The STEM School shooting on May 7 forever changed the lives of everyone affected, and had ripple-effects throughout a community that felt remarkably safe and secure.
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On her first Mother’s Day without her only child, Maria Castillo mustered the strength to get out of bed and into the shower, where she wept.
In the kitchen, eight teenage boys and girls, friends of her son, cooked her breakfast. They added items to a bench, a makeshift shrine, with a few of her son’s favorite things: Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” and Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.” A pair of lab safety glasses. A pocket-sized, dark-green Jeep — the same color and model as the one parked in the driveway.
Since the May 7 shooting, hundreds of people, from near and far, have used social media to connect with others and brainstorm ways to support those hurting.
Starting May 10, Fastsigns, a custom sign and graphic company based in Englewood, is giving away “STEM Strong” yard signs in honor of Kendrick Castillo, the STEM student who was killed in the shooting. The company requests a $10 donation in cash or check, which will go to Castillo's memorial fund at Wells Fargo.
Larissa Croll, owner of Fastsigns, 5124 S. Broadway, thought of the idea when a Douglas County teacher requested the sign, she said in a news release.
“Our community is rallying around the students, teachers and families affected by this tragedy and around the first responders who were there to help,” Croll said in the release.In Highlands Ranch, Shaylynn Hall, a STEM parent, organized a May 10 supply drive to thank and honor law enforcement who responded to the shooting, along with STEM teachers and the Castillo family. At Northridge Recreation Center, community members funneled through a conference room, placing comfort food and necessities into buckets. Therapy dogs occupied the hallway.
The event had a ripple effect.
“This is as much healing for this staff as it is for them,” said Jamie Noebel, community relations manager for the Highlands Ranch Community Association.
During the shooting, Northridge was designated as a reunification center for parents and students of the K-12 school.
In the aftermath of tragedy, mental health experts point to resources and encourage the community to stay resilient.
“We are strong. Colorado is strong,” said Dr. Sarah Davidon, research director at Mental Health Colorado, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the treatment and prevention of mental health and substance-use disorders. “Our school districts are strong. Our communities are strong.”
Colorado knows the sequence of events all too well. The May 7 shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch that left one student dead and eight others injured adds to a list of mass shootings the state has experienced.
Anxiety and tension following such a tragedy are common feelings in adults and children, Davidon said. It's important for young people to know they are safe, their schools are safe and their feelings are validated.
“Kids sense a lot of anxiety and tension in the adults around them,” Davidon said. “Certainly we want to let children know that when something like this happens, it's OK to feel these things.”
Individuals process trauma differently. Some may react within weeks of a tragedy. For others it may take weeks or months, according to mental health organizations.
Symptoms to look for in children are a hyper-focus on death, problems with eating and sleeping, changes in behavior and school avoidance, according to Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates for family mental health.
In adults, responses to trauma may include flashbacks or nightmares, fear, edginess, social isolation and changes in mood.
Mental Health Colorado is one of several public health organizations that offer a robust network of online resources. For help in a number of areas — grief, how to find mental health services near you, suicide prevention and more — visit www.mentalhealthcolorado.org/help.
Schools are among the safest places to be, Davidon stresses.
Douglas County School District's network of mental health resources includes Prevention and School Culture and Mental Health Intervention departments.
The departments — made up of counselors, mental health professionals and teachers — spearhead seminars on life skills and promote wellness campaigns in schools, such as Sources of Strength. The suicide prevention program takes an upstream approach by helping students focus on what is working in their lives.
Each school has a crisis team that responds to building-level situations. Following the STEM tragedy, DCSD activated its district-level crisis team. Mental health professionals and administrators, in conjunction with the district's community relations department and local law enforcement, work together to provide assistance to communities across the county.
An official fundraising page has been set up for STEM School Highlands Ranch via The Foundation for Douglas County Schools. It can be found at www.coloradogives.org/STEMstrong
"All donations received through this campaign will be used for the benefit of our impacted students. Thank you for your support during this time," the website states.
In addition, a fund started last year to help victims of mass tragedy has been activated in the aftermath of the STEM shooting that left one student dead and eight wounded.
The Colorado Healing Fund is chaired by former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia H. Coffman and the nonprofit organization’s board of trustees, according to a news release.
"The Colorado Healing Fund exists to serve as the trusted, statewide organization for the collection of public donations in the aftermath of a mass tragedy," Coffman said in the release.
"Donations from caring Coloradans can be channeled to organizations working directly with victims of this terrible tragedy. If you want to help, we encourage you to give through the Colorado Healing Fund and know your generosity will help victims, survivors, families and the STEM School Highlands Ranch community in the weeks and months ahead."
Donations can be made by visiting ColoradoHealingFund.org and donating through Colorado Gives. Checks and in-person donations will be accepted at Colorado-based FirstBank locations. Donors should make checks out to “Colorado Healing Fund” and designate their donation for “victims accounts” to bank tellers.
Donations will be distributed to victims by the fund’s community partners, including the Colorado Organization of Victim Assistance.
Local victim assistance organizations and Douglas County officials are partnering with CHF to determine how best to support individuals and families after the STEM shooting, according to the release.
The National Association of School Psychologists has advice for parents wanting information on how to talk to their children in the aftermath of tragedies like the one at STEM School Highlands Ranch on May 7.
“High-profile acts of violence, particularly in schools, can confuse and frighten children who may feel in danger or worry that their friends or loved-ones are at risk,” the organization says on its website. “They will look to adults for information and guidance on how to react. Parents and school personnel can help children feel safe by establishing a sense of normalcy and security and talking with them about their fears.”
The following is a brief summary of some of the organization’s tips for parents. More can be found at the National Association of School Psycologists.
• Reassure children that they are safe.
• Make time to talk.
• Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate.
• Review safety procedures.
• Observe children’s emotional state.
• Limit television viewing of the traumatic events.
• Maintain a normal routine.
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