'Running' toward school shootings after Columbine

9NEWS follows Columbine High School Principal Frank DeAngelis through his entire last year as principal and as an educator in a project entitled "Rebel with a Cause."

Nelson Garcia, KUSA

'Running' toward school shootings after Columbine. 9NEWS. 5/20/14.

JEFFERSON COUNTY – Frank DeAngelis' office wall at Columbine High School may be the best way to peek into the life of the principal since the shootings.

"Even though, there are things up here that represent sorrow, but it also represents strength," DeAngelis, Columbine High School principal, said.

When DeAngelis announced plans to retire at the end of this school year, 9NEWS launched a project to follow DeAngelis from the first day of school this year through the last. The project is called "Rebel with a Cause."


DeAngelis' wall helps him keep his promise to stay at Columbine High School since the shootings of April 20, 1999.

REBEL WITH A CAUSE: Frank DeAngelis' last year

"It's my wall of '99, and people ask me why am I still here. I look at that wall," DeAngelis said.

Of all the names and faces on his wall, there is only person who was with DeAngelis the very moment the shootings started.

"It was in April when Frank said, 'Hey, come by my office,'" Kiki Leyba, an English teacher, said.

At the time, Leyba was a first-year English teacher called to the principal's office to discuss a continuing contract for next year.

"It was coming over the radio, there were shots fired in the Commons," Leyba said.

That was the beginning of a tragedy that changed America when 12 students and one teacher were shot to death.

No matter what day of the year April 20th falls, Frank DeAngelis cancels classes to honor the anniversary day of the tragic shootings. Every year, he reads a solemn tribute to the 12 students and 1 teacher killed, though no one is there to hear it.

"We can't determine what happens to us, but we can determine how we react," DeAngelis said.

That was the beginning of a friendship between a rookie teacher and his principal. It is a friendship forged through pain.

"One of the last things I remember is looking down that hall watching Frank running towards that gunfire," Leyba said.

Maybe evident by the wall in DeAngelis' office, he's been "running towards" school shootings ever since.

"I made a promise to myself to help rebuild this community," DeAngelis said.

Now, he's helping others, too.

"There's no manual," Leyba said. "We've become the manual for this."

Arapahoe High School was added to that wall on Dec. 13, 2013. A senior, Claire Davis, was killed by a fellow classmate who then killed himself.

"We're seven miles away, and we can help them every step of the way when they want us and when they need us, and there will be times when they will," DeAngelis said.

He's been called to help at other school shootings like Red Lake, Minn.; Virginia Tech University and Sandy Hook Elementary. DeAngelis says the reason is because he has lived through all their sorrow.

"I'm sure I'll be receiving phone calls [saying] 'what do we do now? it's [been] three months,'" DeAngelis said. "What do we do for graduation? What do we do now, next year?'"

Leyba has also met with teachers at these schools to discuss how to move on.

"Finally at a place where we can feel our experience having value now, as we help other schools, helping Arapahoe staff, Sandy Hook and other communities," Leyba said.

DeAngelis believes the security lessons learned from Columbine made a difference at Arapahoe. Schools now have active-shooter protocols, lockdown procedures and more usage of actual law enforcement as School Resource Officers.

"Even though, we're so saddened by the loved ones that we lost, it probably saved lives," DeAngelis said.

This is all coming out the tragedy at Columbine High School, and a friendship that started under gunfire.

"When you say, you've spent the worst day of your life together, everything afterwards seems like it's doable," Leyba said.

DeAngelis says it is that all that allows him to be a wall for others.

"That's why this wall behind me has allowed me to get through some of the tough days," DeAngelis said. "Columbine High School represents hope and resolve."

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Stories on DeAngelis will run through Thursday on 4 p.m. at 9NEWS and 9NEWS at 9 p.m. At 9 p.m. on June 7, 9NEWS will air a one hour documentary called "Rebel with a Cause" which includes expanded material not seen in the previously-aired stories.

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)