Rebel With A Cause: Columbine's principal

9NEWS follows Columbine H.S. principal Frank DeAngelis through his last year as principal in "Rebel With A Cause."

The hour-long special report on Frank DeAngelis aired in mid-June. The report was also posted online in full for those who missed it on-air:

KUSA - 9NEWS followed Columbine High School principal Frank DeAngelis through his entire last year as principal in a special presentation called "Rebel With A Cause."

Frank DeAngelis retired in May 2014 after 35 years at Columbine High School.

He gave 9NEWS unprecedented access to his personal life, his career and how he tries daily to honor those who tragically died in the famous school mass shooting on April 20, 1999.

Columbine survivors are not victims

They are victors

There are a few sayings at Columbine High School. One of them is that Columbine High School is the most famous high school in America for all the wrong reasons. Columbine is the site of one of the most horrifying school shootings in American history. At the same time, the shooting is not what Columbine and its principal are all about.

When Columbine High School Principal Frank DeAngelis announced his plans to retire, 9NEWS Education Reporter Nelson Garcia had an idea to follow DeAngelis throughout his entire final year to show all facets of what goes on at the school.

There is another saying around the school. The people who survived that tragic day are not victims, they are victors. And that is thanks in large part to a man who made it his mission to rebuild the community.

"REBEL WITH A CAUSE" - Follow Frank DeAngelis' last year at Columbine High School:

WATCH the entire, in-depth special here:

Columbine means more than tragedy

Frank DeAngelis: The Educator

As sure as the sun rises over Columbine High School, Frank DeAngelis has been there for the last 35 years. But, this is his final school year, and he wants students to know Columbine is a school that is not just about tragedy. It's about family.

"It doesn't matter if you hang out at the skate park. It doesn't matter if you're a football player or if you are a cheerleader. You're all Rebels," DeAngelis said.

His cause was changed 15 years ago when 12 students and one teacher were killed in one of the most memorable school shootings in American history. So, for the past 15 years, he has worked to show that all students at Columbine are linked to one another using a carabiner for each student, symbolizing a link in the school chain.

"It's a climate or a culture we have created," DeAngelis said.

The long-time principal wants students to experience tradition and school pride. But most of all, the former social-studies teacher wants students to have lifelong educational memories.

"I made a vow that I would never allow myself to distance myself from the kids," DeAngelis said.

For the last 20-plus years, DeAngelis would go into English classes and deliver a speech called "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" by Jonathan Edwards. He liked to push the boundaries of public education and engage students in a discussion of whether it's OK to discuss religion in public schools.

"I came into the school in 1989, and they had established traditions that are still here," Gina Doucett, a Columbine High School English teacher, said. "Kids look forward to being a part of that."

DeAngelis also believes that part of being an effective educator is getting to know the students as people. He walks around the halls during the lunch hour talking with teens about life, about cell phones and about academics.

"He's really good with the kids," Celeste Renn, a Columbine senior, said. "He's good with interacting. It means a lot to me as a student knowing that our school principal truly does care."

When it comes to the teachers themselves, there is something unusual at Columbine. Out of the 90 teachers on staff, 28 of them are alumni, with a direct link to DeAngelis.

"These are all students that I either taught - or I was their principal," DeAngelis said. "They are all teachers here at Columbine now."

The principal for the last 18 years believes that just reinforces the idea that the entire Columbine community is a family.

"If you were to ask teachers, I'm sure they would say I was a teacher's principal," DeAngelis said.

Famous in education circles

Frank DeAngelis: The Finalist

One of the biggest traditions for any high school is homecoming. When Frank DeAngelis started at Columbine High School 35 years ago, he never missed a homecoming - until September 2013.

"He is truly like a father to all of us. He's a mentor and a role model," Madison Van Osdoll, Columbine High School senior class president, said. "It's crazy without him here."

Instead of attending homecoming, DeAngelis was in Washington D.C. meeting with dignitaries and fellow principals from around the country. Students, teachers and parents at the homecoming game understood, and they were rooting for a victory 1,700 miles away from the football field. DeAngelis was one of six finalist for National Principal of the Year.

"One of the things that bothers me a little bit is I am known because of safety and security because I've been a part of it," DeAngelis said. "But I have other leadership qualities, you know."

The National Association of Secondary School Principals puts together this award to honor school leaders dedicated to academic excellence.

"He is the kind of person that so many schools should have," Joann Bartoletti, executive director of NASSP, said. "It is our privilege to acknowledge him here this evening."

At homecoming, students and teachers believe DeAngelis deserves it because of his commitment to the school and his high expectations.

"He tells you what he wants and what he expects," Lee Andres, a Columbine teacher, said. "He's upfront about these things, and I think that's one of his greatest strengths."

