Barely a month after the terrible shootings of May 7 in which eight students were wounded and brave Kendrick Castillo was killed trying to protect his classmates, the Douglas County Board of Education (BOE) seems determined to lay more stress and pain on the already-suffering students and parents of the top-achieving Highlands Ranch public STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) charter school.
In a surprise move, the BOE introduced a resolution that would reduce their previous renewal of the school’s charter from three years to one year, likely subjecting the school to serious financial duress due to a lower credit rating and increasing the mortgage payments it makes for its building.
Over 100 STEM students and parents in STEM STRONG t-shirts showed up with STEM STRONG posters on the lawn of the school district building in Castle Rock to protest prior to the Board’s vote, scheduled for their June 18 meeting.
Though the published meeting agenda had set the time for public comment at 6:10, when the meeting started at 6:00, Board VP Wendy Vogel complained that the meetings just go “too late” and moved to change public comment time to 8:30. The rest of the Board voted yea.
Translation: we will make you annoying citizens sit through two and a half hours before we allow you to speak; if we have to be here, we’ll make you stay too. This is a notorious tactic of government boards and commissions which have figured out that when people have families waiting for dinner, they often put those obligations first and leave instead of speaking. And it worked with some of the 60 people who had signed up online to comment.
Over and over, parents voiced their shock and disappointment at the surprise resolution, which many had only learned about the day before, and the BOE’s lack of compassion for the STEM school and its students. Parents praised the school for its supportive community, educational excellence, and individualized care for their children. One even credited the school’s teachers with saving her son’s life by affirming his strengths as no other school had done.
STEM Board member Heidi Elliott‘s 13 year old daughter was in algebra when a bullet came through the door, grazing a classmate. And now the school district is adding more trauma.
“We were blindsided by this resolution last week,” she said. “Instead of talking to us about your concerns, you wrote this resolution and planned to vote on it tonight without telling us. We were not allowed to discuss these issues with you…At a time when we are grieving it feels like our own school board doesn’t believe in us.”
The BOE’s resolution to reduce its 3-year approval of STEM’s charter to one year “as a result of the shooting at STEM on May 7” comes with a list of over a dozen demands on the school. They include new reporting requirements, parent surveys which the school already conducts, financial reports, plus “staff mandatory training for respect in the workplace, standard response protocol, child abuse reporting and keeping students safe, hiring and retention of appropriately licensed special education teachers, special service providers, including without limitation mental health professionals and counselors in a manner that meets or exceeds District staffing ratios.”
According to a letter from STEM Executive Director Penelope Eucker to the BOE and parents, the school already exceeds the American School Counselor recommendation of a ratio of 250 students to one mental health provider by employing four counselors, two K-12 social workers, and a psychologist. But the BOE’s new demands could mean unlimited counselors and enormous new salary expenditures for STEM.
To many parents and STEM Board members, the onerous conditions looked a lot like persecution. STEM Board member Elliott told the BOE, “This list of demands belongs on an application for a failing charter which we are not. We are a thriving school; we’re your number one school – U.S.News & World Report puts us in the top 10 Colorado high schools. We have the highest SAT scores in the district by far.” She added that STEM already meets or exceeds every requirement of the District and the State Board of Education.
“It feels like you’re putting STEM on probation,” Elliott charged. “A precursor for something – shutting us down?”
The list of new conditions from the BOE blatantly infringes on the independence of charter schools, established by the Colorado legislature in 1993. School staff will be forced to spend hundreds of working hours to satisfy them, time that would be better spent serving students, said Elliott.
The BOE resolution never explains just how these new burdens they want to impose on STEM could make students safer. By all accounts, STEM followed District lockdown procedures and their “run, hide, fight” protocol practiced in drills at the school.
The obvious failure of the District’s official protocol to save student lives and prevent injury when deadly shooters invade classrooms is never discussed. Instead, the BOE wants to blame the STEM community who were the actual victims.
Even with a horde of armed police swarming the school just three minutes after the shooting started, one student died and eight others were injured and would have been killed if the killers were better shots. Run and hide didn’t work; only fighting back worked when young Kendrick charged a shooter and paid with his life. The other shooter was tackled by a private guard that STEM had hired after a sheriff’s deputy’s health-related absences took him out of the school earlier in the year. Fighting back certainly saved lives.
What the BOE coldly calls the “STEM incident” illustrates why another School Resource Officer (SRO) or even two or three per school is unlikely to prevent shootings because there’s no way an SRO could make it to the scene in less than the three minutes dozens of them reached STEM on May 7. Even with this rapid response, still one student died and eight others were wounded. But this tragedy did prove that only a defender located right at the unfolding melee – as were Kendrick and the security guard — can stop a shooter.
That was also the conclusion of the special Public Safety Commission investigating the Parkland, FL slaughter of 17 teachers and students in 2018. After nearly a year of research they voted 13-1 to recommend the state legislature allow volunteer, well-trained teachers and other staff to carry concealed weapons on campus. The Commission said it’s not enough to have one or two armed guards or police.
The Florida legislature heeded their wisdom and recently passed the law the Commission requested. In Colorado, armed conceal carry by designated school staff has been legal for many years.
But in Douglas County, the BOE is still focused on the fantasy that more SROs will prevent shootings. In fact, at the same June 18 meeting they approved a $500 million expenditure for seven more SROs from the various county sheriff’s departments. This looks like their counter-move to the onslaught of very bad publicity from their refusal so far to match the Douglas County Commissioners’ generous gift of $3 million annually for more SROs. The public perception that the school board doesn’t care about protecting kids with the $290 million in new funding the voters gave them last year won’t help re-elect incumbents, three of whom will probably run again this November.
Meanwhile, at least one STEM parent is questioning her vote. Nicole Churchill-Jones asked the BOE to grant the 5-year charter approval the District staff had originally recommended, noting that the BOE doesn’t require other charters to follow the new directives. “We feel singled out,” she said. Churchill-Jones added, “I spoke with two of you when you were running for the board; I asked if you were anti-charter and you said no. Maybe I should have asked if you were anti-STEM.”
The public comment continued until after midnight, when the BOE voted to postpone their decision on STEM’s one-year charter renewal until Saturday, June 29 at about 2:40. We’ll see if the BOE is more interested in scapegoating than solutions that will actually protect kids.
Joy Overbeck is a Colorado journalist, author and Townhall columnist who has also contributed to The Washington Times, The Daily Caller, American Thinker, and elsewhere.
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