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Lessons from the STEM School Shooting

A little over two weeks ago, and twenty years after the infamous killings at my beloved alma mater Columbine, two students once again took up arms to kill classmates. They now face 48 criminal charges including murder and attempted murder. Additional news surrounding the Highlands Ranch STEM school shootings continues to trickle out as we learn more about the ‘allegedly’ felonious adult and his gender-transitioning minor companion. Although our knowledge is incomplete, some things are clear.

First, the heroism and self-sacrifice of a small handful of students prevented the killers from doing even more damage. Senior Kendrick Castillo apparently took the lead in confronting the perpetrator who’d entered his English class and pulled a gun. During the ensuing scuffle Castillo was mortally wounded. Classmates Josh Lewis and Brendan Bialy also sprang into action, ultimately disarming and detaining the killer. Bialy later summarized the thoughts behind their actions: “I refuse to be a victim. Kendrick refused to be a victim.” From a generation better known for its dependence on cellphones and Facebook, this remarkable demonstration of physical courage and selfless valor is an inspiration to their peers and to all Americans. The trio deserves our admiration, especially those whose lives were likely saved by their intervention.

Second, the selfless heroism demonstrated by these three teenagers stands in stark contrast to the crass political opportunism of Congressman Jason Crow and Senator Michael Bennet. As students gathered to mourn Castillo’s death and comfort one another the night after the shootings, little did they (or their parents) know they were pawns in an orchestrated political event. Anti-gun groups had already swung into action to enlist student support for their movement, and the politicians obliged, hijacking the candlelight vigil to preach the need for gun-related legal reforms. Instead of having the opportunity to give voice to their grief, they became bystanders to a disgraceful performance of those with a political agenda apparently unable to resist the temptation to exploit human tragedy. Yet to the dismay of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Moms Demand Action, the students weren’t having it. Hundreds left the service in protest, angry and dismayed that politicians would attempt a bait-and-switch involving the life and character of a beloved classmate. People won’t forget such callousness.

Third, as legislators we can continue to take steps to make schools and students safer while respecting constitutional rights. Last year Republicans and Democrats came together to approve a $35 million package of grants for schools to enhance security by hardening school sites, training existing security personnel and improving school-to-law enforcement communications. The money was expected to last for two years because sponsors were uncertain how many districts might apply, especially as the grants were accompanied by a requirement for matching funds from a school or district. In the first year alone 95 districts or schools applied for and received grants totaling $29 million (the investment was effectively twice this number when matching funds are considered). As a result, when we learned this year’s budget would contain an additional $1 billion in tax revenues, we sought to amend it to increase grant funding. Because last year’s bill was bipartisan, we hoped additional funding would find similar support. All told, we proposed to transfer a little over $6 million from things like the Governor’s Office of Film, Television and Media promotion to school safety. Despite having an additional thousand million dollars, our friends on the other side couldn’t locate any extra money for school safety. We’ll try again next year.

Legislators and citizens will undoubtedly have a lot to say (and many questions to ask) when the General Assembly meets again to discuss public policy related to what’s happened: How much additional money should we set aside to protect schools? How can we become more effective in keeping would-be killers and their weapons out of school? Alongside our efforts to understand what social conditions and interactions precipitate these murders, what steps should be taken to insure we are equally committed to stopping these people once they decide to kill (clearly a “gun free zone” sign will not do the trick)? The one thing policymakers and educators won’t be able to do is replicate the years-long character formation that the parents and families of the heroic trio undertook; for that, we rely on the good people of Colorado. Parents and families are irreplaceable and we must encourage and celebrate their work and, to the extent possible, insure government isn’t an impediment to their efforts. That will be a far more productive use of time than talking politics to a roomful of grieving students.

Patrick Neville

House Minority Leader



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