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Colorado learned the danger of glamorizing shooters. Does lionizing student heroes also carry risks?

After two high-profile cases of students fighting back and dying, psychologists warn a shift in school safety could have dangerous ripple effects

A memorial for 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo, who was killed when two of his peers allegedly opened fire in STEM School Highlands Ranch on May 7, 2019, sits in the lawn of the school. Two students are accused in the rampage that also wounded eight students. Castillo and two other students tackled one of the alleged shooters. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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The youngest students learn to help their teacher barricade a door. Middle-schoolers work on how to join forces to pin a gunman to the ground during a struggle, to spread their body weight, like wrestlers, across an arm or a leg.

And in high school, training in how to fight off an active shooter includes a lesson in firearms — how to recognize an opportunity to get away or fight back when a shooter is reloading his weapon.

The student trainings, including one planned near Denver this summer, mark a new era in school safety, a shift beyond the “shelter-in-place” and even the “hide, run, fight” drills that are common at schools across the country. The message — reinforced in the past month by the national praise for two students killed while taking down school shooters — is that sometimes kids have to take matters into their own hands.

But while young victims are publicly celebrated, child psychologists are raising alarms. They caution against glamorizing young people’s deaths like cartoon superheroes and worry about the risks involved in training students to confront a shooter.

Still, the trainings are taking hold.

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Joe Deedon, who was among the SWAT officers who stormed Platte Canyon High School in 2006 as a gunman shot 16-year-old Emily Keyes and held others hostage, began receiving requests to expand his active-shooter training to students last year after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. He had trained teachers and school staff for years and now has adapted the curriculum for kids.

Following the May 7 shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch, where three teenage boys reportedly lunged at a classroom shooter and pinned him to the floor, the inquiries to Deedon’s company picked up again.

So far, Deedon has trained students at school districts in Wyoming and Arizona. No Colorado districts have hired him yet for student training, but Deedon believes there is enough interest among parents and young people in this state that he has scheduled a July open-enrollment student training in north Denver.

“We are definitely getting ready to open the floodgates on student training,” said Deedon, founder of TAC*ONE Consulting, named after the radio lingo for SWAT leader.

The body of Kendrick Castillo was accompanied to a public memorial on May 15, 2019, by law enforcement and first responders. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Many school districts in Colorado are too “timid” or “tentative” to hire him to train students, said Deedon, who as a Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy was also among the first on scene in 2010 after a man opened fire on kids outside Deer Creek Middle School in Littleton.

“They are worried about a company coming in and traumatizing them,” he said. “It’s not traumatizing at all.”

He’s seen more interest from rural areas and charter schools.

Deedon said he doesn’t encourage kids to put their lives on the line, but he does teach them how to survive a worst-case scenario at school — or at the mall or a movie theater or Walmart, for that matter, he said.

“We’re not telling people to go be heroes and lose their lives,” he said. “Every kid is not going to have it in him. Not every staff member is going to have it in them. We are just providing a kid options and knowledge.

“Just because somebody has a firearm doesn’t mean we all have to die.”

In Highlands Ranch this month, high school senior Kendrick Castillo was shot to death as he tackled a fellow student wielding a handgun, according to classmates’ accounts. Eight other students were wounded that day — three days before Castillo, 18, would have graduated from high school.

One week earlier, 21-year-old college student Riley Howell was hailed as a hero after he died throwing himself on a shooter at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. The public reaction to both deaths — an outpouring of post-mortem accolades, the young men’s photos turned into social media memes, the word “hero” used repeatedly on the national news — caused a “sense of real alarm” at the National Association of School Psychologists.  

The headlines were “almost glamorizing what was a horrible tragedy,” said Katherine Cowan, the association’s liaison for school safety and crisis work. “It’s done with the best of intentions, but it’s dangerous for kids.”

The same words that help heal a community and bring meaning to what seems a senseless death also make child psychologists cringe.

“There is a real nuance to any communication around this,” Cowan said. “We understand that there is a fine line between recognizing and honoring individuals who die in circumstances like this and how painful it is. But just because it’s a fine line doesn’t mean we don’t have to recognize it and pay attention to it.”

The signs planted on front lawns and near business marquees throughout Highlands Ranch require no explanation. Everyone knows his name.

“Thank you Kendrick,” they say.

Signs memorializing Kendrick Castillo, who was 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)

At his public memorial, the 18-year-old was called a hero over and over. People held signs proclaiming it as they lined the streets to watch the hearse carrying Castillo’s body pass by in the first-ever Douglas County law enforcement procession for a civilian. At the entrance to the church, robots from the boy’s robotics team held up a banner: “A Hero 4 Heroes.”

And during the memorial, the Bible verse John 3:16 — about Jesus Christ — was a theme. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son …” Because Castillo, son of John and Maria Castillo, was an only child, too.

“Kendrick was their only son, and he sacrificed his life for us,” said the Rev. Kevin S. Cho, who spoke during the memorial.

The media learned its lesson after two decades of school shootings and other mass murders. Focus on the victims. Make them famous, not the shooters. It took the Columbine High School murders in 1999 and, still, the Aurora theater shooting in 2012 for that standard to come into widespread use. And when 17-year-old Claire Davis was shot and killed in 2013 by a classmate at Arapahoe High School in Littleton, the community promised never to forget her name. And it hasn’t.

