Douglas County School Board will allow charter to pursue state authorization

Agreement contingent on Ascent's approval, acceptance from state

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For John Castillo, father of the teen killed in the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting, arming teachers is one way local schools could increase security. On Sept. 3, he walked away from a Douglas County School Board meeting impressed by parent Rachel Keane.

Keane offered impassioned public comment before directors decided charter school Ascent Classical Academy can pursue authorization under the state, rather than the district, in order to continue a program allowing its staff to arm themselves.

The Lone Tree school fell at odds with the district after approving the armed-staff program last year and implementing it for the 2019-20 school year.

Keane is the mother of two students at Ascent. She believes the program creates a safer environment and could deter people from attacking schools.

“Their mission and their intent is to protect students,” she said, praising her family's access to school choice with arms raised and fervor in her voice.

As she left the meeting, Castillo stopped her.

“I agree with you,” he said, wearing a T-shirt bearing a photo of his son, 18-year-old Kendrick, who died in the May shooting at STEM.

Seeing the shirt and realizing who he was, Keane pulled Castillo into a hug.

“Keep the passion,” he said.

Wishing them well

The board's unanimous decision concerning Ascent's transfer marked a milestone in what has been a year-long discussion between the two entities. School board President David Ray said Ascent requested a conversion to the Colorado Charter School Institute one year ago, but the board did not “move that request forward” at the time.

The charter's CEO, Derec Shuler, told Colorado Community Media in August parents supported the program after the STEM tragedy, which, in addition to Kendrick Castillo's death, left eight students injured. Staff who volunteer undergo a variety of courses, including FASTER training, before they can carry on campus. FASTER stands for Faculty/Administrator Safety Training & Emergency Response.

“It's something that our parent community has been very vocal (about) wanting in the community,” he said.

Options like school resource officers are typically cost-prohibitive for schools of Ascent's size, he said. Enrollment this year is approximately 550. Ascent opened last year in Castle Rock and moved to Lone Tree for this school year.

School board member Kevin Leung said he was one of the board members initially opposed to Ascent's request. Over recent months, and with feedback from Ascent parents, Leung changed his mind.

“I would like to honor their wish and wish them well,” he said.

Ray has said the issue is not about arming teachers, but instead, a debate over what district policy allows and what it doesn't. Armed personnel must be hired for the sole purpose of school security. They cannot conceal their weapons and must be certified in Peace Officer Standards and Training, or P.O.S.T.

District officials believe Ascent's program is not in compliance with those parameters, but Ascent maintains it is operating within the confines of its contract.

Shuler said Ascent received a waiver from the portion of district policy pertaining to armed personnel when its contract was approved but a different portion, policy ADD, was later updated with new requirements.

Before voting in favor of the agreement, board member Anne-Marie Lemieux said she “stands firm” in her support of policy ADD and that the board expects all its schools to comply.

“Arming volunteer employees with concealed weapons poses a significant threat to accidental friendly fire,” she said.

Nearly a dozen Ascent parents spoke Sept. 3 in support of Ascent's program.

“It's a great school. My child is thriving there,” Ascent parent Valerie McKnight said.

Parents urged directors to continue providing Ascent with mill levy funding if the district releases it to CSI. A mill levy override passed in November provides Ascent with $1,200 per pupil annually.

The agreement approved by directors continues that funding through 2023, when Ascent's contract is set to end.

“We absolutely agree that, certainly for the 2019-20 school year especially, that those MLO dollars should stay with the student, because that school budgeted accordingly,” Ray said.

Ray said the next step is for Ascent's board to review the agreement and approve it before they can apply with CSI. Ultimately, the decision to take Ascent on remains with the institute, but DCSD is requiring a transfer be completed by next school year under the proposed agreement.

'Not the solution'

While school officials debated policy requirements, Ascent's program sparked calls for charter school autonomy and the freedom for charters to implement armed-staff programs if they wish.

Still, others lamented armed-teacher programs as posing a greater risk to students' safety. Parents who spoke against arming teachers thanked the board for enforcing its policy.

Mary Parker, grandmother of two students in Douglas County, said she understands owning a firearm gives people an added sense of security. She's held her concealed carry permit for approximately six years, but she doubts armed staff would deter perpetrators who are often suicidal.

“More guns is not the solution,” she said. “We must not introduce the cure that is worse than the disease.”

Castillo wasn't the only STEM parent to attend. Swathi Turlapaty has two children at STEM who she said remain traumatized from the shooting. The family left town on July 4 “because they couldn't handle the noise,” she said.

She noted an armed, private security guard at STEM is suspected of firing at a responding officer and injuring a student. She asked directors to consider what the STEM scene might have looked like with dozens of armed teachers and to imagine “the chaos and confusion that would ensue.”

“We cannot let schools be war zones,” she said.

Castillo did not speak during public comment. He was there to listen, he said, but he supports the idea of arming teachers and staff. He believes that, and closing campuses, could be two ways to increase school security as the community urgently looks to prevent another tragedy.

“We have to think of solutions that are time sensitive,” he said.

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