A year toward recovery complicated by virus

STEM School Highlands Ranch weathers back-to-back crises

Jessica Gibbs
jgibbs@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 5/6/20

For Penny Eucker, executive director of STEM School Highlands Ranch, one of the more challenging aspects of preparing for May 7 was finding the right words for that day. “We really don’t have a …

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A year toward recovery complicated by virus

STEM School Highlands Ranch weathers back-to-back crises

Posted

For Penny Eucker, executive director of STEM School Highlands Ranch, one of the more challenging aspects of preparing for May 7 was finding the right words for that day.

“We really don’t have a word in the English language to use for a tragedy’s coming around,” she said. “I don’t want to use the word ‘anniversary.’ I don’t want to use the word ‘commemorate.’ We don’t want to use a word that has any hint of celebration. We just use ‘one-year mark,’ because there isn’t a word that’s appropriate.”

On May 7, 2019, a shooting left eight STEM students injured and 18-year-old senior Kendrick Castillo dead.

The behavioral health disaster response team at AllHealth Network immediately activated. A crisis center opened the following morning. Disaster response evolved into the longer-term effort of disaster recovery.

That summer, the school started discussing how best to address the one-year mark once it came about.

Knowing how each person will react on that date is impossible, Eucker said. With 1,800 students and 2,800 parents, the school had to prepare for vastly diverse reactions to trauma.

That sentiment was echoed among numerous school and mental health leaders who shepherded STEM’s recovery this past year. Grief is as unique as the person. Managing disaster recovery is a day-by-day, person-by-person journey.

Then enter the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered schools across the state to in-person learning. Suddenly, the STEM community was weathering two school years in a row disrupted by crisis.

“Nothing prepares you for a tragedy of this magnitude,” Eucker said. “We had trained extensively for emergencies, for lockdowns, but just like a global pandemic, nothing prepares you for the magnitude of events that are unthinkable.”

‘The year of firsts’

Hannah Reese, STEM’s recovery coordinator, spent this school year connecting students with care and coordinating mental health education.

“Often we refer to the first year as the year of firsts, and for everyone, you have to get through the first day of school, and the first winter break,” Reese said.

Marina Altmann Godoy, 13, decided before COVID-19 she would not go to school on May 7. The seventh grader now attends Cresthill Middle School in Highlands Ranch but was a STEM School student last year.

Her plan was to get away from the scenery of school and grab doughnuts with family on the one-year date. That’s what she did during the first lockdown drill this school year.

Marina was home sick during the second drill. By the third, she felt relieved. It went easier than expected. Marina participated from a room without a speaker, so she did not have to hear announcements. That helped. Still, she got frustrated seeing some students mess around during the exercise.

“It might be a day where it’s not a drill,” she said. “To them it’s probably like that same old drill that you do. To people like me, it’s like, oh yeah, we could be in danger.”

Evan Forster is a behavioral health clinician with AllHealth who embedded in STEM for the year. Many students transitioned back well, he said.

“But there were definitely kids that were more responsive to unexpected loud noises in the hallway happening and experiencing heightened anxiety related to being in different areas of the school,” he said. “Especially surrounding drills.”

To help, Forster scheduled student meetings during fire drills. When alarms sounded, he walked students through “grounding techniques,” like deep breathing and identifying the situation as a drill.

During lockdown drills, Forster sat in classrooms to be a reassuring presence. If students experienced “heightened emotions,” Forster reminded them it was practice and they were safe.

Eucker said STEM tried to alert parents about drills beforehand and immediately posted to social media when a drill was underway. Instead of the PA system blaring an alarm, staff spoke announcements in a calming voice.

“We are going to have a drill,” the announcements would say. “This is just a drill.”

STEM took numerous steps to help students ease back into the year. The school reconfigured classrooms in a different orientation and redecorated.

The school also reconfigured classrooms 107 and 109, the scene of the shooting. Walls came down. Access to those rooms changed. Every room in the area now has a different number. The numbers 107 and 109 no longer exist.

A year of challenges

Other obstacles arose as the community searched for answers following the tragedy.

Families including John and Maria Castillo, whose son, Kendrick, was fatally shot that day; and Brendan Bialy sued the school for injuries and wrongful death. Bialy rushed a gun-wielding student at the onset of the shooting with Kendrick and fellow student Josh Jones.

The suits alleged STEM missed warning signs that the suspects could become violent and mishandled threats to STEM’s safety.

Kendrick’s mother, Maria, said by email she spends hours researching the school. The family’s suit remains open.

“I have discovered many things that we did not know about the school where our precious child, Kendrick, was murdered,” she said. “I did my job as a mother, unfortunately, I trusted the wrong people with everything I had.”

COVID-19 has also drawn out the two ensuing criminal cases involving the shooting suspects.

