by millions of people around the nation.

In his talk, sponsored by Georgian Court’s Office of Mission Integration, DeAngelis offered a frank, straightforward account of the events spanning 14 years, from the day of the shooting, its aftermath and the long period of healing.

Most poignantly, he spoke about the long and difficult road to recovery for everyone affected by the tragedy, including himself.

“It’s something I have to live with the rest of my life,” he said. “Knowing that parents sent their kids to my school in the morning and they never returned home.”

DeAngelis said he struggled with survivor guilt and still does but has relied on faith to see him through. He recalled doubts early on that he could make it through  those difficult times, but he was inspired to continue when his pastor said God had spared him for a reason.

That reason, he explained, was a “spiritual imperative” to rebuild the community. He vowed to stick to that task until all the students in the freshman class of 1999 graduated in 2002 but extended his stay until 2014, when the children who were in their earliest school year in 1999 graduated.

He offered numerous insights on helping those affected, focusing on the importance of faith and a positive attitude in overcoming the lingering effects of the tragedy. Most importantly, he shared that in rebuilding the school, a determined effort was made to reach out to those who felt marginalized.

Many measures were implemented, he said, to help such students feel as important as star athletes and academics.

Key among them, was ensuring that each student knew he or she was “loved and included, that they were an indispensable link.” He illustrated this goal by giving students a link in a chain that they forged together and which remains for all to see in a prominent place in the high school.

Strength in Sadness

In his very active retirement, DeAngelis reaches out to schools and communities around the nation to share his insights and experiences. In fact, just hours after his Georgian Court appearance, it was reported that he had reached out to the community of Parkland, Fla., which is now reeling from the Feb. 14 shooting deaths of 14 students and three staff members.

The next day, the university put out a statement noting with “great sorrow” the loss of those killed and wounded and “the many more affected by yesterday’s dreadful shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.”

“It was only Tuesday,” the statement noted, “when our community explored the tragic consequences” during DeAngelis’ presentation. “His leadership and his love for the students were truly inspirational and also served to underscore the work that must be done to prevent this kind of violence.”

Some students who attended echoed those sentiments.

Among them was Georgian Court sophomore Mary Majowicd, whose aim is to become a nurse. She said she appreciated hearing how DeAngelis’ faith “pushed him through a hard time. He definitely went into how his faith helps you and brings people together.”

“I was pleased that so many people were there to hear such an important message,” she said, adding that she was also saddened by the shooting in Parkland and drew strength in reflecting on what she had heard the night before.

Sasha Dalton, a member of St. Dominic Parish, Brick, who attends the Ocean County Academy of Law and Public Safety, Waretown, for high school students, said he looks forward to sharing what he learned from DeAngelis, especially regarding the protection of schools, with his classmates.

“He made very good points, not only about the responsibilities of authorities but the family and the school” in student safety, Dalton said. “I liked how at the end of the whole presentation, he showed how the whole school came together with the clips and made one big chain.”

Lily Antonowicz, a sophomore majoring in social work and a member of the Mercy Collegiate Society, said the presentation gave her insight on “what you can do to help people” in times of tragedy. “Honestly, I think the biggest thing is keeping faith. In so many ways, you have to rely on faith and on each other and keep a good attitude.”

Those were all suggestions DeAngelis offered, she said. “He was a beautiful speaker, and he really understood how everyone could be impacted differently. I appreciated what he said about keeping an open mind, an open heart and checking in with those around you to make sure they know you are safe.”