At the awards ceremony, DeAngelis received specific praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

"Everyone works hard. Everyone here has accomplished extraordinary things, but thank God, no one has had to go through what Frank went through there," Duncan said. "His leadership, his tenacity, his staying with it through unimaginable difficulties and staying the course not for himself, but for his kids. It would've been a lot easier to leave and go do something else."

DeAngelis did not win the award. Though, he was the only finalist to receive an emotional standing ovation when he took the stage. The real winners of all this may be the people thinking of DeAngelis at the football stadium.

"He's been instrumental in keeping us together," Andres said. "We are still Columbine because of Frank."

'Running' toward school shootings

Frank DeAngelis: The Expert

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.

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

"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.

"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."

Under-the-radar memorial

Columbine hurts, DeAngelis heals

Of all the days of the year, April 20 is always the toughest for Columbine High School Principal Frank DeAngelis.

"There's not a day that I don't wake up that I don't think about what happened," DeAngelis said.

In 2014, April 20 fell on Easter Sunday. Yet, DeAngelis was at the school to open it up for victims and their families to come if they want. Two students shot and killed 12 classmates and one teacher while injuring 24 others in 1999, so that day will always be a day of remembrance.

"The thing that I've learned over the years is I have to respect everyone for where they are at this particular time," DeAngelis said. "Each family deals with this day differently."

Craig Scott lost his sister Rachel that day. He also witnessed his classmates being killed in the school's library while nearly dying himself. Every year, Scott and his family go up to the school at the exact time Rachel Scott was shot.

"We'll go up to the back entrance where Rachel was killed, and Mr. De will meet us right there," Scott said.

DeAngelis feels that it is duty to be there for the families, even if it means reliving the pain.

"I do have flashbacks to what happened on April 20," DeAngelis said. "What I remember that day running out of my office is it was very quiet which was very unusual."

The memories are still difficult now for DeAngelis and Scott.

"I miss her. I miss her," Scott said. "I carry her memory with me, and it serves as fuel as I go forward."

Every year on April 20, DeAngelis will walk the same path he took that day.

"What I remember coming in is just seeing an empty hallway with a gunman coming towards me," DeAngelis said. "When I walk down that hallway, it does take my back."

But, April 20 is not about reliving the past for DeAngelis and Scott. They say it is about honoring it.

Every year, no matter what day of the week, DeAngelis cancels classes on April 20. Every year, he reads a tribute over the intercom to the victims to empty hallways.

"In remembrance, I will now read the names of our 13 loved ones who tragically lost their lives on April 20, 1999," DeAngelis says into the microphone. "Cassie Bernall, Steven Curnow, Corey DePooter, Kelly Fleming, Matt Kechter, Daniel Mouser, Danny Rohrbough, Dave Sanders, Rachel Scott, Isaiah Shoels, John Tomlin, Lauren Townsend, Kyle Velasquez."

DeAngelis says he reads the tribute for the victims themselves.

"I know that they're looking down upon us," DeAngelis said. "The 13 are giving me strength to walk into this building every day. They're giving me strength to pursue a better life."

Every year, DeAngelis tries to be a rock for the community keeping his promise to stay all these years since the shootings.

"It didn't matter who was a senior, who was a freshman, who was on the football team, who was in the band. None of that mattered. We were just surviving together," Scott said. "Those little differences got put aside, and we became unified, and I think that's something Mr. DeAngelis did."

He did it, and still does it, because he never wants anything like this to happen again.

"One of the things that was so difficult for me was being named in eight lawsuits, and it wasn't about me. It was more that I felt so badly thinking that there were people out there that felt I had hand in what happened that day," DeAngelis said. "One of the things that I work on, my kids know I love them. When people question that said 'I had no idea who my kids were' and 'I don't care about them,' that hurt."

Of all the days of the year, DeAngelis wants to be there for all of them.

"I think that if we had a principal that had bailed or had left, I think it would've been harder," Scott said.

Giving students a flying lesson

Frank DeAngelis' last assembly

When Frank DeAngelis first took over as principal 18 years ago, he made a promise to himself that he would find a way to fly at his final assembly at Columbine High School.

"This is the last time," DeAngelis said. "There's community members here. There's alumni here and all my kids are here and it's a special place. I've been worried about this day since the first day of school this year."

DeAngelis made it his personal cause to rebuild the Columbine community after the tragic shootings in 1999 left 12 students and one teacher dead.

The annual prom assembly is the last chance of the year to address the school as a whole. Over the years, DeAngelis has used this assembly to show off his dramatics.

"I've been Barry Manilow. I've been Willie Wonka. I've been Rocky Balboa," DeAngelis said.

He started at Columbine 35 years ago as a social-studies teacher and coach. Now, this assembly marks the beginning of his final farewells.

