Standing tall in their royal blue gowns, STEM School Highlands Ranch graduates ignored the dark skies, light rain and dropping temperatures May 20 to walk proudly through a tunnel of family and friends, cheering and waving posters in the air, into the Broncos Training Facility.
The posters, decorated in STEM's blue and yellow school colors, read “STEMstrong.”
The term began circulating on social media on May 8, a day after two students opened fire at the Highlands Ranch charter school, killing one student and leaving eight others injured. It would soon be painted on cars, used as a hashtag on social media and printed on signs placed in front of homes and businesses across Highlands Ranch.
“It's a small community,” said Kristen Rollin, whose son, a ninth grader, performed with the school band at the graduation ceremony. “We are strong.”
After the May 7 tragedy, members of STEM leadership inquired about using the training facility, which is near Centennial Airport in unincorporated Arapahoe County, for graduation. The Broncos, Eucker said, "didn't hesitate."
The inside of the venue, an expansive turf field lined with rows of white seats, filled with a culturally diverse crowd of hundreds of grandparents, parents and young children. Law enforcement from Douglas County Sheriff's Office, Colorado State Patrol and South Metro Fire Rescue stood in small groups on the outskirts, watching over the crowd.
“We've always been a STEM family, but the recent events made us even stronger,” senior Kathryn Naherny said. She started at STEM in the sixth grade and was ecstatic to be graduating. “It's mostly just brought the STEM community closer together.”
The 121 graduates took over the first six rows. A single seat remained empty. On it rested a framed photo of Kendrick Castillo, the only fatality in the shooting, who died when he charged the shooter to save others.
“On May 7 we lost our innocence when we lost one of our own — Kendrick Castillo,” Penny Eucker, STEM's executive director, told the graduates. “Kendrick Castillo was the best example of STEM character traits. He has inspired all of us to be kind, inclusive, and to strive to be our very best.”
Mike Shallenberger, an engineering teacher who shared a close bond with Castillo, gave the graduation speech he had planned before May 7 happened. It was the speech he would've wanted Castillo to hear, he said.
Continue to care for one another, Shallenberger said. Remember to invest in friends and family. Be compassionate. Be kind.
“I hope that someday it is as easy for us to talk about loving one another as it is to talk about a new TV show, movie or something we saw online,” Shallenberger said.
Salutatorian Rooya Rahin thanked “the heroes of room 107.” Along with Castillo, seniors Brendan Bialy and Joshua Jones helped take down one of the two suspects. Jones was injured but is recovering; Bialy was not injured. Her recognition received a standing ovation from the crowd.
STEM students “defy and embrace the stereotypes that make a nerd,” Rahin said. They know how to master all-things science, tech, engineering and math. They also know how to laugh at memes, goof around and dance their hearts out at homecoming celebrations.
“We are STEM kids and the sense of community we have created for ourselves is one of acceptance and support,” Rahin said. “These difficult days have only reinforced that while our school may not be invincible, while we may not be invincible... we are STEM strong.”
The graduates, beaming with excitement, lined up to receive their diplomas. Despite the recent devastation at their school, this was their moment, their time to shine, taking with them knowledge learned and shared memories.
The road ahead for STEM is not linear, Eucker said the morning after graduation. She has been seeking recommendations from other school leaders who have endured tragedy, such as Frank DeAngelis, principal at Columbine High School when a 1999 mass shooting killed 12 students and one teacher. More than 12 mental health professionals remain at STEM to assist staff and students.
“Everything we do is a struggle because of the grief, but we also know Kendrick would’ve wanted our school to emerge stronger," Eucker said. "I think, with abundant mental health support and community support, we are all taking one step at a time.”