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The school at the center of Colorado’s latest mass shooting is a refuge for gifted, tech-savvy kids who sometimes didn’t fit in elsewhere

Parents are fiercely protective of STEM School Highlands Ranch and fighting back against a narrative that it was a pressure cooker headed toward violence

A memorial to Kendrick Castillo, the student killed when two of his peers allegedly opened fire in STEM School Highlands Ranch on May 7, 2019, has grown in the lawn of the school. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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As Colorado marked the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting last month, Shannon Owens considered herself grateful that her two sons attend a school she thought was the last place likely to see such violence.

“I was like, ‘I don’t even worry about that stuff with this school,’” said Owens, mom of a 7-year-old and a 12-year-old. “They are all just a bunch of quirky, nerdy kids that go there.”

Then on May 7, at the school parents describe as a refuge and a saving grace for kids who didn’t always fit in elsewhere, two STEM School Highlands Ranch students were arrested after police say they opened fire on their teachers and peers. Senior Kendrick Castillo was killed three days before graduation. Eight others were wounded.

Kendrick Castillo. (Colorado State Patrol handout)

America’s latest school shooting happened at an engineering and technology-focused K-12 charter school, a place where many parents said their socially awkward, tech-oriented children thrived. A place for introverts. A place parents still talk about with almost reverential devotion.

At STEM, parents contribute hours of their own time — guiding traffic near the school, mentoring students, catering banquets. Some wait years for their kids to get in. Some drive from Denver, from Colorado Springs and even from 80 miles away to get their students to class in the morning.

In the aftermath of the shooting and the media scrutiny that followed, many of those parents are speaking up to defend the school’s administration. They dispute news reports about an anonymous phone call to a Douglas County school board member that predicted violence was imminent at the school months before the shooting.

“I have never been more proud to be a STEM parent than I have been this week,” said Kelly Murphy, who has a daughter in fifth grade and a son in third grade at the school. The anonymous report that said the school was a pressure cooker and a Columbine waiting to happen does not resonate — a shooting was no more likely to happen at STEM School than it was anywhere, she said.

“Every school in America right now is another Columbine waiting to happen,” she said.

MORE: This is not Parkland: Douglas County, divided on guns but eager to prevent another school shooting, tries to find its voice

A place of choice

STEM parents want people to know their children chose to attend the school and will continue to do so.

“We want the strength of our community to be the narrative,” said Karyn Weiffenbach, who has a sixth-grade girl and a ninth-grade boy at STEM, as well as another son who is graduating this year from the school.

Weiffenbach is one of dozens of STEM parents who have pushed back passionately against the reporting of the anonymous complaint. They have joined forces on a private Facebook page and sent emails to media outlets saying the reporting on the anonymous complaint left survivors of the shooting feeling attacked.

“This has definitely solidified our community in a very strong way,” she said. “The people that send their kids there are so passionate about the school.”

Campaign-style signs memorializing Kendrick Castillo, the student killed when two of his peers allegedly opened fire in their school, have been planted in lawns of homes near STEM School Highlands Ranch. The signs pay tribute to Castillo’s bravery, and also to the teachers and first responders who helped subdue the alleged shooters. Eight other students were wounded in the attack. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In the nine days since the shooting, parents have shaken off their disbelief and emerged resolved to defend their school.

“This is the first morning where I woke up not crying,” Weiffenbach said in an interview Friday. “Most of us have been in constant tears, and we’re starting to come out of the fog and say, ‘What are we going to do?’”

STEM School is a unique place, and it’s not for everyone, she and several other parents stressed in interviews. First, it’s a charter school, which means the 1,850 students attending kindergarten through 12th grade are there because their families choose to send them there.

The school also is focused on STEM curriculum, meaning it puts a heavy emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. That tailored learning is a major draw for many students, who struggled to find classes suited to their interests elsewhere, many parents said.

“It’s an entirely different way of learning, and, you know, there is not a limit put on the kids,” Weiffenbach said. “They can go as deep and as far in the subject areas as they want. The kids are passionate about the learning opportunities.”

A STEM School student won’t just memorize math equations. Instead, they’re taught to put them to use to explain why and how planets orbit the sun, Weiffenbach said. One history class her 12th-grader took required students to predict how a future civilization in outer space might function, she said.

Owens, who lives in Lakewood and spends an hour every school day driving her boys to and from STEM, said “it’s not a school for everybody.”

“If it’s not for your kids, don’t make your kids go there,” she said. “Maybe your kid isn’t a STEM kid. For kids who are STEM kids, who want to be pushed and learn cutting-edge stuff, it’s the school to be at.”

Differences over direction

STEM School, which was founded in 2011, has had some controversy, though.

Disgruntled parents aligned with the original founders, who were pushed out when the school’s board of directors changed, have in the past stood outside the school handing out fliers, several parents recalled. But many parents say they regard those protestors as a rogue faction that doesn’t represent the deep gratitude many feel for the way the school is run now.

Still, eight complaints were filed in 2016-17 over special education services provided by the school, Douglas County School District Board President David Ray warned in a letter to the school’s board of directors in spring of 2018. Those complaints, and a persistent, vocal contingent that showed up at district board meetings, left the school board “extremely concerned with the public perception that STEM is not an inclusive environment that serves students with disabilities,” Ray wrote in the letter.

No other charter schools in the district received special education complaints during that time. At least one of those complaints resulted in a settlement agreement by STEM School. Two other cases resulted in findings against the school that required corrective action, according to an account to STEM School’s board last year by the district’s deputy general counsel, Wendy Jacobs.

Despite those controversies, the district in January renewed a contract with STEM School.

The school still has a waiting list of more than 1,000 students, Weiffenbach said. Families get selected through a lottery that gives parents 48 hours to accept if their child is picked.

