Thursday, July 24, 2014

Columbine Principal: You’re Not in This Alone
February 21, 2014 by Ann Wishart | No Comments

Chardon community is offered hope and help in healing from the school shooting as the second anniversary approaches

“I couldn’t look people in the eye. I had 13 people die and two of my students killed the others. It was enormous guilt I was feeling ..."

Columbine High School Principal Frank DeAngelis shared his experiences with a crowd of more than 100 Chardon residents Wednesday, a week before the second anniversary of the shooting at Chardon High School.

“Next week’s going to be tough,” he said, standing near the podium in St. Mary’s Catholic School banquet room. “You’re not alone. We are sending love, thoughts and prayers your way.”

His trip from Colorado to Geauga County started with a phone call from Chardon High School Principal Andy Fetchik asking how Fetchik could help his students and community recover from the tragic events of Feb. 27, 2012.

Wednesday evening, DeAngelis shared his experiences with Chardon.

Columbine High School cafeteria became a war zone 15 years ago when two students opened fire on their classmates, killing 13 and wounding dozens, then shooting themselves, DeAngelis said Wednesday.

When law enforcement and the media finally cleared out, the Columbine community was left waiting for their world to get back to normal, he said.

Chardon residents may be wondering the same thing.

His answer Wednesday was honest, if painful.

“It will never get back to normal,” he said.

As time passed at Columbine High School, he expected healing to begin and life to get better. But two years after the April 20, 1999, shooting at Columbine, things were not looking up.

“There were times I said ‘It can’t get any worse,’” DeAngelis said.

He’d lost students and friends, his marriage was falling apart and he and many others were going through post-traumatic stress disorder they didn’t even recognize as such.

Students from the Class of ’99 graduated and went off to college with no therapy or coping skills, they turned to drugs and suicide, shutting out their parents and DeAngelis was named in eight lawsuits, he said.

It was a bleak time.

Gradually, with a lot of work and patience, he, the school and the community started to heal. It is an ongoing process.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” DeAngelis said, adding, however, the community is growing stronger as they learn to cope.

Fifteen years later, many are still adjusting to their changed reality. He recommended the audience take charge of the process.

“You can decide what that (reality) will look like,” he said.

The principal said he sought counseling immediately after the shooting at Columbine and his therapist told him “If you don’t help yourself, you can’t help anybody else,” DeAndelis recalled.

Teachers, staff, administrators and students had to learn it was alright to share their feelings, he said.

But traumas recurred, triggered by popping balloons, passing helicopters, flashing lights or even regular fire drills. Survivors’ guilt was rampant.

“I couldn’t look people in the eye. I had 13 people die and two of my students killed the others. It was enormous guilt I was feeling,” DeAngelis said. He turned to his religion, as well, to survive and recover.

When the school ceased to be a crime scene, going back inside was tough. Everyone had to walk the halls, eat in the cafeteria and deal with the empty spaces left by the victims.

But people learned to be supportive as a whole.

DeAngelis urged Chardon to hang tight.

“There are too many opportunities to be fragmented. You need to stay together as a community,” he told the audience Wednesday. “This community is going to be stronger than ever because you survived it.”

Parents of Chardon students need to maintain close contact with their kids and help them heal and grow. The students will insist they are fine, but therapy may help deal with the grief and anger so they can move on in a healthy way,  DeAngelis said.

“Columbine parents saw their kids spiral down,” he said.

It is typical of someone who has been through trauma to stay at the emotional maturity he or she was at when the event occurred, DeAngleis said.

“They revert to the age when the tragedy happened. They’re kind of stagnated at that age,” he said.

But there are ways to cope and it is up to parents to insist on taking that route.

“There’s so much help out there,” DeAngelis said, adding he warned against trying to handle the therapy without experts. Parents and educators are not equipped.

“We’re not trained in grief counseling,” he said.

Everyone has a different path to recovery from trauma. The principal said he learned to avoid negativity – his own and that of other people.

“It’s all about attitude. A positive attitude is a catalyst — a spark that creates extraordinary results,” DeAngelis said. He urged people to get help to learn how to redirect their ugly and painful memories to better ones.

Communication is essential, he said, adding he sought out student leaders in all social groups to keep that connection.

He would ask one question: “What can I do to help?” and DeAngelis found opening those lines of communication made Columbine a better school.

Reaching out to other schools like Sandy Hook and Chardon has helped his community heal as well.

“Can you move forward? Yes,” DeAngelis said, adding, however, the community needs to pull together through hard times.

“It depends on you,” he said. “Don’t give up hope — you’re not in this alone.”

To view DeAngelis’ full presentation go to www.geaugatv.org.

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