Coping in the aftermath of a mass shooting - Western Mass News - WGGB/WSHM

Lessons from Columbine

Coping in the aftermath of a mass shooting

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The principals at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Columbine High School both did everything in their power to protect their students, but their fates were drastically different.

The principal at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, sat down with New Haven Bureau Chief Robert Goulston in our search for answers, and shared his experiences of how he helped his community move on over the past 14 years.

When that tragedy unfolded inside Columbine High School, the principal was one of the people who ran towards the gunfire.

He still runs the school all these years later, and he has had to make so many difficult decisions.

Decisions like the ones Newtown will undoubtedly have to make.

"It immediately took me back to where we were with Columbine," principal Frank DeAngelis said. "Just some of the emotions, and I literally got sick to my stomach. I can not believe this is happening."

DeAngelis is reflecting on his first feelings after learning of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

He was inside Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.

He said he made a promise that he would stay at the school until every student in school during the shootings, from kindergarten to 12th grade, graduated. But after what he, his students and teachers saw, it has not been easy. It took him years to be able to walk down those hallways without remembering the shooting and screaming.

"As time went on," DeAngelis said. "I trained myself not to associate the bad things in the hallway, but the good things. Seeing kids."

One of the most difficult decisions was should the school even stay open?

"Do we come back to Columbine High School? I'm sure that's a big point of discussion for Sandy Hook. It's a tough decision, but the community knows. The Newtown community is different than Columbine. You have to get input from the people," he said.

Columbine formed a group made up of families of the murdered students, parents of the injured, students and community members. Their meetings helped generate feedback from everyone, and the decision was made to keep the building, but make specific changes.

"Anyone who decided to come to school had to walk into a building where they witnessed death and they witnessed evil," DeAngelis said. "It was tough, and constant a reminder."

The school shut down for the remainder of the school year, but over the course of the summer, crews worked frantically to alter the areas where most of the violence happened.

The library, where the most people were killed, is now gone.

"We cut out the floor," DeAngelis said. "A company came in and cut out the floor and what we have is this atrium."

There are 13 pieces of art hanging in that atrium - one in memory of each person killed.

The colors in the school were changed, and tiles painted by the community were added. Even a fish tank was brought in. Anything to change what the school looked like on the day of the shooting.

"It's just part of the healing process," DeAngelis said. "It really helped, because the first year back it reminded them so much of what had happened the year before."

The new library moved to another part of Columbine.

The bookshelves were lowered because in the old library the gunmen were hiding behind the taller shelves.

DeAngelis said so many other changes were made, too.

Things most people would never even think about.

"We could not serve Chinese food here for a year because that's the food that was being served the day of the shooting," DeAngelis said. "It would just set off emotions. Catsup, we had to make sure we had to be very careful with catsup because if there was catsup on the table it would remind kids of blood."

Students and staff had to deal with so many emotions when everyone returned just a few months later.

"We had teachers that were grieving - that couldn't walk into a classroom without crying or their blood pressure going up," DeAngelis said. "We had other teachers who went up their first day back saying 'where is your Algebra homework?' What I learned is people are at different places."

Counseling was available to everyone - students, teachers and even their families. DeAngelis even soon realized he needed help, too.

"I would walk out into the hallway, and all of a sudden I'd have a flashback. I would hear gunshots or I would see flashing lights, and I'd start to get chills and break out into a cold sweat. I didn't know about post-traumatic stress disorder," he said.

DeAngelis said he's been in counseling for years - something he recommends to anyone touched by what happened in Newtown. He said he was told early on by a Vietnam War veteran that if he didn't help himself, he would not be able to help anyone else.

"The piece of advice I would give the people of the Sandy Hook community is you're not going to wake up some morning and say it's one year and people are going to say 'get over it, it's been one year,'" he said. "That's not going to happen. What I tell people is you've got to respect where people are in that particular time in life."

While Columbine High School is 14 years into its recovery, the people there are hoping their experience will help give Newtown some direction.

"I think you try to get as much input as possible, and sometimes you have to make some really tough decisions,"  DeAngelis said. "You have to provide some answers about why you made these decisions, but you're never going to make everyone happy."

His school made a banner for Sandy Hook and had everyone sign it.

Channel 3 Eyewitness News delivered it last week, and DeAngelis said it carries an important message.

"I'm fighting each and every day, and the one word I used constantly and I put on the banner we sent to Sandy Hook - You're not in this alone," he said.

DeAngelis said the one main point he tries to get across is the healing has no schedule.

Everyone does it differently.

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