How STEM School tragedy changed Douglas County school policing

More SROs, new unit, detectives now serve county youths

Jessica Gibbs
jgibbs@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 6/2/20

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock was in the area of STEM School Highlands Ranch on May 7, 2019, when a harrowing call rang out from dispatch. A shooting was underway inside the K-12 school, with …

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How STEM School tragedy changed Douglas County school policing

More SROs, new unit, detectives now serve county youths

Posted

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock was in the area of STEM School Highlands Ranch on May 7, 2019, when a harrowing call rang out from dispatch. A shooting was underway inside the K-12 school, with 1,800 students enrolled. Spurlock raced to the scene.

There, he watched his deputies descend on the building. He said he saw “the worry and the terror” in faces of parents who came searching for their children. The sight of injured students being carried from the school sticks with him.

Roughly one year later, Spurlock leans on the memory of his deputies delicately balancing the rescue of STEM School victims while preserving a crime scene.

“Those are hard to do together, because your first instinct is, let’s protect everybody,” he said.

Spurlock explained that when the first commander reached the site of the incident, the officer realized a suspect was not only alive but that an injured student, Kendrick Castillo, 18, was lying injured on the ground.

The commander “knew that we had a major crime scene,” the sheriff recalled. Castillo would be the sole fatality in the shooting in which eight students were injured, and is hailed as a hero.

As the first school year after the tragedy wound down, Spurlock spoke with Colorado Community Media about the tragedy’s toll on him personally, and how it impacted the law enforcement agency’s approach to policing youth and schools.

The sheriff’s office launched a new unit called the JET team — Juvenile Enforcement Team — comprised of school resource officers who handle calls involving youth. The unit works when schools are on break.

The sheriff’s office is also partnering with the county to run a Youth Community Response Team, which pairs a deputy and a clinician to handle calls involving mental health in children. Douglas County launched the unit in response to the STEM School tragedy.

With new county funding, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office’s School Resource Officer program more than doubled its number of SROs this school year. It expanded into middle and elementary schools.

Before the incident at STEM, Spurlock said the SRO program was robust but strained in certain areas — particularly at the largest high schools in Highlands Ranch, where a single SRO was responsible for more than 2,000 students.

“We were constantly playing catchup, making sure that we had appropriate resources there,” he said. “Because of STEM, we were able to get resources to not have to do that.”

Expanding the program

Lt. Lori Bronner has overseen the SRO program in the sheriff’s office for four years and runs the new JET unit.

The sheriff’s office has long wanted to get SROs into middle schools, she said, because before this school year, SROs with a middle school near their assigned high school served both buildings.

That could leave one SRO responsible for more than 5,000 students.

“When the ratio was like that, it really throws off the dynamics of what a true SRO is,” Bronner said. “They weren’t getting that deep connection of what a true SRO can do.”

During the 2018-19 school year, the sheriff’s office provided nine SROs to local high schools, plus a corporal and a supervisor. That was the most it could do with the resources it had, Spurlock and Bronner said.

Police departments also provide SROs for schools in their jurisdiction and added SROs following the shooting.

By the end of the 2019-20 school year, Bronner had 24 SROs in place from the sheriff’s office. The new positions are funded by an annual $3 million that the Douglas County Board of Commissioners offered local schools after the STEM tragedy.

The cost of SROs is split between the school and the sheriff’s office, and the county’s $3 million had to be matched by the district and charter or private schools that sought it.

The Douglas County School District declined to comment for this story. A spokeswoman said the district is not discussing issues related to STEM while the shooting case remains open.

Spurlock said the JET team, which launched in March during spring break, is critical because the SROs have connections and resources other deputies do not.

As an example, if an underage party needs broken up, Spurlock said they now dispatch the JET team. The unit’s SROs can access school databases, determine which local schools the partiers attend, and often already know the students because they work in schools.

Bronner said evaluating the impact of the bolstered SRO program and the JET unit will be skewed this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She does know their patrol deputies saw a 56% decrease in calls for service involving juveniles when the JET team was in action. That relieves pressure on the patrol, she said.

The sheriff’s office also added two juvenile detectives and a corporal to its ranks.

The juvenile detectives help SROs investigate threats against a school. They can look into a student with a pattern of misbehavior and form plans to support the child.

Now when SROs or deputies with the department’s Youth Education and Safety in Schools (YESS) program conduct education in schools, “we are having much more conversations about mental health issues,” Spurlock said.

The sheriff’s office in May transitioned away from its local Text-A-Tip program, which it began in 2009 before the state launched the Safe2Tell program, because the programs were near identical. Text-A-Tip and Safe2Tell allow students to anonymously submit tips about things like school threats or concerns for a friend’s well-being.

But officers encouraged using the programs when they both operated. Promoting the programs more enabled the sheriff’s office to intervene in a number of teen suicides, Spurlock said, and led to child abuse investigations.

“That’s the goal,” he said. “To have these other kids say it’s OK to tell an adult, a responsible adult, this is what’s going on in a child’s life.”

The sheriff’s office provided a breakdown of Text-A-Tips by middle and high schools for the year leading up to the STEM incident and the year after.

