An anonymous complaint nearly five months before a deadly shooting at the STEM School Highlands Ranch alleged that a “high-pressure environment” made it susceptible to an attack like the ones that happened at Columbine and Arapahoe high schools.
The complaint, which came in a phone call to Douglas County School District Board of Education Director Wendy Vogel, warned that parents were afraid to speak out about a list of alleged issues at the school out of fear their students would be expelled.
The anonymous call prompted Daniel Winsor, director of choice programming for the Douglas County School District, to outline the allegations in a detailed letter to STEM School’s executive director, Penelope Eucker, in December. The letter said the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and Douglas County Department of Human Services also had been alerted, per district protocol.
As media reports about the complaint surfaced on Thursday, putting the school’s culture under increasing focus, administrators strongly denied the allegations. A school spokesman said the school reached out to parents about the complaints hoping that any problems would be brought to their attention and received no corroboration.
“While STEM took the allegations seriously, our investigation revealed no evidence to support any of the allegations raised in the anonymous complaint,” Eucker said in a written statement.
She added: “At STEM School Highlands Ranch, our priority is the safety and well-being of our students, staff and the STEM community. We investigate every complaint and concern, regardless of the source. This includes threats, bullying, allegations of criminal behavior and/or mental health concerns.”
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday night that Vogel had reported the anonymous phone call and what was alleged. “We have an open case, but I am not sure on what allegation,” said Deputy Cocha Heyden, a sheriff’s office spokeswoman. “Since it is open, we cannot discuss it.”
Eucker filed a “Jane Doe” lawsuit in Douglas County District Court in January alleging the anonymous complaint was baseless and had defamed her and the STEM school. The legal action, which is still pending, seeks monetary damages and calls the allegations laid out in Winsor’s letter “false and defamatory.”
The anonymous complaint alleged that many of the school’s students “were suicidal or violent,” and that the school had not properly investigated alleged misbehavior.
A high pressure environment at the school had created “a perfect storm,” the complaint further alleged. It also said students at the school were dealing and using drugs.
Douglas County deputies on Tuesday arrested two STEM students — 16-year-old Alec McKinney and 18-year-old Devon Erickson — suspected of firing upon their peers inside the school. They are being held without bail and are expected to be formally charged in the attack on Friday.
18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler says he is weighing whether to charge McKinney as an adult.
Kendrick Castillo, 18, was killed when he lunged at one of the alleged shooters, giving other students time to dive under their desks for safety, according to eyewitness accounts. Eight other students were wounded and transported to hospitals. Most of them have been released from care.
STEM School was founded in 2011 and has had a meteoric academic rise since then, according to the school’s website. The website said the school now has more than 1,800 students, encompassing kindergarten through 12th grade.
But the school struggled In its first year, receiving a school grade of F from the Colorado Department of Education. But after Eucker was hired in 2012, it moved to an A school grade from the state, the school claimed on the website.
Its high school program is now ranked ninth out of 333 high schools in Colorado, according to the website.
Colorado Department of Education statistics show that in the 2017-18 school year, the school had 47 out-of-school suspensions and no referrals to law enforcement. There were six reports of assaults and/or disorderly conduct at the school for that year, the state’s data further showed.
Denise Gliwa, who handled public relations for the school for several years, defended the school as a “magical place.” The STEM program, which emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math, was enhanced with a creative streak unlike any she had seen in any other school, Gliwa said.
“It’s amazing what goes on in there, and the way I saw those kids band together,” Gliwa said.
In one of their projects the students in 2017 created a talking head of Kaiser Wilhelm II, complete with glowing red eyes. Students used artificial intelligence to animate Wilhelm, who helped start World War I, Gliwa recalled.
STEM School is one of 20 charter schools operating under contacts with the Douglas County School District, which has 91 schools in total. As part of those contracts, security guidelines are laid out.
STEM School’s contract with the Douglas County schools specifies that the district must be contacted for any “school closure, lockdown, emergency drill or any other action that may affect school health or safety.” But when it comes to security personnel, that’s left up to the charter school, which had private security for the campus.
“It is up to them whether they have a school resource officer, private security, whatever it is,” said Paula Hans, a district spokeswoman.
Other schools in the Douglas County School District have school resource officers, who are sheriff’s deputies, handling security.
A spokesman for STEM referred questions about why they didn’t have a school resource officer to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. A spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office said she didn’t have that information available Thursday evening.
More details into Tuesday’s shooting came out on Thursday, including an investigation into whether a private security guard hired by the school, who pinned down one of the two shooters, mistakenly fired at a responding sheriff’s deputy and may have wounded a student.
The Associated Press reports that it was told by a law enforcement official with knowledge of the case that the guard fired his weapon inside the school.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.