"This is going to be emotional. I mean, this is 35 years coming to an end," DeAngelis said.

But, before understanding the finish. It is important to know the start and how DeAngelis spent much of his schooling working to not become an educator.

"Quiet, skinny kid that loved the game of baseball," Chris Dittman said.

Dittman first met DeAngelis on the baseball fields of Ranum High School. He was his teacher and coach at the high school located on the Adams County side of north Denver.

"I've never met a person that didn't like him," Dittman said.

DeAngelis grew up near 52nd Avenue and Tejon Street in a neighborhood overlooking downtown. Dittman calls him a 'north-side guy' raised in a strong Italian home.

"I think a lot of the values he picked up from his religious beliefs," Dittman said. "He's a very strong Catholic."

Dittman says DeAngelis exuded the north side's blue-collar toughness.

"I think Frank's greatest strength has always been his ability to develop relationships with people," Dittman said.

DeAngelis was known as a diligent, hard-working student and a baseball player who hustled across the field, according to Dittman. When DeAngelis left Ranum, he had a different career in mind.

"I thought I wanted to be an accountant," DeAngelis said.

He attended Metro State but fell into an unhappy time with his studies. DeAngelis even dropped out of school for a semester and decided to work full-time. But, after a while, DeAngelis decided he wanted to follow in the footsteps of the man who mentored him.

"Chris Dittman was my high school psychology teacher," DeAngelis said. "He had a major impact on my life, and I said, 'God, I'm going to go back and be an educator.'"

DeAngelis says he wanted to change the lives of young people like Dittman did for him.

"He has said that to me on several occasions, and all I can say is it made it worthwhile what I did," Dittman said.

After years of teaching social studies, coaching and mentoring kids, DeAngelis applied for the job to be principal of Columbine High School. Oddly enough, he was up against the man who stopped him from being an accountant.

"[Dittman] and I were the final candidates for Columbine," Dittman said.

Dittman remembers talking with DeAngelis in the waiting room before the final interview. Dittman went in first and instead of vying for the job, Dittman told the interviewers that they should hire DeAngelis.

"At that particular time, I began to format what I thought that school needed, and it was Frank DeAngelis," Dittman said.

Eighteen years later, DeAngelis sits perched above his 1,700 students chanting his name. DeAngelis is afraid of heights. But, he strapped himself into a device that would send him flying from a 30-foot lift and across the gymnasium. He promised himself he would do this to prove that anyone can overcome their fears.

"You're going to face many fears in your life and you to believe because if you believe in yourself, you'll get others to believe," DeAngelis said.

He delivers for the final time his installment of what he calls, "Papa De's Life Lessons."

"Do not deny your parents the opportunity to see you grow, to have your dad walk you down the aisle, to have your mom hold your first child," DeAngelis said to the students. "Take care of each other and make wise choices because I cannot lose another kid of mine."

He begins the process of saying goodbye. His last day with students will not be till May 28. Next year, he plans on working part-time as a school safety consultant for the Jefferson County School District's security department.

But, DeAngelis will always be a part of Columbine.

"The one thing I can say whether it was teaching, coaching, or being a principal, I gave it my best," DeAngelis said.

Frank DeAngelis' last day

The end of an era

May 28 was the last day of school for students in Jefferson County. And at one of the schools, it's the end of an era.

Columbine High School Principal Frank DeAngelis is saying goodbye to his students for the last time.

"I'm looking down that hallway and I see 35 years just pass away before my eyes," DeAngelis said.

DeAngelis started at Columbine in 1979 . He was a social-studies teacher and a coach. The north Denver-native became principal 18 years ago, and he was at Columbine on that fateful day in 1999 when 12 students and one teacher were killed.

"I saw a community come together to rebuild," DeAngelis said. "I saw a community come together that was more passionate and caring and taking care of each other."

But DeAngelis says Columbine is so much more than tragedy, it's a family. He treats his students that way, delivering personal messages to them. One is an annual tradition in which he delivers a speech entitled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," pushing students to engage in a discussion over whether it is right to talk about religion in schools.

That's just one example of the personal touch DeAngelis has put into his 18 years as principal. He says he's going to greatly miss the students, some of whom affectionately refer to him as "Papa De." That's the name he would always use in his annual pre-end-of-school assembly. He calls it Papa De's Life Lessons. This school year, the lesson was about taking bold steps and facing fears.

DeAngelis faced his own fear of heights by "flying" over the school assembly. He promised himself, at the end of his career that he would fly over his last assembly. It's a fitting way to end his 18 years as principal.

On the final day of classes, DeAngelis arrived at the school at 5:15 a.m. to give him quiet moments before the day began.

"I just needed that time in the building because I knew once teachers started arriving that I would have no time to myself," DeAngelis said. "I needed the time to reflect and it was good."

