Douglas County School Board Considers Shorter STEM School Contract After Shooting

June 18, 2019
Photo: STEM Shooting 15 | Sign With Flowers American Flag
A light snow covers bouquets of flowers placed on the sign for STEM School Highlands Ranch following Tuesday's shooting, in Highlands Ranch, Colo., Thursday, May 9, 2019.

A little more than a month after a student died in a shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch, the Douglas County Board of Education is proposing to rescind a resolution extending the school's contract by three years and instead review it after just a year.

Questions about the school’s culture emerged in the wake of the shooting, which also injured eight students. The district declined to comment on the proposal, which goes before the board Tuesday night. 

STEM School is a charter school, meaning it is an independently run public school that operates under contract with a local school district. Charter schools, which have their individual oversight boards, don’t have to follow the same hiring or curriculum requirements as other public schools and can opt out of many school district policies.

In a letter to families and school board members, school officials said they have asked the board to reconsider the shorter contract. They said it came “at a time when the community is recovering from the most trying circumstances it has ever faced. To send a signal that the District is not more supportive of STEM only makes the challenges for the STEM community more onerous.”

STEM School executive director Penny Eucker characterized the district's proposal as hostile.

"It is clear they are using the tragedy to try to shut down one of the best schools in the state," Eucker said.

The proposal to move ahead with just a single-year contract states that the shooting “has raised questions about school safety and security that may impact the terms and conditions of STEM’s charter school renewal and contract.” Board members wrote that the question of a longer contract is best addressed after the law enforcement investigation into the incident finishes.

In its letter to the board and parents, STEM school officials said during the May 7 incident, it followed best practices and “above-standard emergency response Protocol” that was reviewed by the district. “We are confident that we appropriately followed our protocols for lockdown, lock-out, emergency response notification and evacuation during this tragedy,” it reads.

At the time of the incident, the school employed a private security officer. The letter notes that in the coming school year, STEM School will have a full-time school resource officer  from the sheriff’s department and a full-time private security guard. 

“Students, staff, parents and mental health providers overwhelmingly reported that the community was well prepared to handle the emergency,” the letter notes. They pointed to the academic accolades STEM has received and the waiting list of 1,000 families  hoping to enter the school. 

The proposed resolution is the latest move in a long-simmering dispute over the school’s charter renewal.  On Jan. 8, 2019, the Board of Education renewed STEM’s charter for three years, subject to certain conditions. STEM had initially asked for a five-year contract and appealed that decision to the State Board of Education. That appeal was put on hold after the May 7 shooting.

Parents had previously raised concerns about mental health and special education support at the school. The board’s resolution makes explicit the requirements for special education educators and mental health providers in the school and calls for timely completion of safety assessment reports, threat and suicide assessment reports.

The resolution also requires that, over the course of the next school year, the STEM school conduct a strategic planning session; administer and share satisfaction surveys from staff, parents and students; and submit “timely and accurate” financial reporting, as well as monthly minutes of its school accountability meetings. It also stipulates that all STEM staff take annual mandatory online trainings on respect in the work place, standard response protocol, child abuse reporting and keeping students safe. 

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.

In a Jan. 2, 2019, letter to the school, the district’s legal counsel said 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.

STEM’s letter to the parents and board states that the school meets the American School Counselor Association recommended ratio of 250 students to one mental health provider.

The letter also details efforts to make diverse students feel welcomed and accepted, and says the school exceeds recommended staffing for students with special needs.

Editor's Note: This story's headline and copy have been updated to better clarify the effects of the proposal.