A group of three STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting survivors and three students from other Denver metro area schools sat down last week to talk with Colorado Public Radio — and, more importantly, with each other — about mental health, social media, surviving a shooting and more.
Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner asked, "Do you think adults, parents, understand what school feels like right now?"
"Uh, no," said Kai, a soon-to-be senior at STEM. The others agreed.
Two student suspects have been charged with murder for the May 7 attack on STEM School Highlands Ranch. The shooting left Kendrick Castillo, a senior who was days away from graduation, dead. Eight other students were injured.
Here are select moments from the conversation in which students built on each others’ thoughts and asked each other questions.
‘For me personally, I definitely don’t feel as safe going to school anymore.’
Lillian will be a junior at STEM, and is one of the survivors who shared her experience of that day. She and the other students reflected on what it’s like to be a young person in the era of lockdowns in a state not only synonymous with school shootings, but where suicide is the leading killer of young people.
In the conversation, we heard how the teens do and don’t see the world differently after the shooting, how they see the suddenly more personal politics of gun legislation, and the questions the group have for one another.
Lillian: For me personally, I definitely don’t feel as safe going to school anymore.
Walking into the classroom that I was in during the shooting, it’s not built to be some sort of fortress or defensive, it’s built to be a school with open desks, lots of legroom. But it’s hard to see those same desks that were built for you to sit at and learn as your only defense against a shooter.
‘I live five minutes from Columbine, I go to Arapahoe, I almost went to STEM. This is insane, that it’s all right here.’
Aidan will be a senior at Arapahoe High School, which had a shooting of its own in 2013 where one student was killed.
Aidan: I live five minutes from Columbine, I go to Arapahoe, I almost went to STEM. This is insane, that it’s all right here.
My parents say sometimes, they wonder if there’s a certain something, like a certain culture or a certain aspect to the south Denver Metro area, which is very specific, that warrants these kinds of things.
Lillian: It’s especially hard when only a couple of weeks after the 20th anniversary of Columbine school shooting, that STEM had a school shooting. It feels a little hopeless that nothing has changed to stop STEM, or any of these shootings from happening all over again.
‘It felt like it was going to happen at some point, like it’s inevitable?’
Nalia, who will be a junior at George Washington High School, said she doesn’t feel any less safe in school than she does out in public.
Nalia: There's been so many shootings in synagogues and temples in grocery stores, in schools to the point where I feel kind of desensitized to it all.
Kai: When the school shooting happened for me, it was just, 'Well, it's finally happened,' because there's just been so much lately and it really is too common, honestly.
Nalia: So from your perspective, like it felt like it was going to happen at some point, Like it's inevitable?
Kai: It just happens so frequently.
Lillian: I definitely didn’t feel like it would happen at STEM, like that came as a surprise… but if I had seen a notification about, I don’t know, a Tennessee school shooting with one dead and eight injured, it would have made me sad for a moment but I definitely wouldn't’ have dwelled on it for long.
If anything, I probably would have thought I was glad that the toll wasn’t higher. Because even when the more devastating attacks happen like Parkland, everyone seems to move on remarkably quickly.
‘Did you feel like the drills that you’d done before helped you prepare?’
“Did you feel like the drills that you'd done before helped you prepare? Do you think they're a good thing?” Aidan asked Kai, a soon-to-be senior at STEM.
Kai: Sort of, I guess. I mean, they taught us what to do when it happened, but it never really occurred to us that they could actually happen.
Lillian: For me personally, it's a little different. I thought about the possibility of it happening before, and I think they're definitely helpful... I think that they have saved and can still save a lot of lives in school shootings.
Nalia: After the shooting, did your school discuss ways to be more safe in the future or did they have more restrictive drills afterwards?
Lillian: We didn't have any drills afterwards. We kind of, we stopped going to school for a couple of weeks. And then we went back for days that were two hours. Two hours long with 25-minute-long class periods. And so we haven't had anything else happen.
‘He also talked about how he knew how to make bombs.’
Mattysen will be a senior at Castle View High School. She said that within the first few weeks of her starting at the school her sophomore year, a student in her math class shared “weird, disturbing stuff” with her.