The younger attacker, Alec McKinney, pleaded guilty in February. His sentencing hearing was originally scheduled this month was was postponed because of COVID-19.  A new date has not been set. The older suspect, Devon Erickson, was supposed to begin trial this month after pleading not guilty in January. That was pushed back to September.

A term-limited 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler wanted nothing more than to finish both cases before he leaves office this year, he said.

Victims need closure, and the criminal cases are the last formal reminder of the tragedy, he said, except only for the civil suits. Brauchler is not sure he can deliver that amid the pandemic.

COVID-19 further creates uncertainty around holding court hearings. Large gatherings are banned. Will people be forced to view hearings remotely? How does that affect transparency? Brauchler is waiting for answers to those questions and more.

“As we approach May the 7th, I really thought we’d be in a different position,” Brauchler said. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

‘STEM is trying its best’

Throughout this experience, Reese focused on the unity she sees among STEM’s children, their empathy for one another and is “continuously astounded” by how quickly the community can rally together.

Forster hoped the community would find creative ways to connect during the isolation of COVID-19.

“We were definitely anticipating being able to be together in person as we approached this one-year mark,” Reese said.

While the pandemic forces isolation on the community as a whole — through stay-at-home orders and the banning of gatherings — there have been positives, Lakshmi Ganapaneni said.

The 14-year-old sophomore at STEM said COVID-19 brought her family closer. They see each other more, and she was grateful to be home with them as the one-year mark approached. She planned to spend time that day with her brother doing arts and crafts.

“I don’t know how exactly I’m going to react on the day,” she said on May 1. “I’m basically helping myself by helping others.”

Ganapaneni serves on the advisory board for the new STEM Center for Strength. The center was supposed to open in March but is operating virtually during COVID-19. It provides mental health resources for anyone who needs support because of the incident, like counseling and therapy groups.

That work has been good for her, she said.

“STEM is trying its best. We are all trying to reach out to everybody who is being affected,” she said. “Everybody was hit.”

Ganapaneni was in the high school section of STEM as the shooting unfolded in the middle school. She did not know how to react, she said, but she remembers her first thought was her then 7-year-old brother, a second-grade STEM student at the time.

“More than myself I was worried about him,” she said. “Am I going to see him or not the next minute?”

Her brother now attends a different school. Ganapaneni still attends STEM. She never considered switching schools. She believes the incident was beyond STEM’s control. Ganapaneni is doing well this year, she said, but she knows not everyone can say the same.

Eucker, the STEM School’s executive director, said for some staff and students, returning to STEM was too painful.

Last year the school employed 163 people, of which 53 left. A spokeswoman said that is not an unusual amount of turnover for STEM in a given year, and the school did not ask departing staff if the shooting influenced their decision to leave.

The employees did fill out a standard exit survey. Nearly half said they decided not to return, 11 left teaching, 11 left for what they considered better offers, five moved out of the region and five said they were dissatisfied with the school. The spokeswoman said she did not have a breakdown of turnover by position type.

Eucker noticed “quite a bit of turnover” at the elementary school level, which she thinks was because elementary teachers have high empathy.

Enrollment dropped from 1,844 students in the 2018-19 school year to 1,749 in the 2019-20 school year.

Nara Altmann, Marina’s mother, said she moved Marina to a different school mostly for concern about STEM’s rigorous academics.

She worries too much focus on grades can hinder students. Through research and word of mouth, she heard Cresthill excels at fostering development of the whole child, she said, including social-emotional learning.

Marina felt apprehensive about leaving STEM but both she and Nara said the move to Cresthill turned out to be the right choice.

For many, returning to STEM was the right choice, Eucker said. It meant being with people who endured what they endured. STEM represented to them a shared experience and people who understood the significance of May 7 firsthand.

“That was something that I didn’t really think about until so many had voiced that sentiment, even at the very young ages,” Eucker said.

‘A day of strength’

If there is one thing Ganapaneni wants the community to know, it’s that “STEM is still a great school, and we’ve always been a great school.”

STEM planned to complete service projects on May 7 in an effort called “STEMShares,” but again had to pivot plans during COVID-19. Families are now encouraged to do good acts — donating to a food bank, helping a neighbor — at the family level instead of the classroom level, Eucker said.

“My personal hope is that we can redefine this from a day of fear to a day of strength,” Eucker said.

Nara listened to her daughter reflect on the tragedy — for the first time to someone outside the family — with a patient smile on April 28.

For Marina, May 7 taught her a tragic lesson that helped her walk into the COVID-19 crisis with confidence. She more fully understands people can reach rock bottom, she said, but still move forward.

“Everyone is going to fall down and crumble under pressure,” Marina said, “but then you build yourself up.”

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