Stay alive, principal pleaded 4 days earlier

DeAngelis tells students before prom, don't drink, he wants no more burials

April 26, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LITTLETON, Colo. -- Four days before the shootings, the principal of Columbine High School, Frank DeAngelis, told his students at an emotional pep rally in the gym that he did not want to bury another young person. With the prom set for the next night, Saturday, he implored them not to drink, or drink and drive, or put themselves at risk in any way.

"I do not want to attend another memorial service," he had said, recalling students who had died in car accidents, including a baseball player he had coached and two girlfriends of his teen-age daughter. "I do not want to put up another memorial plaque."

DeAngelis said he told them, "I want to see all your smiling faces here on Monday morning."

And Monday morning, after a weekend in which not so much as a fender bender was reported, the principal said, "One of the students came up to me and said, `I think all our smiling faces are here.' "

Since the shooting, DeAngelis, 44, has been meeting with his faculty and students, paying his respects to the families of the victims and, in the few private moments he has had, anguishing over the young people, and the friend, he has lost.

Like everyone else, DeAngelis has no explanation for the actions of the two suspects, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. "I'm still baffled by it all," he said. "I cannot explain what went wrong."

But unlike everyone else, DeAngelis was in charge. Columbine was his school. He had started there as a social studies teacher in 1979, and worked his way up, first to dean of students, then to assistant principal and, in 1996, to principal.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were his students. "I knew them by name and by face," he said, but he could not remember any dealings with them.

After shepherding a group of students to safety outside the school amid the gunfire Tuesday, and then maintaining a vigil into the night for those trapped inside when police would not let him re-enter, DeAngelis faced his faculty the next morning.

"I apologized," he said. "I stated, `I'm so sorry for what you are experiencing, for what you went through with this tragedy.' I told them, `Right now I'm feeling guilty. I've asked myself I don't know how many times in the last several hours if there was anything I could have done to prevent this.' I said, `I'm sure some of you are feeling that too.' "

They cried together, he said. "I told them how proud I was of each and every one of them for putting their lives on the line for our students."

From that meeting, one of his assistant principals drove DeAngelis to a nearby church to address the community, parents and students.

"I wasn't sure what to expect," he went on. "I was concerned that I had let them down."

The crowd gave him a standing ovation. "I just broke down," he said. He was so overwhelmed, DeAngelis said, that he turned his back to the crowd.

In the interview, DeAngelis sounded exhausted and grief-stricken, but hopeful.

"I really believe there's such a strong foundation, it will continue to be a great high school," DeAngelis said. "There's just a lot of loving and caring."

His teachers will return tomorrow, his students on Thursday. Together, DeAngelis said, they will figure out how to finish the year.

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