Former Columbine High principal speaks at event targeting at-risk youth

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Teachers, administrators, social workers and many others who deal with at-risk kids focused on how to make schools more engaging to create a safer environment Monday at the 2018 At-Risk Youth National Forum in Myrtle Beach.

The theme of this year’s event is ENGAGE: Create a Legacy of Success. The conference is held to provide educators and those who deal with at-risk students across the nation the resources, tools and ideas to make their schools and communities more engaging to foster student success.

Dr. Sandy Addis, director of the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network, said from their research, when students are more engaged with people, the program and the instruction, they are more likely to have a better attendance rate, better behavior and are more likely to graduate successfully.

When students are disengaged and don't feel like part of the school, they may drop out and never graduate. This also leads to students acting negatively toward the school and the community.

Though he’s retired, Frank DeAngelis taught an important lesson while kicking off the 2018 At-Risk Youth National Forum. DeAngelis was the principal of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado when one of the most tragic school shootings in the nation’s history unfolded. He experienced the tragedy on April 20, 1999, that left 13 dead.

"The conference today and the next few days is outstanding because we are addressing that. We are looking at at-risk kids. What really bothers me is when people say, 'What are you going to do as a school? What are we going to do as a society, a nation?' They are all our kids. As parents, as grandparents, school officials, we need to help these kids that are crying out," DeAngelis said. "If you would have told me that Columbine could happen in Columbine, I would have said no, it's a perfect community. A lot of parental support, middle to upper class, graduation rate is high and then I realized after that, I realized it could happen anywhere."

DeAngelis experienced the tragedy first-hand when two of his students strategically planned a massacre. It was a day that changed the lives of many.

"It's not to put the fear into communities, but when these communities say, 'It could never happen here,' and I know with the recent shootings in Florida, there were people saying it can't happen, well it can, unfortunately," he said. "And that's where we need to come together and say, 'Enough is enough' and it was definitely life changing."

In the wake of the recent deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead and other mass shootings across the nation, DeAngelis stressed the importance of getting proper help for those with mental health issues, and "at-risk" students.

DeAngelis also believes there is more to the picture than resolving gun control laws - it takes a community effort.

"I think so many times when these school shootings occur, you hear the same thing - thoughts and prayers - and you keep hearing the same thing and it keeps happening and changes are not making. So, I think at times we need to check our egos at our door and say, 'What is in the best interest for our kids?' And I think that's what they are crying out," DeAngelis said.

He also believes in the importance of teaching children at a young age.

"I think we saw some of the things that were happening in Florida, that this kid was broadcasting things," DeAngelis said. "We need to tell these kids from the time since they are little, if they see something, they need to report something."

Addis said there's more to be done than focus on the schools.

"We tend to hang this issue on the schools. They dropped out of school, so it must be a school problem. There are 21 risk factors in our research that are correlated closely with never graduating. Only seven out of the 21 or 33 percent are in the schoolhouse. The rest are outside," Addis said. "We have got to get the community involved."

According to information from the South Carolina Department of Education, 84.6 percent of students graduated high school in 2017.

DeAngelis said engaging and fostering relationships with students - things as simple as a smile or a hand on the shoulder - is all it takes to make a difference..

"We will always remember the 13 that lost their lives in Columbine, the 17 in Florida, the 20-plus in Sandy Hook. We are always going to remember them. But it's hope because it will be so easy to say our country is struggling. What's the reason we wake up? I can't go there. I talk about attitude. You can't control what happens to you, but you can determine how you respond," DeAngelis said.

The At-Risk Youth National Forum runs through Feb. 21. Addis encourages everyone to attend. If you are interested, tickets are still available and are $185 at the door.

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