STEM School was urged to investigate concerns over 'a repeat of Columbine' months before shooting

HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. – A woman claiming to be a parent of a STEM School student warned school district administrators in December about what she described as rampant bullying, drug use and her fears of a “a repeat of Columbine” at the semi-autonomous charter school.

The anonymous complaints alarmed authorities enough that they requested an investigation by police and school officials.

It’s not yet clear whether there’s any connection between the woman’s complaints and the Tuesday attack at the school that killed one student and injured eight others. Two students accused in the attack remain jailed and are expected to be formally charged Friday.

As a charter school, the STEM School is largely exempt from the rules and policies governing neighboring public schools, although it is still accountable to the district via a legal agreement.

STEM School officials in January adamantly rejected the woman’s concerns and sued her for defamation, according to court records and a letter sent by district officials to the school and obtained by USA TODAY. Because the woman’s call was made anonymously, STEM School officials asked a judge to subpoena phone records to find her.

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The caller told district officials that the school’s high-pressure environment was creating a “perfect storm” because of drug use, peer pressure and an administration blind to ongoing problems, according to a summary provided by district officials.

District leaders were meeting Thursday to discuss the shooting and did not immediately responded to requests for comment.

“While the anonymous nature of the call and lack of detail relating to some of the allegations limits what can be verified, the concerns expressed by this individual are very serious and need to be looked into to the extent possible,” Daniel Windsor, an administrator for the Douglas County School District, wrote in the letter to the STEM School’s executive director, Penny Eucker.

In their lawsuit, STEM School officials called the woman's complaints “outrageously false” and categorically denied them. The case is still pending. STEM school officials have not responded to requests for comment about the shooting or the woman’s complaints.

Discovery of the the letter and lawsuit added yet more emotion to an already tense situation for grieving families and students. Wednesday night, hundreds of STEM students attending a vigil stormed out over frustration that it politicized their grief by focusing on gun control. The event was organized by the Brady Campaign, a gun-control group, but many attendees didn't realize that.

Police have arrested two STEM students in connection with Tuesday's shooting that left one student dead and eight others injured.

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One of three students credited with overpowering a gunman at a suburban Denver high school said Kendrick Castillo, a close friend and the lone fatality from the carnage, was the true hero who halted the bloodbath.

“Kendrick went out as a hero,” Brendan Bialy told reporters. “He was a foot away from the shooter and instead of running the opposite direction he ran toward it.”

Eyewitness accounts detailing how heroic students and a former U.S. Marine helped end the attack at STEM School Highlands Ranch continued to emerge as court proceedings began for the suspects.

Authorities arrested Devon Erickson, 18, and a second suspect – a juvenile identified both as Maya McKinney and Alec McKinney – who they say walked into classrooms at the K-12 school Tuesday and opened fire. Erickson, a student at the school, faces a murder charge and dozens of attempted murder charges in connection with the shooting that killed Castillo, 18.

Students and teachers raise their arms as they exit the scene of a shooting at the STEM School Highlands Ranch.
Students and teachers raise their arms as they exit the scene of a shooting at the STEM School Highlands Ranch.

One of the shooters was disarmed and subdued by a former Marine working as a private security guard patrolling the school, his boss said.

Castillo, Bialy and Joshua Jones minimized the bloodshed by attacking Erickson when the gunfire erupted in their classroom, witnesses said. Jones was shot twice, according to a statement released by his family.

Bialy said they fought back out of instinct, and even though the gunman got some shots off, Bialy wrestled the firearm from him and they were able to subdue him. Bialy said he was scared but unwilling to recoil from shooters he repeatedly called cowards.

“They lost,” he said. “They completely and utterly lost to good people.”

Gov. Jared Polis called Castillo a "hero" for charging at one of the shooters and lauded student Bialy for taking similar action. Their bravery allowed other students to run for cover and hide in closets and under desks.

"Colorado will always remember the heroism of Kendrick Castillo," Polis said in a statement.

Bacon reported from McLean, Virginia. Contributing: Kristin Lam, reporting from Los Angeles; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: STEM School was urged to investigate concerns over 'a repeat of Columbine' months before shooting