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Columbine principal: Students gave me strength

Frank DeAngelis

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The lessons learned from Columbine are being used to help prevent another tragedy.

LITTLETON, Colorado (CNN) -- A public memorial and candlelight prayer vigil marks Tuesday's five-year anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings. On April 20, 1999, two students, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 12 of their classmates, a teacher and then themselves.

After the shootings, Columbine High School principal Frank DeAngelis pledged to the freshman class that he would see them through their graduation. Today, DeAngelis is still at Columbine and recently talked to CNN anchor Bill Hemmer via satellite from school grounds on why he is still there.

DEANGELIS: I think the strength that I gathered from the students is just outstanding. I'm in a community that values what teachers do and what our students do.

There's a lot of rich tradition at Columbine. I'm completing my 25th year [at Columbine], and they have really provided strength for me. I'm not sure if I would [be] as strong as I am today if I didn't have the support of this community. [I] would have [gone] somewhere else.

HEMMER: Now there are some critics -- you know this better than anyone -- who criticize you for allowing a certain atmosphere of bullying to take place at Columbine.

As we sit here in 2004, five years down the road, how has the school addressed that?

DEANGELIS: I think we have policies in place now that we had in place back in '99; we had zero tolerance, but I think the major difference that I see now is we have students and parents and community members [who] are reporting things they never reported back then.

For example, I have an anonymous tip box, which I didn't have back then; but students are not afraid to put notes in there if they feel that students may be thinking about hurting themselves; so I think that's a big difference. Getting more phone calls from parents. I think as a result of the tragedy, people are looking at things differently. I think you have schoolteachers looking at things differently, teachers are -- administrators are looking things differently.

I think you have law enforcement agents looking at things differently and parents. So I think people now are more vigilant than what we were back prior to Columbine tragedy occurring.

HEMMER: If you look back to that event, Columbine, your school, has truly become the symbol in this country for violence among young people in America. Yet since that date the number of incidents have, in my estimation, declined dramatically. Can you explain as to why that's the case?

DEANGELIS: I think people are -- not that they did not take threats seriously prior -- but I think just recently there's been situations where people have reported that someone was planning to carry out a tragedy similar to what happened at Columbine High School -- so I think more people are reporting incidents as opposed to prior to Columbine.

That, I think in the back of their mind, they're not going to leave anything to -- for chance.

And so what they're looking at is if someone is talking, they're going to report it and let police authorities or school administrators decide that that threat is viable.

HEMMER: Is there something that is a legacy out of your school and a lesson out of your school that can reflect across America today?

DEANGELIS: I think the one thing that I have learned is -- and this may be a trite answer -- is you know you can't take anything for granted.

If you would have asked me prior to April 20, 1999, if something like this happened at Columbine High School, I would have said no. I don't know how many times I have had conversations with people from around the world [and] around the country [who] have stated, "Columbine High School is very similar to the community that I live in."

I think the one message that I would share with the world is that it could happen anywhere and so its not a problem for one entity.

Many times people will say, "What is the school going to do to prevent another tragedy from happening?" And I think what I would say is ... it's a societal problem.

I think we need to come together as parents; we need to come together as educators; we need to come together as law enforcement agents.

Part of the judicial system, we need to come together and share information and until we do that as a team we're much better at doing that now -- we have a chance of possibly preventing another Columbine tragedy from occurring.

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