Redefining the New Normal

Frank DeAngelis has given his all to the students and community of Columbine High School. Now, 14 years after the tragic shooting, DeAngelis is retiring as school principal.

These past years haven’t been all that easy, though. DeAngelis and many others survive on a daily basis, often suffering from survivors’ guilt from the April 20, 1999 attack.

On the morning of the shooting, DeAngelis was in his office. He led about 20 students to safety and survived with no apparent physical injuries. He suffers, however, from anxiety attacks so severe that they feel like heart attacks; relentless anxiety that contributed to the end of his 17-year marriage.

“Anyone who walked back in that building at Columbine High School—any teacher, student, parent— had to relive that day, day after day, as a constant reminder,” DeAngelis said. “It took a lot of courage. We had to redefine what normal is.”

Two days after the shooting, the principal went to visit his pastor seeking answers and has since, for more than a decade, heeded the advice of his pastor, who said, “Frank, there’s a reason you did not die that day. You have a cause. You need to rebuild that community.”

I have to wonder why DeAngelis stayed at Columbine, but I quickly realize that in heeding his pastor’s advice, he had made a commitment to his students. He vowed to stay at his job until those students who were in kindergarten at the time of the shooting had graduated from Columbine. Those students graduated in 2011.

Healing and mending continues within the Columbine community, but retirement doesn’t take the sting out of those horrific events. On a crusade, DeAngelis has helped raise awareness of warning signs of violence in high school students. This year, he was named Colorado Principal of the Year by the Colorado Association of School Executives.

During the past 12 years, the Columbine community also helped others in need as school violence became an epidemic. DeAngelis, knowing the pain events such as this cause, helped comfort and boost morale at area schools, including Deer Creek Middle School, where a gunman wounded two youth. Educator David Benke tackled the shooter, 32-year-old Bruco Strongeagle Eastwood, and other staff held him down until law enforcement arrived, 90 seconds later. Two other shootings in the vicinity left a high school student dead at Platte Canyon High School; and two dead and two wounded at the Youth With A Mission campus.

DeAngelis has seen the evolution of school tragedy and the instinct of educators to run toward the shooter(s) in order to save their students. In response, he has been instrumental in creating an active shooter program for grades Pre-K—12, which includes teaching staff how to survive during shooting instances.

Seeing success in his 34-year career at Columbine as a teacher, coach and administrator, DeAngelis would never take it for granted. Yet, his career has been even more fulfilling as children affected by the shooting chose to become teachers and guardians of Columbine High School. These students turned teachers have learned from DeAngelis’ personal code: protector, leader and friend.

Bullies Beware

Since Columbine, there have been tragic events, large and small. Even the slightest bullying event is a sore spot in the education system, so much so that the largest school district in Utah, the Alpine School District, is stepping up its security on buses to protect students from bullies.

This district’s buses carry about 21,000 students more than 19,000 miles per day. The district saw fit to invest nearly $100,000 on 48 of their 300 buses, equipping them with Gatekeeper surveillance cameras. These camera systems allow staff to see the door and the driver as well as get a good look at the 50 students on each bus, regardless of where they are sitting.

Time to Wake Up

Students have returned to school, but in the wake of the Newtown shooting, local Massachusetts schools are beefing up security. Districts have deployed new surveillance cameras, locked more doors and staff is rethinking safety strategy in order to tighten overall security.

Twenty school districts were surveyed in the Boston area; 19 of them have added new security measures, including new equipment or procedures at the elementary level. In Salem, schools have given teachers panic buttons that have a direct link to law enforcement when pushed. In Walpole, schools have been given six security cameras; and in Groton-Dunstable, staff will be trained in active shooter response.

Obviously, schools are taking different approaches to security, but they all share an understanding of what is involved. Schools have not been ordered to improve security, but districts have responded in their own way according to concerns from parents, students and teachers. The bottom line is that teachers want to feel safe in their workplace; students deserve to be safe while learning; and parents want to be able to know that while their children are in school, they aren’t fighting for their lives.

School security comes down to ownership, with students, teachers and staff being the stakeholders, and it’s our duty to keep them safe.

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Security Today.

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