Ex-Columbine principal warns children’s use of social media ‘dangerous’
Frank DeAngelis was head of Colorado high school, where two students carried out massacre
Frank DeAngelis, former principal of Columbine High School. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The former principal of Columbine – where 13 students were shot dead in 1999 – has said the potential impact of social media today is terrifying.
Speaking at a conference in Dublin on mental health in schools on Wednesday evening, Mr DeAngelis said parents should be aware of their children’s use of social media sites. “You need to find out because they are going some places that are very dangerous,” he said.
Mr DeAngelis recounted the unfolding events of the day and the profound psychological impact it took on the students, faculty and families.
In his case, he described the ongoing impact of post-traumatic stress disorder which provoke flashbacks of the events of April 20th, 1999.
“I could have said ‘oh poor me’ but I got the help I needed,” he said during his talk at the Mansion House which focused on the importance of recovery and attitudes toward mental health.
The two-day conference hosted by Jigsaw, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health, was aimed at discussing the importance of well-being being embedded in a “whole-school approach”.
Dr Tony Bates, Jigsaw founder, said society is now beginning to talk about the importance of mental health in the education system.
In a recent article in The Irish Times, he recounted a radio interview he heard with Mr DeAngelis marking his retirement from education.
“Columbine for Frank is not only a tale of horror but also a story about our capacity to come back from the traumas we all experience,” he wrote. “He described the shooters as ‘two troubled kids who had been trying to tell us for years that they needed help’. But, he added, ‘we weren’t listening’.”
Mr DeAngelis began by listing the names of those who had died in the shootings.
He had worked in the school for 35 years. It had 2,000 students, with a graduation rate of 95 per cent. About 88 per cent went on to college and 25 per cent received scholarships.
The Columbine massacre would never have been expected to happen at a school like Columbine, he said.
On the day of the shootings, the former principal said he remembered his secretary running up to him and he could see in her face that something was wrong. She told him there were reports of gun fire. “I am thinking it has to be a joke, it has to be a senior prank. Not here, not now,” he said.
In a corridor he encountered one of the two armed students and thought “what is it going to feel like to get shot”.
He remembers the noise of the glass breaking behind him and, together with a number of students who had inadvertently walked into the line of fire, managed to escape.
Later, he recalled dealing with police officers who had tears in their eyes, and with parents desperately seeking news of their children who, by that time, were unaccounted for and probably among the victims.
“It was at that point that the grieving started and we had to start the healing,” he said.
While he said the 13 dead would never be forgotten, “we are not victims, we are victors and we cannot allow this event to define us”.
The shooting spree sparked a debate on the nature of gun use and ownership in the US and inspired the Michael Moore documentary Bowling for Columbine examining those issues.