News →

A small, growing group of survivors advises school leaders after mass shootings

Updated June 22, 2022 at 12:45 PM ET

Over the past couple of decades, April has been a rough month for Frank DeAngelis' cars. He's been in six accidents.

"It's not that I was texting or not paying attention, but my concentration level was not there," he tells NPR's Morning Edition.

That's because in April 1999, DeAngelis was the principal at Columbine High School when two of his students killed 12 others and a teacher in a mass shooting.

Over the years since, he and other school leaders who've survived these types of attacks have formed a growing support group, offering advice and a sounding board after each subsequent tragedy — most recently leaving a message for the principal of Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 fourth-graders and two teachers were killed in May.

In the aftermath of these attacks, he says, survivors have sometimes bristled at the sympathy offered to them.

"You know what I'm feeling? Did you encounter a gunman? Were you locked in a room for three hours with the fire alarm going off?" he says.

The purpose of his group, named the Principal Recovery Network, is to provide the perspectives of those who really have been there.

In August they'll publish a guide on how to recover from mass shootings, covering a range of topics: How to handle the media, re-entering the building, how to deal with graduation, why events marking a year since an attack should avoid words like "anniversary."

Shepherding a traumatized student body and staff while processing your own trauma is complicated, he says, and some problems can be difficult to anticipate.

"We couldn't even go back in our own school because of all the damage that was done, so we went to a sister school, Chatfield High School," he says. "But I remember the first day back over at Chatfield, the parents decided to welcome the kids back by putting an archway of blue and silver balloons, our school colors.

"A great idea, until the balloons started popping and kids started diving."

He had an easy time identifying with that impulse: "When I had to return to Columbine and the building was being reconstructed ... needless to say there was a lot of loud noise, and every time I heard that loud noise it took me back to the gunman firing shots at me, and I would run out of the school."

He says it took a counselor asking him to share his good memories about each of the victims to begin his process of healing, and to help him stay on as the school's principal for another 15 years. Each year on the anniversary, he still calls each family to laugh and remember.

It's all part of a recovery process that's long — he told NPR in an interview marking his retirement in 2014 that survivors of the attack were still reaching out to access mental health help even a decade later — and never really complete.

"It's something that you live with for the rest of your life," he says. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript:

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Nothing will be the same for educators at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, since a gunman last month killed 19 children and two teachers inside their school. Frank DeAngelis knows what that's like. In 1999, he was the principal at Columbine High School. Now he leads a group of school principals who've lived through mass shootings. They are each other's support because it's hard for anyone who hasn't been through it to understand what it's like to lead a school community after it's been attacked.

FRANK DEANGELIS: When someone came up to a person and said, I know what you're feeling - and even in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, you know what I'm feeling? Did you encounter a gunman? Were you locked in a room for 3 hours with the fire alarm going off? And so people are saying, you really don't know what I'm feeling. Have you ever been through this experience? And, I think, when we call and state that we know what you're going through, we really do because we've been there.

FADEL: Yeah.

DEANGELIS: And so I think it's just getting those connections, those relationships developed.

FADEL: If you could take us inside one of your meetings - what conversations are had? What feelings are passed between you all? What do you share with each other that you can't share with anyone else?

DEANGELIS: Well, I think, just talking about what we experienced. The first time we got together, I shared something, you know, that I had been in six car accidents in the month of April. And it's not that I was texting or not paying attention, but my concentration level was not there. There were people from Columbine that said, we would love the calendar year to go from March 31 to May 1 because all of a sudden, when April approaches, they're experiencing things that they never experienced before.

FADEL: Wow.

DEANGELIS: And all of a sudden, you start seeing heads nodding or people stating, you know, like, go to sleep. Within 2 hours, I'm wide awake and I have this adrenaline rush. So we were just sharing our - you know, what we were feeling.

FADEL: After the Uvalde shooting, your group released a statement with a pretty simple, stark message - do something, anything. And I'm sure you've seen the new bipartisan gun safety deal. How do you feel about it? Is that the something you're looking for?

DEANGELIS: It's a first step. I can't help but thinking back after what happened at Parkland. And I can remember the student group standing up and stating, enough is enough and, basically, called out adults. And there was this initiative in this group of kids from Parkland. And they united with kids from around the country.

FADEL: Yeah.

DEANGELIS: And, you know, talking to legislators and going to the Capitol and things of that nature. And I think back to February 14, you know, 2018. And in that year, there was also a shooting in Kentucky. And there was a shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, and a shooting in Maryland. And they're saying, enough is enough. And then all of a sudden, it goes by the wayside. And we're right back to where we are. But this is the first time that I saw both sides of the aisle coming together because they're all of our kids.

FADEL: In August, your group plans to release what it's calling a guide to recovery for school leaders. Could you preview it for us, tell us the steps in that recovery process?

DEANGELIS: We decided to put something together, you know, formally, because when we met, we would discuss things. For example, we talked about my first graduation. It was exactly a month after the shooting. How do you deal with the first graduation? And then others - people talked about what it was like to reenter the building afterwards or dealing with the media. And we came up with all these ideas, but nothing was written. And so all of us contributed things about, what do you do on the one-year remembrance? Things as simple as calling it an anniversary, that was a trigger. An anniversary in so many people's mind is a celebration. I can remember we waited two weeks to go back to school because we had 13 memorial services we had to go to. And the last thing I wanted is for our students and staff having to go to a memorial service and then try to go learn, because we still had a month left of school. And we couldn't even go back in our own school because of all the damage that was done. So we went to a sister school, Chatfield High School. But I remember the first day back over at Chatfield, the parents decided to welcome the kids back by putting an archway of blue and silver balloons, our school colors. A great idea until the balloons started popping...

FADEL: Oh, no.

DEANGELIS: ...And kids started diving. And these are, you know, something I was never prepared for as a principal.

FADEL: Yeah. Let me ask you about that. It's been 23 years since you survived something so many people can't imagine. But then there's another one. And there's another one. And it's on the news. And it's in the headlines. What is it like for you to wake up and see those headlines or get that breaking news alert in the middle of the day?

DEANGELIS: It retraumatizes me. And each event triggers certain emotions. When I witnessed what was happening at Parkland and following it, and I saw those kids running out with their hands over their heads, it took me back to Columbine because those were the images that were etched in my mind.

FADEL: Do you ever recover from something like this?

DEANGELIS: No, you really don't. It's something that you live with for the rest of your life. When I had to return to Columbine and the building was being reconstructed - and needless to say, there was a lot of loud noise. And every time I heard that loud noise, it took me back to the gunman firing shots at me. And I would run out of the school. And I met with my counselor. And he said, Frank, if you're going to continue to be principal, we need to change that mindset. And I said, what are you talking about? How am I going to change it? And he said, OK, all you know right now is what you witnessed that day, these poor little kids lying in a pool of blood. But if every time you walk in and that's all you visualize, your career as a principal at Columbine is going to be over.

And he said, do me a favor. And he had me share stories of each of my beloved 12 students and Mr. Sanders. And so now I'm talking about watching them performing on the stage, you know, Isaiah Shoels giving me a high five every day in the cafeteria. So that mindset changed. And that's one of the things that we do. Just within our own community, every year on April 20, I call all the families. And we spend hours talking about their kids and laughing about the things that they did. And that's what helped us to heal. And that's a part of this recovery network.

FADEL: Frank DeAngelis is one of the founders of the Principal Recovery Network. Thank you so much for joining us.

DEANGELIS: Thank you so much for the opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHAN LINDVALL TRIO'S "THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.