What Educators Need to Know About the Latest School Shooting

By Denisa R. Superville — May 08, 2019 6 min read
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This post has been updated.

A day after a routine school day was again shattered by gun violence, the emerging details in the STEM School shooting in Colorado were beginning to take shape and drive home how no school shootings are the same.

The shooting killed 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo, a senior on the verge of graduating. Media accounts described him as a member of the school’s robotics club, a lover of cars and engineering. In interviews, some of Castillo’s classmates said he had lunged at one of the shooters who entered their classroom.

Now, the educators who must turn to calming fears and addressing the grief and trauma of students, parents, colleagues, and themselves, following strategies and practices that have been shown to create safe learning environments are more crucial than focusing on what they think would have prevented the latest school shooting, three experts said.

In the shooting in Highlands Ranch, Colo., which also injured eight students, police identified one of the two student suspects as a girl, an unusual occurrence in school shootings, according to experts.

While there is no typical profile of a school shooter, almost all school shootings are committed by young men, and half of them by students. The latest shooting is also unusual because police said there are two people responsible for the incident. Most school shootings have been at the hands of a single shooter, with a couple prominent exceptions such as the 1999 massacre at nearby Columbine High School.

The latest shooting also happened inside a school that spans all 13 grades, exposing children from a wide variety of ages to the confusion and trauma that stem from such an experience.

That could be challenging for educators when they return to school and must plan for and execute on providing long-term and differentiated support for students ranging from 5 to 18, including very young children who may not always be able to articulate their concerns and feelings.

“They just don’t fully comprehend what is happening in their building and on their campus,” Andy McGill, the K-12 assistant principal in the West Liberty-Salem, Ohio, school district, where a student shot and injured two others, one seriously, in January 2017. Educators need to be prepared to respond to students’ fears and the effects of trauma—even years after the incident, he said.

Sheldon Greenberg, a professor in the school of education at Johns Hopkins University and a former police officer, said that students’ ages, comprehension capabilities, perspectives, and cultures are important factors to consider when responding to their needs.

But a great concern for Greenberg is how the fear instilled from school shootings as well as the active-shooter drills to prepare for them will impact children overtime.

“We don’t yet know what the long-term effect is going to be of the fear that we are imposing on them,” he said. “It’s wrong..., and we are putting students of varied ages through the same kinds of active-shooter training, with just slight modifications, [and] we don’t know what long-term harm that that might be doing to young children, even older students.”

Staying the Course on Proven Safety Practices

While there are similarities between school shootings, and school administrators can learn lessons from each incident, educators have to remember that each event is unique, said Kenneth Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services and a consultant to school districts on safety.

“The key is behaviors—focusing on threat assessments, training, and protocols to assess and evaluate potential students who are at risk,” Trump said. “We have to be careful not to dramatically shift away from best practices based on the fact pattern of the latest school shooting, because the next one will have a little bit different fact pattern, and that’s what makes it hard to deal with.”

Superintendents and school administrators have been under tremendous pressures to “harden” schools as visible and tangible evidence of increased security to parents and legislators since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting in Parkland, Fla., last year, Trump said.

But behind the fortified entry ways, additional surveillance cameras, single-point entries, and scanning driver licenses, what matters is the steps educators are taking to build environments to address things like bullying and student mental health concerns, threat assessments, staff training to spot early warning signs, and creating a culture in which students feel comfortable seeking help and reporting their or their classmates’ concerns so that problems can be identified before they escalate into violence.

“Many of the best school safety measures are invisible—or certainly less visible, but also more meaningful and effective,” Trump said.

Police arrested an 18-year-old male student and a younger girl, also a student at STEM School Highlands Ranch, in connection with Tuesday’s shooting.*

Police have not yet detailed the role that the younger student played in the shooting.

“We don’t see many shootings with two people, and very rarely would one of them be female,” said Dewey G. Cornell, an education professor at University of Virginia Curry School of Education and the director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project.

“This already seems unusual, but I think we have to wait and see what the involvement was for each of these two individuals,” he added.

School shooting incidents can often set off a kind of contagion effect, with copycat-like threats following, and it’s important that educators take those threats seriously while also being careful not to overreact, Cornell said.

“It’s really important that schools have good solid training in responding to student threats so that they don’t overreact when students make alarming statements,” Cornell said. “We see them all the time, and in the context of the shooting, those statements seem very troubling and disturbing. More often than not what they reflect is a student who is frustrated and needs assistance.”

No Single Factor Leads to a School Shooting

Police said on Tuesday afternoon that they did not yet have a motive for the shooting.

Deborah Temkin, the senior program area director of education at the nonpartisan Child Trends, said there is never a single factor that leads to a school shooting.

“I think it’s a tendency of a lot of people to try to look for a cause and immediately try to target that cause in order to prevent future school shootings,” Temkin said. “But these are really complicated situations. We have to be careful in terms of laying blame... .”

But in time, Cornell said, there will be explanation for what drove the suspects to act as they did.

“There are very few of these cases where we don’t eventually have an explanation,” he said. “It may not seem rational or reasonable, but it is an explanation.”

Trump and Cornell stress that schools remain safe, and educators and law enforcement have thwarted several potential incidents—though those incidents are less likely to make the news.

“The overarching message is that our schools are safe places,” Cornell said. “We have shootings, unfortunately, throughout our community, and actually fewer shootings [in schools] than in restaurants and other public places.”

“There is really a broader problem of helping troubled individuals who are planning and preparing to commit a violent act,” Cornell continued. “It’s terribly tragic when it occurs in schools; it’s also tragic when it occurs in a theatre or in a restaurant... We need an approach that focuses on young people in schools, but we also need a broader approach that recognizes that schools are actually relatively safe places and that the problem of gun violence is ubiquitous in U.S. society.”

*NOTE: Although police had identified the younger suspect as female, an attorney for the suspect said during a court appearance on Wednesday that his client uses male pronouns, according to The New York Times.

Photo: This undated photo provided by Rachel Short shows Kendrick Castillo, who was killed during a shooting at the STEM School Highlands Ranch on Tuesday, May 7, 2019, in Highlands Ranch, Colo. --Rachel Short via AP

Staff Writer Corey Mitchell contributed to this report.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.