Mattysen: For a while he was talking about like, how many guns he had. And at one point he said, “Mattysen, when I come to shoot up the school, you’re going to be the first one that I kill.”
So I talked to the teacher about it and I was like, “Can you move me away from this kid, because he’s very creepy.” The teacher emailed the school counselors and was like, “This is happening, in my class. Like, can you do something about it?”
I get called up… and like six counselors, and our school resource officer, all start asking me questions about it and what I had seen. He had shown me actual plans of what he was going to do when he shot up the school
Nalia: Like, typed-up plans?
Mattysen: No, he had just written them down in his notebook.
Lillian: But was the plan like, go to this classroom?
Mattysen: No, it was like, this is how I’m going to shoot up the school, this is when I’m going to shoot up the school. Like stuff like that, and then he also talked about how he knew how to make bombs. And so he would like, try to blow up part of the school before.
‘Don’t you think parents would say, I want to know if my kid is in a classroom with a teacher who is armed?’
Nalia: Teachers are there to teach. They didn’t get their degree to be armed and have to deal with this whole new environment. I think it makes the idea of a school shooting become more prevalent in school, when I think you should just be thinking about learning.
I understand that people would want to do that just in case that situation were to come up, but I think that having the guns present in a classroom or locked up in a cabinet might actually make it more accessible for a student to try grabbing a gun.
Aidan: There’s all this talk about mental health, and how schools can sometimes not be a safe place for mental health, and I think having armed teachers, I don’t think that would be good for students’ mental health. I know that wouldn’t be good for my mental health.
Tyler, who just finished middle school at STEM, said he can see how it can be both good and bad, that it could impact mental health, but how it might make him feel safer at school.
Tyler: I was one class away from where one of my friends got shot in the leg. And so I think I would have felt a lot better if I had known, down that hall, there might be a teacher who had a gun.
If teachers are armed, I do not think that any parent or student would be entitled to know that. I mean, parents might be able to, but I don’t think students are entitled to know if a teacher is armed or not. Because that could create some anxiety.
Aidan: Don’t you think there would be backlash against that though? If there was a rule that you didn’t have to inform parents or students, don’t you think parents would say, “I want to know if my kid is in a classroom with a teacher who is armed?”
Tyler: Yeah, but either don’t tell them at all, or just tell the parents and be like, do not tell your child because the students don’t need to know this.
Aidan: I don’t feel great about that.
‘Do you think that the extra counselors and support dogs -- did they help?
Mattysen: All you can think about is like, if someone were to walk in trying to kill us right now, like where do we hide? Like, what do we do? So that's kind of scary and we don't really feel safe anymore. And it's hard to concentrate on your schoolwork when that's all you can think about.
And then I have a question for Tyler. So do you think that the extra counselors and support dogs — did they help?
Tyler: I think they did because every event I went to, including when we were at school, they were always the dogs and the counselors. Right. And they seem to help people calm down if they got upset or distraught over anything. And so having them there, I think it was just that helped that if those who needed it, it was there and they didn't have to go looking for it. It was just there.
Kai: They were there by the entrance. When you walked in, it was comforting to see the dogs. Well, I suppose that's their job.
‘Do you feel like even just going to someone just to talk through issues is helpful?’
Lillian said that her mom has encouraged her to see a counselor since the attack.
“‘Oh, I'm, I'm good without it, Mom,” Lillian responded. “But she wanted me to, so I will.”
“I think that a lot of the struggle is that it can be hard for the people to want to reach out for help,” Lillian said.
Nalia asks Lillian if she’s seeing a counselor currently.
Lillian: So I haven't gone, she just wants me to.
Nalia: But like, I mean, even if you personally aren't really distraught from this situation, do you feel like even just going to someone just to talk through issues is helpful even though you don't have a direct illness?
Lillian: Yeah I do, and I'm actually, my mom wouldn't make-me-make-me if I didn't want to go. And part of the reason I do want to go is because I do find myself thinking about the uh, shooting at STEM every day and it's not quite intrusive but definitely sometimes I'm like, "I don't want to be thinking about this right now," and my mind is just like, "Here you go."