The Douglas County School Board may put the STEM School Highlands Ranch on a short leash amid concerns over safety and security in the wake of last month’s fatal shooting attack at the school.
The school board will vote on a resolution Tuesday night that would allow the school to remain open on a provisional one-year charter while the Douglas County School District investigates the shooting that left eight students injured and one dead. The action would allow the school to remain open for a year while the school district and STEM work on resolving conflicts over the school’s operations.
Paula Hans, spokeswoman for the school district, declined comment. She did not make Superintendent Thomas Tucker available for an interview.
The resolution states the one-year extension of the school’s charter would allow a law enforcement investigation that could address any questions about the May 7 attack to conclude. The attack killed 18-year-old senior Kendrick Castillo.
Before the charter could be extended past the year, the administration of the STEM School would have to address a host of issues, ranging from how the school conducts safety assessments to how it handles child abuse allegations, according to the resolution. Also, the review will ensure that STEM’s per-pupil revenue received from the school district is not used to create new schools outside Douglas County, the resolution states.
The resolution already has created division among parents at the school. Some are fiercely protective of the school. They fear the one-year provisional charter could lead to the eventual closure of a school they praise for its academic rigor and curriculum based in math and science.
“We don’t want anyone to get away with pulling a fast one on us and doing anything to take down our school community,” said one parent, Kelly Murphy of Littleton, whose 9-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter attend the school.
Other parents who have sent their children to STEM say the school needs to make changes, and that the school board resolution is only meant to ensure future students are kept safe from harm.
“Some parents are worried they are going to lose the school, but I think what is really happening is that the school district is worried about the well-being of the children in the school and saving those children under their watch,” said Kristen DeBeer, of HIghlands Ranch, whose son graduated this year from STEM.
DeBeer, who has filed a federal lawsuit stating the school failed to provide her son proper supports for ADHD, dyslexia and a neurological condition that prevents him from writing with his hand, said she thinks the school cut corners on addressing the emotional well-being of some of the school’s more troubled children. She said she believes the school environment was ripe for the type of attack that occurred and remains vulnerable.
“I think there were circumstances that made this more prone to happen at STEM because they were so focused on saving money there,” she said.
Two students, a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old, are accused of opening fire on their fellow students with handguns on the afternoon of May 7. Court documents and investigative records related to the shooting have been sealed from public view.
Penelope Eucker, the executive director of STEM School, sent an email on Monday to families of students encouraging them to attend the school board meeting to speak against the proposed resolution.
“We hope the board will reconsider its decision to restrict the school to a single-year charter renewal at a time when the community is recovering from the most trying circumstances it has ever faced,” Eucker said in a letter to the board that she forwarded by email to parents of students. “To send a signal that the district is not more supportive of STEM only makes the challenges for the STEM community more onerous. But it will not weaken our resolve. We are and will remain STEMStrong.”
Eucker and the STEM School had been pushing for a five-year charter renewal. The school board in January opted for a three-year renewal instead, citing concerns about special education services and how the school was administered.
The school appealed to the Colorado Board of Education, arguing that the three-year renewal would weaken the school’s rating by financial institutions and drive up costs for borrowing money. That appeal was put on hold so the school and the school district could try to resolve the dispute through mediators. While the mediation process was underway, the shooting occurred. The school’s charter is scheduled to expire at the end of the month.
Douglas County School Board President David Ray sent an email Monday to Eucker in response to her email saying the year-long extension would give the district and school time to “reconvene the conversation regarding an appropriate renewal term and conditions.”
“It is unfortunate that the message conveyed to your community is that the district is ‘not more supportive of STEM,’” Ray said in the email. “I have never experienced a more valiant effort supporting a school going through a crisis, than what was provided by the district for STEM. I sincerely hope you understand that he proposed actions by the board provides grace to the timing of these unusual and tragic circumstances.”
In her letter on Monday, Eucker argued that the school has four counselors, two social workers and one psychologist, and that it exceeds recommended staffing ratios for mental health providers. She added that the school has a diverse student population and has welcomed transgender students, several of whom are in the process of transitioning.
“Our school is, and will continue to be, defined by a culture of academic excellence, compassionate performance, and a commitment to inclusion – the very characteristics we believe most any family would want in the school their children attend,” Eucker wrote in her letter to the school board.
The resolution the school board is scheduled to consider Tuesday night would give the school time to address several issues for the superintendent. Among them: submission of timely and accurate financial reporting, the handling of public records requests, submission of minutes of school accountability meetings, 100 percent staff participation in training on child abuse reporting, threat assessment training and the proactive review of safety assessment data.
The resolution adds that the school and superintendent also would address “timely and accurate reporting of student behavior and attendance data.”