CARIBOU, Maine — No matter what challenges students are going through, they can persevere if they stay connected with peers, family and teachers and ask themselves, “What can I do to make my school a better place?”
That is one of many messages that Frank DeAngelis, former principal of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, hopes that Caribou students gained Thursday from his story.
DeAngelis is one of the survivors of the mass shooting that occurred at Columbine on April 20, 1999, resulting in the deaths of 12 students and one teacher.
“Our lives were forever changed [after the shooting],” said DeAngelis, who retired as Columbine’s principal in 2014. “But the day has not defined Columbine. Even 23 years later, we are stronger than we’ve ever been.”
DeAngelis spent the day Thursday at Caribou High School, speaking to groups of middle and high school students and staff members. He shared memories of the tragic events at Columbine and the steps he believes Caribou students and staff can take to promote healthy attitudes and relationships.
In 1999, taking part in active shooter drills was unheard of, DeAngelis said. No one at Columbine ever thought that such violence could happen at their school. Before the days of social media, students and staff saw no “red flags” that might have warned them about the shooters’ plans.
With today’s students being more connected online than ever, it’s even more important that they watch out for each other, he said.
“If you see something, say something,” DeAngelis said. “If you read something from a student who says something like, ‘I’ve got nothing to contribute to society,’ that’s a warning sign.”
But instead of dwelling on the Columbine tragedy, DeAngelis wants that story to inspire students to make a difference in the lives of their peers.
For example, instead of using drugs, alcohol or self-harm to cope with difficulties, students can turn to teachers, guidance counselors, family, friends or others for support. Those relationships can remind students that they usually are not the only ones going through certain struggles — like dealing with the pandemic’s effects on their lives.
“When you go through tough times, you realize what an excellent support system you have at this school,” DeAngelis said. “Leaning on somebody is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength.”
Throughout DeAngelis’ hourlong presentation, the 250 juniors and seniors seated in the CHS auditorium remained focused and engaged, often turning to nearby friends when he emphasized the importance of reaching out to someone dealing with difficult emotions.
Though they were not yet born when the Columbine tragedy happened, seniors Katie Powers and Abbie McNeal said that hearing DeAngelis’ perspective gave them much more than just a history lesson.
“It’s important to hear these stories from the people who experienced them,” Powers said.
McNeal, who had previously read a book about Columbine, said that she took DeAngelis’ message of positivity to heart.
“When you know that these things can happen, it makes you want to make a difference in someone’s life,” McNeal said.
Despite the thousands of miles separating Columbine and Caribou, high school guidance counselor Rani Mehta said that DeAngelis’ message of unity and school spirit is one that resonates no matter where students are from.
“His message is so much bigger than what happened that day. It’s about taking care of each other,” Mehta said.