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When nightmare becomes reality

Former Columbine principal shares insights on school safety

Frank DeAngelis, left, the former principal of Columbine High School, spoke with Menlo Park City School District Superintendent Erik Burmeister about school safety on Jan. 14. (Photo by Magali Gauthier/The Almanac)

Tissue boxes lined the aisles of the Hillview Middle School gym bleachers on Jan. 14 in anticipation of guest speaker Frank DeAngelis, who was principal of Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 when it became the site of the deadliest school shooting in the nation up to that time.

DeAngelis sat down with Menlo Park City School District Superintendent Erik Burmeister in front of about 110 district parents and community members for a conversation about violence in schools. The former Colorado principal noted that in the nearly 20 years since two students at the high school opened fire, killing 13 and wounding more than 20, school safety measures have greatly improved.

There have been scores of violent incidents at schools across the country in the years since Columbine, including a mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last year.

"People say: 'Frank, you're out there talking about shootings and they keep happening,'" said DeAngelis, who is now a speaker and consultant on school safety and emergency management. "But how many acts of violence have been stopped?"

There are more safety drills and new protocols for police to take immediate action against a potential shooter or other violent person -- for example, not to secure the perimeter of a building and wait for SWAT teams to come in and handle a violent school incident, he said. Fewer lives might have been lost at Columbine had this been the protocol at the time, he said.

Schools are also constructed differently, with some adding film over windows to help hold shattered glass in place if there is an intruder.

Burmeister, a former Hillview principal who met DeAngelis when the two were finalists for the National Principal of the Year award, noted that school violence is a topic relevant not only across the country, but locally too. In 2018 there were lockdowns at Menlo-Atherton and Palo Alto high schools in response to safety concerns.

"Superintendents usually like to avoid hard topics like this," Burmeister said. "But this is an opportunity to sit down with someone who has a place in history."

A new normal?

During the discussion - "From Columbine to Parkland: Is this the new normal?" - DeAngelis recounted the day of the shooting, an incident he said he would have never expected to happen at Columbine. It was a fantastic school, he said, adding that there was a lot of support from parents, a low dropout rate and a 92 percent graduation rate.

"If you would have told me that 'a Columbine' could have happened at Columbine, I would have said, 'It doesn't happen in these communities,' " he said.

He was in his office when he heard that there might be a shooting on campus. He thought it was a senior prank.

"I run out of my office and my worst nightmare becomes a reality," he said. "Because a gunman is pointing a gun at me ... and everything slowed down. And all of a sudden, my mind starts going to different places ... I remember the strobe lights (from the fire alarm). I remember the glass breaking behind me ... I'm thinking, 'What is it going to feel like to have a bullet pierce my body?' I thought of my wife and I thought of my kids."

DeAngelis said he ran to a group of girls waiting outside a locked gym door to go into a physical education class. He pulled out a set of 35 keys from his jacket and the first key he tried opened the door, allowing the girls to reach safety. He said he still keeps in touch with them today.

Later that evening, it became his task to tell parents that their children might not have survived the shooting. The school district's attorneys warned him to be careful about how he spoke with parents because extensive discussions and apologies could put the district at legal risk. But he ignored their advice.

"Sometimes in your life, you have to stand up for what's right even when you're standing alone," he said.

The shooting took an emotional toll on DeAngelis and his staff.

Within four years of the incident, more than half of Columbine's employees had left the school, but DeAngelis received advice to seek therapy or counseling if he stayed on, and that helped him remain at Columbine for 15 more years, he said.

"The best piece of advice I received was that I was going to find every reason to help everyone else, but if you don't help yourself, you can't help anyone else," he said.

Making schools safer

Aside from minimizing harm when a violent attack breaks out, there are other measures communities can take as a whole to prevent such incidents. The community needs to care about the collective health of all children, Burmeister said.

"When you see a kid riding his bike without a helmet, roll down your window and say, 'Hey bud, I care about you, and I want you to stay safe you need to wear a helmet,'" he said.

DeAngelis noted that it's important to encourage kids to tell adults if they see troubling behavior by other students.

Parents themselves need check in with their children, even as they might request more privacy as they get older, he said. Had the parents of one of the Columbine shooters gone into their child's bedroom - where weapons and plans were laid out in the open - they could have prevented the incident, he said.

The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office has an anonymous tip line at 800-547-2700 to report suspicious behavior, Burmeister added.

Talking about school violence

One audience member asked DeAngelis and Burmeister how to have conversations about violence with her children without instilling fear in them.

Burmeister said that he understands it can be difficult for parents to strike the balance of informing their kids while not scaring them. Parents should feel free to contact school guidance counselors for advice on navigating the conversation

For younger children, he said, schools should focus on preparation in safety drills rather than the details of what could or couldn't happen.

A video recording of the discussion is here.

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