So it wasn’t shocking when Castillo’s name was trumpeted nationwide and the names of the accused shooters, both fellow students at STEM, were rarely mentioned. “Remember his name,” said the Facebook and Twitter posts featuring a photo of the senior with dark hair and a flannel shirt, a cheerful kid who went elk hunting with his dad and grandfather, spent hours in a robotics lab and volunteered through his church. Some have called for naming STEM School after him.  

“Honor the hero, not the killers,” said a social media post that circulated for weeks. Too much attention paid to previous school shooters contributed to copycat killings. Does glamorizing child heroes also have consequences?

MORE: 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

“We were encouraging copycats. Now aren’t we encouraging heroic behavior?” said Dr. Steven Berkowitz, a child psychologist at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.

Castillo and Howell at UNC Charlotte were young adults, but Berkowitz is concerned about the message received by young kids growing up in the lockdown generation.

“These individuals were heroic, and there is nothing to take away from that,” he said. “That is not the question at hand. The question at hand is the unintentional message we are giving to kids that if they don’t rush a shooter and put their lives on the line, they are not doing what they are supposed to do. They won’t get the attention. They won’t get acknowledged. They won’t get the accolades.”

A memorial to Kendrick Castillo, who was killed when two of his peers allegedly opened fire in STEM School Highlands Ranch, sits in the lawn of the school. Two students are accused in the shooting that also left eight students wounded. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

There are other ways to become a hero, Berkowitz said: “Live. Live, and maybe you will be one of the people who figures out how to stop this from happening.”

“The discussion really needs to be that yes, these kids did something really extraordinary but that doesn’t mean it was right. These kids were heroes, absolutely. But they did not do what they were taught, and we’re not sure if that really is the best thing to do. The first thing you do is run and hide. The last thing you do is fight.”

Cowan, with the National Association of School Psychologists, said parents and teachers should remind young children that confronting a shooter is “not required of them.”

“The goal is that everybody stays alive,” she said. “It’s our job as adults to keep you safe.”

Mental health professionals also mentioned concern about survivor guilt, particularly among students and teachers who did not spring into action to subdue a shooter and instead hid under a desk or froze in panic.

“It might not show up for a while and won’t get covered by the media,” Cowan said. “The initial rush of reaction is very public. The recovery is private.”

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

Deer Creek Middle School math teacher Dr. David Benke recognized the gunman’s bolt-action rifle and knew he had time to tackle him before he could reload. The story made national news nine years ago — the math teacher wrestling the shooter to the ground and an assistant principal grabbing the weapon.

Two students were shot and wounded that day in Littleton, but no one died.

For Deedon, who arrived in his patrol car minutes later, the key part of the story is that Benke likely saved lives because he knew something about the hunting rifle the gunman carried.

“For some people that is like speaking Mandarin Chinese,” said Deedon, who has done active-shooter trainings from coast to coast and found wide disparity in knowledge of firearms.

“If you go to Wyoming, everyone knows what I’m talking about,” he said. “If I go to Connecticut, New York, …. not many grew up around firearms and training. Some of these people don’t have any clue.”

He calls it the 80-20 rule, as in 80 percent of people in some Western states will raise their hand when he asks if they know what a bolt-action rifle is, while it’s only about 20 percent in some urban areas and Eastern states.

Joe Deedon, founder of TAC*ONE Consulting, teaches students in Wyoming how to defend themselves in an active-shooter situation. Middle-schoolers are trained to assist a teacher struggling with a gunman only if the teacher asks for help. (Provided by TAC*ONE)

Besides firearm basics, a major part of Deedon’s high school curriculum is teaching teens how to think under stress and not always wait for an adult to tell them what to do. In the Parkland shooting, a group of students he believes had time to escape instead huddled in a hallway until they were shot, he said.

Chris Mailliard, owner of Thornton-based Response Ready, also focuses on thinking under extreme stress as he coaches school staff and individuals who sign up for his courses on active threat and “casualty care.” His courses teach the science behind “fight or flight,” when a person’s sympathetic nervous system is activated by stress.

“You have tunnel vision. Fine motor skills don’t work so well. Auditory exclusion,” meaning people don’t hear certain sounds, he said.

A former firefighter and tactical paramedic for West Metro Fire Rescue, Mailliard teaches school staff and others how to apply a tourniquet to a bleeding limb, wrap combat gauze to slow bleeding, and stick a seal over a gunshot or stab wound to the chest. The chest seal is an extremely sticky patch with a one-way valve that allows air to escape but not to enter the wound.

MORE: Will Colorado follow other states in enacting a gun-storage law after the STEM School shooting? Those conversations are happening

Some school districts in Colorado already have “trauma kits” containing those supplies or are ordering them this summer, Mailliard said.

Heroes, he said, are “people who do what needs to be done when it needs to be done, regardless of the consequences.” That includes Castillo, he said. And while Mailliard said long-term solutions to school violence are important, people should not underestimate the importance of training and preparing for the worst day.

“You can’t ignore the preparedness and response piece — ever,” he said. “Just because you want to mitigate it — you can talk guns, you can talk mental health — you still are always going to have to do the preparedness and response. People have been reluctant to do that because of the fear that comes with it.

“Let’s not be paranoid. Let’s be aware.”

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