Columbine 20: Even the lunch menu, curriculum had to change after tragedy

HOUSTON -- Former Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis had to change big things -- and little things -- at the school after April 20, 1999.

We all know about the big things: help rebuild and heal the student body and community, oversee the construction of a new library to replace the room where 10 students were killed, and re-think the school's entire approach to security and threats.

The little things might surprise you.

"We could not serve Chinese food because that was the meal the kids were eating when the shooting started. Teachers had to change the curriculum. They couldn't show a World War II movie because of the (sound) of gunfire. Doors slammed? Kids would have meltdowns," DeAngelis said.

The popular principal retired from Columbine five years ago and now travels the country speaking about the lessons learned from Columbine. FOX31 traveled to the National Summit on School Safety in Houston late last month, where DeAngelis gave a presentation to school security experts and administrators from all over the U.S. The summit was organized by two mothers who lost children in the Sandy Hook massacre.

"If you would have told me that a Columbine could happen at Columbine, I would've said 'no,'" DeAngelis told the crowd.

His memories of April 20, 1999 are vivid.

"My secretary comes in, and she says, 'Frank, there's been the report of gunfire,'" DeAngelis said. "And my worst nightmare became a reality. About 75 yards down, there was a gunman that was coming toward me."

DeAngelis was with a group of 20 kids as the gunmen approached that morning. DeAngelis frantically tried to open a door, fumbling with a huge set of keys he had in his pocket.

"The door is locked. I have got to find the one master key to unlock it. We have no time. I reach in my pocket... first key I pull out, I stick in the door and it opens it on the first try. If I was not able to find that first key on the first try, I probably wouldn't be here, along with 20 girls," DeAngelis said.

He did lose 12 students and a cherished teacher, and nothing can prepare someone for that.

"April 20 every year, I call those parents because I will never forget them, and I will never forget those parents looking back at me, knowing that their kids just died in Columbine High School. That's something that's etched on my mind for the rest of my life," he said.

Frank had a message for educators.

"Right after Columbine, people said, 'Frank, what are you going to do?' And I said, 'What are we going to do?'"

His suggestions: memorize their school's layout. Have a plan. And if, God forbid, it happens to you, have family, friends and faith to help get you through.

"And for me, my faith is very important to me. And I can remember, it's two days after the tragedy, and I'm a cradle Catholic. And boy, I was questioning God for the first time in my life. I said, 'God, how could you allow this to happen?' And then, the priest calls down to St. Francis a couple days after and he says, 'Frank you should've died that day. You encountered the gunmen, but (God) saved you for a reason. Now, you need to rebuild that community.'  And he said, 'You're going to have opportunities many others will not' and he said, 'God's got a plan,' DeAngelis said.

A plan to tell the story of Columbine, long after he left Columbine, in the hope there's never another Columbine.

"And I made a commitment that night that there's nothing I can do to bring back the 13.  But I was going to continue to speak on their behalf," DeAngelis said.

To mark the 20th remembrance of the Columbine tragedy, we're telling the stories of victims and survivors in a unique way.  We're not showing images of the school from April 20, 1999.  We're not airing 911 calls from that day, and we're not showing the names or pictures of the killers.

Saturday, April 20, 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the shooting - and we have special programming on FOX31 and Channel 2.

At 5:30 pm and 9:30 pm on FOX31, and at 9:30 pm on Channel 2, join us for "Columbine 20: Heartbreak to Hope," a commercial-free half-hour special anchored by Jeremy Hubbard highlighting Columbine victims and survivors. 

At 8:00 pm on Channel 2, we're airing the broadcast premiere of "13 Families: Life After Columbine," a documentary featuring each of the families most closely affected by the Columbine tragedy.  The documentary will air commercial-free.

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