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STEM School has until June 29 to allay concerns and secure extended charter reauthorization

Huge crowd of parents lines up to support 5-year extension. But some worry administrators are using tragedy to deflect scrutiny of safety, finances and child-abuse allegations.

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)
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STEM School Highlands Ranch has until the end of June to resolve conflicts with the Douglas County School Board and avoid a year-long discussion over safety concerns that could delay renewal of the charter for the school where one student was killed and eight were injured last month in a shooting

If no agreement is reached the school board will reconvene June 29 to consider extending the charter for one year to allow for more extended discussions over the operations, members voted Tuesday night.

The school’s charter expires at the end of the month, adding urgency to negotiations that have been going on since January, when the district offered a three-year renewal instead of the five-year extension the school wanted.

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More than 100 STEM parents, students and administrators jammed the meeting room Tuesday night, hoping to convince the school board to authorize a new five-year charter, which they said would put the school on a more solid financial footing.

An overflow crowd outside the room took on the characteristics of a pep rally, with participants applauding statements of support for the school as the night wore on.

STEM parents and students, many wearing STEMSTRONG T-shirts, told the board that financial institutions might be spooked by a shorter charter authorization and could raise the cost to borrow money by as much as $5 million. Many said a short charter extension would further victimize students, staff and parents recovering from the May 7 shooting.

“This resolution feels like control,” said Heidi Elliott, a member of the STEM board. “You’ll call it oversight, but it says you don’t trust us.”

The resolution that was up for consideration by the school board stated that a one-year charter extension would allow time for the law enforcement investigation of the shooting to conclude and answer questions about the attack, allegedly by two STEM School students. During the same period, the school would have to address issues, ranging from threat assessment protocols, the handling of child abuse allegations, the school’s finances and other concerns, the resolution further stated.

Gregg McGough, the parent of a STEM student, said he viewed the year-long charter extension as prudent. He said questions over whether the attack could have been prevented have gone unanswered. He added that instead of taking blame for what occurred, the school’s administration has used students who fought back against the attackers as a shield against any criticism.

“They painted these victims as heroes,” McGough said. “These children should not be heroes. They should be children, children who never have to step in front of a bullet.”

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

The Douglas County School Board in January approved a three-year charter renewal, with the provision that certain issues would be addressed. STEM appealed that move to the Colorado Board of Education in an effort to secure a five-year renewal. The school and the Douglas County School Board  agreed to set aside the appeal and entered into mediation to resolve the dispute. The shooting in May interrupted those negotiations, setting the school’s charter, which is required to remain open, up for termination at the end of June.

The board was set on Tuesday to extend for a year the current charter but tabled that move to allow further discussions.

“I have significant concerns for students of STEM, and those concerns have not been resolved,” school board member Krista Holtzmann said. ”Some things have been specifically requested and those things have not happened.”

The May 7 shooting raised additional questions for her, she said. Many details about the attack have not yet been resolved, she cautioned.

At times the meeting became contentious. One STEM supporter shouted “You’re a narcissist” at board member Kevin Leung as he described how he visited a site where students were taken to reunite with their families on the day of the shooting and stayed to make sure all the children found their parents.

School board president David Ray pushed for taking until the end of the month to resolve the differences that could lead to a longer-term charter renewal. He said both the district and the school are “highly motivated.”

Many parents described the STEM school as a special place, where their children thrived under a unique approach to learning that emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math. And they pointed out that the academic performance of students is among the best in the state.

They argued that extending the charter for just one year as opposed to a broader five-year renewal would further harm a school, which is still recovering from the violent attack.

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

Rebecca Stack, a parent who has one child that graduated from STEM last year and another child still attending, said she wanted the board to imagine the trauma caused for students who had to huddle in darkened classrooms an emergency communications system continually blared warnings. She asked the board to think of the fear that set in as the children were ushered into once familiar school hallways now filled with police wielding weapons.

“I don’t understand why you want to add more stress to what is going to happen when they go back to school in the fall,” Stack said. “They want to go back to school normal. Guess what? It’s never going to be normal again. Please do not add more stress.”


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