DeAngelis will still be around. He will work part time as a school-safety consultant for the Jefferson County School District.

He hopes that he left a legacy where all Columbine students feel like they are a part of a family.

"I was hoping that when they walk out of here, they realize you treat people the way you want to be treated," DeAngelis said.

Frank DeAngelis' future

The woman who benefits from his retirement

After all the yearbooks signings and farewell hugs, there is one person who stands to benefit the most from the retirement of DeAngelis: Diane Meyer. Meyer was a student at Ranum High School when she was presented with a strange proposal after gym class.

"There's two guys that really like you down there at the bottom of the stairs, and you have to make a choice," Meyer said.

She recounts how a classmate delivered the cryptic message forcing to decide between a young DeAngelis and another boy.

"I picked Frank because he was, I felt, the nicer of the two," Meyer said. "Our first date was November 17, 1970. He asked me to a football game."

The relationship blossomed into something serious. But, like most high school romances, they eventually broke up and went their separate ways. Meyer and DeAngelis each got married and had children of their own. And, for decades, the former high school couple had lost contact. Then, the shootings occurred.

"My heart went out to him," Meyer said.

She had heard that he took the job of principal at Columbine High School, but Meyer says she saw him on the news and felt compelled to send him a card to wish him well despite the tragedy.

"Right after the Columbine tragedy, I had boxes of cards ... probably 4,000," DeAngelis said.

But, his therapist told him at the time that reading those cards was not healthy for him emotionally, so he put the cards away. Three years later, DeAngelis was going through a divorce.

"In a marriage for 18 years, and we had grown apart, and there was nothing. I look back now, and I wasn't there when I probably needed to be," DeAngelis said. "Because I was so wrapped up in what was happening at Columbine High School. It was so easy to drift apart, and that's exactly what we did."

Three years after Meyer sent the card, DeAngelis decides to finally go through them.

"Within the first couple of cards I open was from Diane," DeAngelis said. "I called her mom, and her mom had the same phone number, and I remembered the phone number from back in the day because I had called it so many times in high school."

Meyer says she didn't know what to expect from her old flame when she talked to him on the phone for the first time in years. She got a divorce from her own marriage 16 years prior.

"Really, when he called, we didn't even miss a beat," Meyer said. "It was like it was meant to be. We started talking. There weren't awkward moments. It was just easy."

The conversations eventually grew into a rekindled relationship. DeAngelis believes it is divine Intervention.

"Out of all the cards, and so many things could've have happened," DeAngelis said. "Those boxes could have found themselves into storage."

Meyer helped DeAngelis through a very difficult time in the few years after the shootings.

"He was in bad shape," Meyer said. "He'd get done with school, and then he'd say, 'I'll talk to you tomorrow' and what he was doing. He'd go home and sit in the basement with his dog, and he was a mess."

DeAngelis says he needed Meyer's support.

"She just listened, and she provided the strength, and that was so important," DeAngelis said.

Meyer says she was not the sole source of his strength.

"He gets up every single day, and he prays for 20 to 30 minutes every single day," Meyer said. "That's what got him through it."

The couple are engaged now. Meyer can finally marry her high school sweetheart now that he's finally finishing high school.

"We're 12-and-a-half years into the 10-year plan," Meyer said, with a smile.

She is hopeful that DeAngelis can settle into retired life.

"More than anything, I'm looking forward to him being more relaxed," Meyer said. "I don't think he knows how not to shoulder everything. It will be interesting when he doesn't have to do it anymore."

DeAngelis says he knows the rules, especially since one of his first major tasks is to move into a new house being built back on the north side of town.

"Something, I'm going to have to learn very quickly is a two-letter word and that's 'no,'" DeAngelis said. "I can't keep saying yes, because that's going to defeat the whole purpose of retirement."

Besides working part time as a school-safety consultant for the Jefferson County School District Security Department, DeAngelis says he has been approached for speaking engagements. And he still wants to work with schools to promote an proactive approach to preventing school shootings.

"If I can walk into schools or walk into communities and create an environment of love," DeAngelis said. "Maybe, we could change one or two things that are happening right now. That's my hope."

For the first time in 35 years, Columbine High School will be without Frank DeAngelis, because he stayed even though he had every reason to leave.

"What I see is students, the Lauren Townsends playing volleyball. I see the Rachel Scotts on stage. I see Danny Rohrbough as a freshman, just being a freshman, hanging out with his friends and the Isaiah Shoels high-fiving me, and I see Danny Mauser down at church, and Kelly Fleming down at church on Sundays, and it goes on and on," DeAngelis said. "Now, instead of envisioning them laying in a pool of blood, I envision them living their lives, and that's the thing that kept me going."

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)


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