STEM victims cite ongoing trauma in legal filing

Injury, wrongful death claims detail fallout for victims of school shooting

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Theater students at STEM School Highlands Ranch sat in their classroom on May 7 listening in terror as gunfire erupted in a nearby classroom. Shouting followed the gunshots, and then they heard threats being made in the hallway while the shooting continued.

One theater student recalled locking the door and telling everyone to take cover as her teacher “froze.” Amid the chaos, students thought they heard one of the shooters trying to enter their room.

The students' accounts were detailed in notice of claims filed by two families against the Douglas County School District, STEM School Highlands Ranch and the Douglas County Sheriff's Office.

The claims allege the school and district mishandled threats to STEM's safety and missed warning signs that the suspects could become violent. The Douglas County Sheriff's Office did not provide adequate security for the school either, according to the families. A school resource officer was not assigned to STEM following a dispute between the school and sheriff's office over the officer's duties. STEM hired private security for the year.

The two families' claims call for the amount of damages to be decided at trial.

The shooting left 18-year-old senior Kendrick Castillo dead and eight more students injured. Castillo died while trying to tackle one of the shooters.

John and Maria Castillo, Kendrick's parents, also filed a claim alleging the state agencies caused victims personal injury, seeking $500,000 in damages for “the wrongful death” of their son.

Student Brendan Bialy, who rushed one of the suspects with Kendrick and fellow student Josh Jones, filed a fourth claim and is seeking $1 million in damages.

STEM students Devon Erickson, 19, and Alec McKinney, 16, were arrested the day of the shooting for allegedly plotting the attack and opening fire in a British literature course. They face 44 felony charges each for their suspected roles in the shooting.

“Notice of claims” are written notices to government agencies, filed when someone believes the public entity caused personal injury or a wrongful death and intends to file a lawsuit.

The claims, first reported by The Denver Post and obtained by Colorado Community Media through a public records request, say parents warned the district and STEM of a dangerous culture at the school that could foster a school shooting.

The school knew both suspects had mental health concerns and were “outcasts and loners, prone to anti-social behavior,” Bialy's claim states.

Bialy now suffers “extreme trauma, PTSD, grief and anxiety” as a result of the shooting, according to the document. “These injuries are serious, debilitating and permanent in nature,” it says. Bialy joined the U.S. Marine Corps after leaving STEM but left, he says, because of his conditions.

The theater students reported similar traumas. The students still experience nightmares, flashbacks and post-traumatic stress symptoms, according to their notice of claims.

Their claims state “numerous concerns were raised by STEM School Highlands Ranch parents to the school administration and staff related to one of the suspected gunmen” in the 2018-19 school year.

Another parent called the school district in December 2018 with concerns. The district wrote to STEM detailing the parent's concerns and directing the school to investigate, according to the document. The parent feared a repeat of Columbine or Arapahoe High School shootings.

The school initiated a “Jane Doe” lawsuit against the parent, who was anonymous. The district and school's handling of the complaint resulted in a “chilling effect” on parents who might raise concerns about the school, the claims states.

The Castillo family's claim states STEM School Highlands Ranch and the Douglas County School District failed to protect Kendrick and the school by not addressing multiple warning signs.

As of April 29, 2019, an internet user based in Littleton edited the school's Wikipedia profile to say 'Do they work? We shall see,” in regard to the school's anti-suicide and school shooting prevention programs described on the webpage.

A parent also warned of a future school shooting at STEM, but the district and charter school “failed to take appropriate and necessary action to protect Kendrick Castillo and other students, faculty and staff at STEM School Highlands Ranch,” the claim states.

The district did not provide “the appropriate individuals” or STEM School Highlands Ranch with information regarding Erickson and McKinney, and both the school and district failed to notice warning signs of future violent behavior from each of the teen suspects, the claim states.

The district and STEM didn't prevent the suspects from bringing weapons into the school and allowed Erickson to come and go from the school without questioning him, according to the Castillos' claim.

A spokeswoman for the Douglas County School District said the district had no comment on the claims at this time. A spokeswoman for STEM said the school disagrees with the claims but could not comment further.

The Castillos' attorney, Dan Caplis, provided a statement to media but said they could not provide interviews at this time.

“Mr. and Mrs. Castillo are determined to do everything in their power to prevent Colorado students and teachers from being shot to death in their school. That includes using the legal process to reveal the full truth about what led up to the attack that took the life of their heroic son Kendrick,” the statement reads.

John Castillo told Colorado Community Media he could not comment on the claim at this time. He said he is focused on keeping Kendrick's memory alive through honors the teen has received since his death, but he believes the claims will shed light on what led to the tragedy.

“It's about trying to make our schools and communities safer by obtaining truths and details about what happened on May 7,” Castillo said.

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