STEM School Highlands Ranch community remembers a school shooting amid a pandemic

More than six months ago, STEM School Highlands Ranch recovery coordinator Hannah Reese thought about May 7, 2020, and how to commemorate the shooting that devastated the school a year prior.

She polled students, staff and families and asked them how they wanted to mark the year that had passed since the May 7, 2019, shooting that killed 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo and wounded eight other students. Overwhelmingly, Reese said, people said they wanted to be together and to support one another as memories of that day floated even closer to the surface than usual. Reese started planning field trips where students could volunteer in the community and other group events.

Then in March, as schools closed and gatherings were limited, Reese needed to change plans quickly. The day of service became a digital campaign for acts of kindness. Instead of meeting in classrooms and talking in-person, teachers will lead their students in yoga and other restorative practices online. The physical opening of a center aimed at supporting those affected by the shooting has been delayed.

For the second year in a row, the STEM School Highlands Ranch community is ending its school year amid disruption and uncertainty.

“As you can you imagine, it’s not easy for everybody,” Reese said. “But our students and our families are remarkably resilient.”

But long term changes in the school and other organizations associated with the shooting remain, despite the pandemic. Months-old support groups continue to meet, albeit online. Law enforcement in Douglas County have changed how they work with young people with mental health needs, as well how they help their own in dealing with trauma. At the school, in virtual classrooms and via texts, students and staff continue to check with each other, Reese said.

“Our focus is really just helping everybody take their next tiny steps that they need,” Reese said.

Continuing remembrance

From a deputy’s suicide to the STEM School shooting to a life-altering pandemic, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office has been bludgeoned with tragedy and difficult situations in the past year.

As the anniversary of the shooting approached, Sheriff Tony Spurlock hoped there would be a chance for his deputies to gather and remember. He hoped that they could attend events with the broader community affected by the shooting.

“Those scabs are there, and everyone knows that scab is going to get pulled off,” Spurlock said. “We know that.”

Moments from the day of the shooting remain etched in Spurlock’s memory: watching a sergeant carry a wounded student out of the school on his shoulder, the unexpected burst of rain that afternoon and the humid sadness that followed, the startling composure of even the youngest students as they were herded onto buses to leave the campus.

But beyond a few staff members who will attend a graveside memorial for Kendrick Castillo, all of the events the sheriff’s office is participating in will be virtual. At the exact time of the shooting, deputies’ radios will go silent for a moment of reflection.

“It just compounds our stress a little bit with this COVID-19,” Spurlock said. “We can’t get all together like we want to. So we’re figuring out ways to honor and respect Kendrick and others who were shot and injured.”

The shooting created long-term changes at the agency. The department created a unit of a deputy and a mental health professional to respond to juvenile mental health needs. The peer support program for deputies and other mental health resources ramped up and expanded so deputies now have 24-hour access.

“We had some mechanism for that, but STEM really opened it up that we had this new wound we needed to fix and a lot of things fell in place with it,” he said.

The agency also rebuilt its relationship with the school after previous conflicts over security. A new school resource officer, Jose Uribe, started at STEM School in the fall and has worked to help students and staff feel safe again.

All deputies will continue to wear a blue and gold “STEM Strong” pin on their uniforms for the next three years — until the class of freshmen on the day of the shooting graduates.

“Those kids were there,” Spurlock said. “The juniors are now seniors. They’re still impacted, and we need to remember that. This isn’t going to go away.”

A new center for strength

The impact of the May 7 event is not limited to the current students, staff and families, however.

Many of the seniors who were in the classrooms have since moved on to college or jobs. Staff have left the school, but still carry the trauma from the shooting. Church and restaurant workers nearby helped students fleeing the school during the incident.

And that’s the broader community the leaders of the new STEM Center for Strength hope to serve. The independent center in a business building across the street from STEM School Highlands Ranch will offer free mental health services to anyone affected by the tragedy as well as space for yoga classes, music therapy, support groups and community gatherings.

“It’s meant to be a warm and welcoming space,” said Cynthia Grant, chief clinical officer at AllHealth Network, the nonprofit leading the creation of the center. “A lot of the programming at the center is very informal. It’s a place to gather.”

The center, named by STEM School students and funded with grants through August 2022, follows the model of similar spaces created in the wake of mass violence, like in Newtown, Connecticut, and Parkland, Florida, Grant said.

The center is affiliated with the STEM School Highlands Ranch, but the school has no authority over the center. That separation is important, Grant said, because it allows people to find community and support regardless of their opinion of the school and without having to step inside.

“A school is centered on education. They have mental health resources, but there can also be concerns about confidentiality and privacy,” she said.

Organizers planned to open the center in late March, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed the physical opening. Like many other entities, AllHealth pivoted some of its services online. Support groups that have been meeting since October started meeting on Zoom. The nonprofit is offering a series of webinars Thursday addressing mental health needs as well as free one-on-one video or phone sessions.

“It definitely presents a difficult challenge,” Grant said of not being able to meet in person. “It puts more of the onus on the individual to be gentle to themselves and be kind to themselves and find a way to cope.”

It’s normal for people affected by trauma to feel anxious, isolated or on edge as the date approaches, Grant said, especially in a world where social media accounts like to remind us where we were a year ago.

“It’s normal to experience an increase in emotions,” she said. “It’s a very natural part of the healing process for that to happen.”

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