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Nicolais: Finding hope amid evil thanks to Kendrick Castillo

In the STEM school shooting, Castillo joined a long list of heroes who put themselves between gun violence and the people around them

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. When two fellow students opened fire at the STEM School in Highlands Ranch, Kendrick Castillo lunged at one, saving the lives of many.

Mario Nicolais

In the face of unspeakable evil, and at the cost of his own life, Castillo became the hero both his classmates and our country needed.

As Americans — and specifically as Coloradans — we have witnessed mass shootings, and school shootings in particular, with heartache and helplessness.

In the age of camera phones, social media and text messages, the horrifying events and aftermath play out time and again from countless vantages. It is difficult to feel anything but despair.

Most of us have become too accustomed to the cycle of initial news, breaking coverage, a deluge of social media responses, thoughts and prayers, political responses and follow-up stories.

Twenty years after Columbine terrorized our national psyche seven miles down the road from STEM, we now have a set collective response to what should be unbearable tragedy.

I’ve previously written about this dynamic as “societal indifference,” though maybe that’s not quite right. Like the nerves in skin slapped repeatedly before the needle of a flu shot, our numbness may be better described as a societal defense mechanism.

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I’m certainly not immune. STEM marked the third time in the past three years I’ve had text conversations with my wife, a Douglas County schoolteacher, about an active shooter threat affecting her school. It’s become rote, almost as awful in its repetition as it is as an actual threat.

The mother of a STEM student distilled that awfulness in one audio post her son recorded from inside the school. A formless, dystopian public address system directed over and over “Attention, please. Lockdown. Locks. Lights. Out of sight.” It’s the most prominent sound in the recording, with shots and screams relegated to the background.

The chilling voice represented just one more cold, necessary adaptation made in the wake of Columbine and subsequent school massacres. It’s a defensive adaptation to circumstances where the only appropriate emotions, fear and anguish, must be repressed.

That describes not just those trapped in the moment, but the rest of us trapped in a dread cycle that only offers weeks or months of respite until the next horrific tragedy.

In the midst of this terrible loop, Castillo’s actions gave us something else. Castillo gifted us all hope.

In the days after the shooting, news stories have rightfully lionized Castillo for his selfless action. Pictures of his outsized, joyful smile have been plastered across newswires, posts and feeds. Stories and anecdotes from friends paint a picture of a boy always helping those in need. And when he was needed most, he gave the most.

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Castillo is not alone. Another student, Marine poolee Brendan Bialy, also flew into action to stop the STEM shooters. And before that there were Lori Gilbert Kay at Chabad of Poway temple and Riley Howell at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

Last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Scott Beigel lost his life ushering kids into the safety of a classroom. Aaron Feis put his body between the shooter and his students, a human shield laying down his life for theirs.

Twenty years ago, Dave Sanders ushered students out of Columbine before being shot in the back.

These are not trained first responders, on duty with the expectation that their lives may be placed in danger any given day. These are teachers, students, and parishioners channeling extraordinary compassion and courage.

If Elvis Presley and Tiger Woods are deserving of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, then maybe we need a new medal to honor these actual heroes.

Kendrick Castillo should be preparing for graduation and a lifetime of limitless potential. I should not know his name nor need to write about him or his death.

But when an hour of utter evil arose before Castillo, he did not hesitate or succumb to helplessness. He met the moment and gave his friends safety and the rest of us hope, a hero for our most troubling times.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


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