Frank DeAngelis is a keeper of knowledge he wishes he never had to learn, like how to plan a high school graduation for a community wracked with heartache in the wake of a school shooting.
The former Columbine High School principal met with STEM School Highlands Ranch staff members Friday and Monday, providing comfort and insight into how to lead a grief-stricken school forward following the shooting last week that claimed the life of 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo and injured eight other students.
“I told them, ‘You just joined a club in which no one wants to be a member, but we have each other,’ ” DeAngelis said.
DeAngelis has made it his life’s mission to reach out to schools impacted by shootings — last year that included Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 were killed, and Sante Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, were 10 died — and share the ever-expanding wisdom of his somber niche.
At STEM School, DeAngelis is advising staffers tasked with planning a graduation ceremony on May 20 that honors the students’ experience while still celebrating the academic accomplishments they’ve strived toward over a dozen years.
Officials at STEM School said they were not immediately prepared to discuss commencement planning.
Jake Schell graduated from STEM School last year and is transferring from San Diego State University to Loyola University Chicago next year. Watching the shooting unfold from afar, the 18-year-old ached for his alma mater and wanted to do something to help.
Schell decided to set up an email account — love4STEM2019@gmail.com — and ask community members to send two-to-three-sentence messages of support for STEM School’s graduating class. He plans to collect and hand out the encouraging words to students during the graduation ceremony.
“The kids that are graduating this year have been through a lot, so showing them they’re not alone and that there are people out there that are supporting them can hopefully put a smile on their face,” Schell said. “Because it should be a happy day even with the circumstances.”
Achieving a balance of solemn reverence along with joyful celebrations of life and achievement is the ultimate goal, DeAngelis said. Graduation plans that may already have been in place should be double-checked for things like music selection, speeches and students’ remarks. DeAngelis suggested running plans by mental health experts who could try to steer the ceremony in a healthy, healing direction and avoid any unforeseen pitfalls.
“One suggestion I made to the graduation committee yesterday was reaching out to the Castillo family,” DeAngelis said. “Every family deals with tragedy differently, and that is the most important.”
“People don’t know how to feel”
Jake Heibel, principal of Maryland’s Great Mills High School, found support and friendship in DeAngelis after 16-year-old Jaelynn Willey was fatally shot by a 17-year-old student inside the school in March 2018.
“One of the things I’ve come to understand after what we went through and comparing it to other places is that every school shooting is a little different,” Heibel said. “The commonalities are you have violence and people are traumatized, but in our situation, we had a murder-suicide.”
Heibel had to plan a May graduation, two months after the shooting inside his school building.
“I don’t know how we would have done graduation if graduation were two weeks after,” Heibel said, referencing the STEM School.
In 1999, after two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher inside Columbine High School, DeAngelis had about a month before that year’s graduation ceremony.
DeAngelis recalled more than 10,000 people packed Fiddler’s Green Ampitheatre in Greenwood Village for the rite of passage that was not the ceremony officials at the Jefferson County school envisioned at the start of the school year. But it ended up being the ceremony they needed.
“That thing that so deeply touched me was knowing that two of our students that were supposed to be graduating were not there,” DeAngelis said.
Townsend was going to be named Columbine’s valedictorian. At the ceremony, Townsend’s parents were presented the plaque and diploma, along with the cap and gown their daughter would have worn.
“We recognized the 13 who lost their lives — my beloved 13,” DeAngelis said. “We had students who had just been released from the hospital coming across the stage — some in wheelchairs, some still recovering from surgery. It was all very emotional. The most difficult thing is people don’t know how to feel.”
“Try to move forward”
Heibel was grateful for DeAngelis’ listening ear when his emotions and responsibilities were pulling him in too many directions.
The Maryland principal said he called DeAngelis “countless times” when he needed guidance on how to handle the press, how to handle the graduation ceremony, how to best start the next school year — even how to take care of himself.
“He talked me to me about having to lead from the heart and make your decisions in the best interest of the kids and your staff moving forward,” Heibel said. “Time and time again, I come back to that. Frank offered me the stability of someone who had gone through it, and he was a sounding board.”
At Heibel’s graduation ceremony, he said what worked best for his community was a moment of silence to honor the 16-year-old victim of the shooting and recognize another student who had died over the summer.
“Then we moved on,” Heibel said. “You could feel a breath of relief when we did that. It was significant that we acknowledged it, but we didn’t want the ceremony to be all about that. We made a conscious effort to focus on the kids at hand and try to move forward from there.”
Heibel noted that what worked for his community might be different than what works for others.
DeAngelis stressed to STEM School staff that when moving forward, to remember “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
When questions or hard days arose, he assured them that he was just a phone call away.
“People ask me, ‘When does it get back to normal?’ ” DeAngelis said. “We have to redefine what normal is. It’s a series of peaks and valleys. Right now, they need to plan for the remainder of this year and then they’ll take on the next school year starting and so on.
“I’m not going anywhere. I made a promise and commitment to help these communities, and I’m going to be there every step of the way.”