MORE: STEM School Highlands Ranch didn’t have school resource deputy because of disagreement with sheriff’s office

Families of students who attend are required to spend 30 hours per year working at the school, mentoring, guiding traffic. They also can help out in other ways, such as through financial donations.

Nikki Baird, a parent of two STEM School students, said she devoted up to 20 hours per week at the school, including as the coach of a robotics team. She posted an essay online describing the hurt she felt over media reports about some of the dissension at the school.

“These attacks are things that have been out there for years, things that STEM parents have known about, that the administration has been forthright and as transparent about it as they can be, coming from a group of very angry people who want nothing other than the destruction of STEM for reasons I can’t fathom,” Baird wrote. “I don’t want to have to spend my time doing this, but I can’t let people with a malicious agenda win the narrative about STEM School Highlands Ranch.”

She also wrote: “If my son, who has dyslexia, had to spend all day in lectures, writing reports for homework, and being bullied for being a ‘nerd’, his mental health would be far more precarious than (at) STEM, where nerdiness is owned and celebrated, where he is among his tribe, where he is appreciated and respected for the things he’s good at, rather than torn down over them.”

A memorial to Kendrick Castillo, the student killed when two of his peers allegedly opened fire in STEM School Highlands Ranch on May 7, 2019, has grown in the lawn of the school. Two students are accused in the rampage that also left eight students wounded. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The parents of Kendrick Castillo, the 18-year-old killed when he tried to stop one of the shooters last week, worked evenings at the school at least four times a week. Castillo’s mom, Maria, who works as a caterer at a Ritz-Carlton hotel, catered many of the school’s banquets and events. Maria and her husband, John Castillo, spent hours with their only child on Saturdays participating in the school’s robotics team. At a public memorial service Wednesday, student-built robots lined the walkway into Cherry Hills Community Church.

“Mom, everyone there is just like me”

The close-knit STEM School community has grieved the loss, but parent after parent vowed that their children would return to classes

Cassandra Landeros recalled how excited her son was when the email arrived four years ago telling the family that he was a lottery winner for fifth-grade enrollment.

“I’ve never seen this child jump up and down and be so happy,” Landeros said. “And he’s not an overly emotional child.”

Her son struggled at another charter school, Landeros said, where he tested as having a math IQ of 140. Budget cuts at his old school slashed programs for the gifted, and he grew bored, she said. He started acting up, giving his friends all the answers to assigned work before the teacher even started giving instruction. Then, he and his friends would dive under their desks to goof off, she said.

The family spent two years trying to get him into STEM. Her son was especially impressed when he toured the school and got to grill the principal before submitting his name to the lottery.

“He said, ‘Mom, everyone there is just like me,’” Landeros recalled of that day. “That speaks volumes for this little nerdy outcast kind of kid who has trouble making friends to realize he finally found a place where he belonged.”

She said the school also attracts a wide range of nationalities and has a larger LGBTQ population than other schools, an observation several other parents expressed. She said her son recently told his parents that although he’s straight, he thinks the family needed to stop eating at Chick-fil-A. He said a gay friend of his at STEM had warned him that the fast food establishment makes charitable donations to groups that have historically opposed gay marriage.

“The events last Tuesday were the most horrific of our lives,” Landeros said. “With that said, my son is ready to return to this school as soon as it opens. He has no interest in going anywhere else.”

The body of Kendrick Castillo was accompanied to a public memorial on May 15, 2019, by law enforcement and first responders, including motorcycle cops from the Aurora Police Department. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Tributes for Kendrick Castillo

Evidence of the tight-knit school was abundant on Wednesday afternoon, when thousands attended a public memorial service for Castillo, who was shot to death three days before what would have been his high school graduation day.

STEM parents and students lined the streets in Highlands Ranch, many in white T-shirts that said “STEM Strong,” as a law enforcement procession made its way to Cherry Hills Community Church. Hundreds of teenagers attended the service, as well as younger children who held their parents’ hands during the two-hour memorial.

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Castillo’s engineering teacher, Mike Shallenberger, struggled to speak as he stood on stage and described why he and other teachers had chosen Castillo in April as the engineering student of the year. Then the teacher laid a white graduation cord over the boy’s casket, an honor Castillo earned as a member of the technology student honor society.

Shallenberger recalled eating hot dogs with Castillo on a recent Saturday and how much the school staff loved Maria Castillo’s cooking. He remembered the first time he met Castillo, when the teen came to a school open house. STEM was a perfect fit, and that was obvious within the first few minutes and by the smile on Castillo’s face when he talked about robotics. “Soon it would be like he owned the school, and he did,” his teacher said.

STEM is like family, Shallenberger said. “Family is how we are going to get through this and we are going to get through it together,” he said.

Castillo’s English teacher, Lauren Harper, recently helped him write a resume. “Kendrick’s genius and his smile would have been enough to land him the job anyway,” she said, her voice fragile with emotion, barely above a whisper.

A memorial to Kendrick Castillo, the student killed when two of his peers allegedly opened fire in STEM School Highlands Ranch on May 7, 2019, has grown in the lawn of the school. Two students are accused in the rampage that also left eight students wounded. Castillo and two other students attacked the alleged shooters and their actions are credited with giving other kids time to take cover. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Castillo’s love for STEM extended beyond robotics and engineering. He helped coordinate a pancake breakfast for teachers, a carry-over from his elementary school days at Notre Dame Catholic School, and dressed up with his best friend as the mullet-haired rockers Wayne and Garth from the Saturday Night Live skit “Wayne’s World” for a school event.

The night Castillo died, about 150 people visited his parents in a room at a local hospital, sharing stories about the cheerful, gifted boy, for more than two hours.

“We are a family of three and a little dog,” his father, John Castillo, said at the memorial service. “But I feel the love of thousands.”


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