Published May 9, 2019 | Updated May 11, 2019
In the months before the shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch, some parents raised concerns about bullying, violence, drug use and inadequate security. Over a few years, they also have raised concerns about civil rights violations against students with disabilities.
In December, an anonymous parent called to warn Douglas County school officials she feared the school could be the site of a shooting.
“The individual expressed concerns about a repeat of Columbine or Arapahoe,” Daniel Winsor, who oversees charters and school choice for Douglas County, wrote in a letter to STEM Executive Director Penny Eucker. According to the letter, dated Dec. 19, 2018, the anonymous caller described a high-pressure environment that drove students towards “group think,” calling it a “perfect storm.”
The caller told Douglas County school board member Wendy Vogel that she wanted to remain anonymous for fear her child would be expelled.
District officials asked the school to investigate the allegations, to “determine their legitimacy, and to take any remedial action that may be appropriate.”
“While the anonymous nature of the call and the 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,” Winsor wrote.
According to a letter from the school dated a month and a half later, on Feb. 1, 2019, the school did investigate and found no evidence to support the allegations. Eucker told CNN the school asked parents for information related to the allegations, and “did not receive any responses,” Eucker said.
“The safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is our highest priority.”
CPR could not independently verify the identity of the anonymous parent. District officials and STEM School officials did not respond to CPR’s requests for comment this week.
On Jan. 17, 2019, the school sued the anonymous caller for defamation. Barry Arrington, a noted conservative lawyer who frequently takes religious freedom, charter school and gun rights cases, represents STEM School Highlands Ranch in the case, which is ongoing. In their Feb. 1 letter to parents, board president Mark Alpert and Executive Director Penny Eucker called the accusations “outrageous” and “false” and wrote that they wanted parents to know the “depth of depravity” in the allegations.
“Our school is a very special place to learn and work,” the letter stated. “We are a beacon of hope for what’s possible K-12. We will continue offering transformative education for your STEM student.”
One student decided to leave the school last year because she didn’t feel safe. Her mother, Lakrisha Glenn, told CPR that her daughter Audrey addressed STEM School’s board of directors on why she was leaving.
Glenn says Audrey, a cheerleader who was popular within the school, told the board on May 15, 2018, that “there was really no sense of security.” She said her daughter told board members, “It’s been a standing joke for a few years that if any school is going to have a bombing or shooting it’s going to be STEM because those students know how to do that stuff,” referring to the high level of intellect and scientific talent among students. Glenn contacted CPR after this story was published and clarified that her daughter told the board she decided to leave the school because she didn't feel safe, but she made the specific comments about the "standing joke" after the board meeting.
Glenn and her daughter wanted more security officers at the school.
Glenn, who was active in the school’s PTO and organizing fundraisers, said the school could be very accepting of students who don’t conform to the mainstream. But she said her daughter also had faced some incidents of harassment, which were reported to the school, and that contributed to her lack of feeling safe.
The school also as a history of controversy over how it handles accommodations for students with disabilities.
Over an 18-month period, the school has been the subject of six complaints related to classroom accommodations and support for students with learning and emotional issues brought to either the federal Office of Civil Rights or the Colorado Department of Education.
That’s according to a Jan. 2, 2019 letter from the district’s deputy general counsel Wendy Jacobs to Eucker. It says one of the complaints resulted in a settlement agreement, two resulted in findings against STEM requiring corrective action, one resulted in no finding against STEM, and two are still pending. It notes that that during that time period, the district received no other complaints from any other Douglas County charter school.
In a 242-page document submitted to the school board and to Douglas County Superintendent Thomas Tucker in December, a group of parents allege there was inadequate attention paid to the needs of students with behavioral and other special needs.
The document cites “severe student safety and mental health concerns” in the 2018-2019 school year, but because of confidentiality, it doesn’t provide more details. It claims that students with potential behavioral challenges, such as autism, don’t have appropriate accommodations including supervision and that “this inherently puts other students at risk.” The document was authored and compiled by current STEM School parents.
The school has an unusually high number of gifted students, who often require higher levels of mental and social health support. They make up 21 percent of the school, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Parents claimed in the document that the supports available at STEM School were inadequate and that the school lacked other accommodations for students with learning and emotional challenges as required under federal law.
In a fundraising letter to parents, Eucker wrote about the school’s large gifted population, stating “this population has tendencies toward perfectionism and low tolerance for frustration.” To support this population, she said the school provides two social workers trained in this support, four counselors, and one psychologist.
The STEM school vigorously denied that it has violated federal law regarding treatment of special education students. In emails obtained by parents, Eucker wrote in February to DCSD staff, “The narrative that we are somehow to blame for a very small toxic parent culture who file complaints is unfair.”
The 242-page document was presented at a December board meeting when the school faced a vote on renewing its charter. At the time, other parents present spoke in support of the school.
Jeanie Brevoort, who has five children at STEM School, told the board the school made a huge difference for her eighth-grade son. He lacked confidence and academic abilities and she wanted the school to hold him behind a year. Before the start of the school year, they had her son meet teachers, the principal, and the counselor.
“They talked about his dreams and fears,” she said. “They put him in a math class with 11 kids and told him that his main job was to gain confidence, not to be afraid of math.”
“He’s still not a great student, but he has found safety there,” she said.
But number of claims from other parents raised a red flag from the district. The district wrote a letter to the school, concerned about the cost to the district to defend the school against the various disputes STEM engaged in over students with special needs.
A district letter to STEM states that since July 1, 2017, legal fees incurred by the district on STEM’s behalf total $52,384 plus the one settlement agreement costing the district $13,000. It said the school is responsible for paying those fees, and that the fees are anticipated to increase and the district is seeking reimbursement.
A constant theme in the allegations: the school’s intense learning environment and the pressures on students.
The school is known for its “bottom-up” learning style where students are expected to take ownership of instruction and subject matter.
“We defy definition and break with convention,” the school’s website says. Classrooms are often hubs of experimentation and can be dynamic and freeform.
While some described the school’s atmosphere as insular and exclusive, others saw it as close-knit and familial. In the wake of Tuesday’s deadly shooting, sophomore Marcus Sovich said he would not hesitate to return to the school.
“The thing about STEM, what makes the school great, at least for me, is the people that go there,” he said. “And it’s the interactions that a lot of us have with each other and how we can all kind of help each other get through things like this.”
Still, the academics can be intense and Sovich said that could strain some kids’ coping skills.
“We do get worked really hard,” he said. “I can see how that can be a difficult thing for some people.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated with clarification from former STEM mother Lakrisha Glenn about what contributed to her daughter not feeling safe at school. In addition, because of an editing error, the STEM school's fundraiser was mischaracterized.