Numbers are not an exact total, as one tip could be recorded for multiple schools if it applies to more than one campus, but the sheriff’s office recorded 798 tips between May 1, 2018 and May 31, 2019. From June 1, 2019 through March 23, 2020, the date Colorado Community Media’s record request was fulfilled, the sheriff’s office recorded 530 tips.

The state compiles Safe2Tell data in a report for Colorado as a whole and does not release district and school-specific data publicly.

Guard’s actions questioned

The tragedy also sharpened Spurlock’s views on working with private security companies.

The sheriff’s office did not have an SRO assigned to STEM at the time of the shooting. Instead a private security guard was on duty.

STEM hired the security company after a dispute arose between it and the sheriff’s office regarding SRO duties and fees. The two parted ways for the 2018-19 school year.

Arrest affidavits later showed investigators found the private guard mistakenly fired shots at responding officers during the shooting, injuring two students in the process. Spurlock told Colorado Community Media in February, when the younger suspect in the shooting pleaded guilty, that the guard caused avoidable harm.

“The key thing for me was that clearly the security guard was ill-trained and ill-prepared, and in my opinion, acted recklessly and dangerously,” Spurlock said.

STEM had requested the guard be unarmed while working at the school, public records showed. Spurlock said the sheriff’s office knew the school had contracted with private security, but his deputies did not know the guard was armed when responding to the shooting.

Fourth Judicial District Attorney Dan May did not charge the guard, Shamson Sundara of BOSS High Level Protection, after closing a special investigation into the matter. The guard agreed to enter a diversion program and complete community service, however.

His employer hailed him has a hero who helped prevent more bloodshed. Sundara disarmed and detained one of the two suspects while the teen appeared to attempt suicide, according to video displayed in court hearings.

Spurlock said the sheriff’s office frequently trains alongside private security, including the school district’s security team, and shares its facilities with private companies for training purposes.

But there is no guarantee a company has trained alongside local law enforcement, Spurlock said, and the sheriff’s office had not trained with BOSS.

“I think that security companies and local law enforcement should train together or at least at a minimum understand each other’s area of responsibility,” Spurlock said.

The tragedy eventually led the sheriff’s office and STEM to resolve their disagreement, Spurlock said, calling their relationship good now.

“Whenever you have a tragedy like that, two things can happen. Either you come together and help each other out or you don’t, and in this case, we did,” Spurlock said.

The sheriff’s office once again provided STEM with SRO services for the 2019-20 school year.

Returning to STEM

When Bronner is looking to add an SRO to the program, she looks for a sworn officer with prior road experience — someone who can handle any call that comes up.

“But then I need a person who knows and understands kids. Wants to work with them,” she said.

She tries to match an officer’s personality with a school culture. For a school that recently endured a crisis, that task became more sensitive, she said.

“I knew when I was thinking about who to put over at STEM, I needed somebody who wanted to be there, who is very outgoing and is going to be confident going into a situation where there is going to be an emotionally strong environment for a while,” Bronner said.

Deputy Jose Uribe was her first choice.

“I barely had the question out before he was like, “Yes, I want it. Yes, I want it,” Bronner said.

Assuming the SRO role in a school coming back from a shooting “changes your perspective,” Uribe said. He feels as though he can’t let down his guard. He wants the community to know he is trained and prepared for anything.

“Things can go from being perfectly fine to very, very bad from one second to another,” he said. “I know it sounds bad, but it has to be true, but showing them that I’m ready to fight when the fight comes my way.”

Although he’s ready for a worst-case scenario, he said, Uribe doesn’t want to perpetuate paranoia.

His job sometimes involves being an informal counselor for children. Students know he is not an expert, Uribe said, but he has an open-door policy if they need to talk. His time at STEM has been the most rewarding of his career, he said.

“I’ve seen them from the beginning of the school year, very shy, very apprehensive, unsure about what’s going to happen,” he said, “To starting to see them smiling more, less afraid of being in class.”

STEM’s Executive Director Penny Eucker said in a prepared statement that the school community is grateful for Uribe.

“Deputy Uribe is a model school resource officer, and he is creating strong and meaningful relationships with our students, staff and families,” she said.

Uribe’s approach to serving as an SRO echoed how Spurlock and Bronner described the spirit of their programs.

“The goal is not to arrest kids. It is to keep them safe and to guide them when they are out and also be there, so they don’t get themselves in trouble,” Spurlock said of the JET team.

For SROs, he said, the goal is to keep students safe and healthy, “not to be the security guy at the front door.” Bronner said the STEM tragedy allowed the community “to realize the importance of SROs and all that they do, more than just being a police officer in the school.”

Rewarding work

As STEM’s 2019-20 school year began, the sheriff’s office sent multiple deputies and supervisors, Bronner included, to the school during pickup and drop-off. Bronner said they handed out junior deputy stickers, focusing extra attention on the younger children, while welcoming students to STEM.

“Letting them feel comfortable, that it’s OK to come back to school and that they’re going to be OK,” she said.

Spurlock said that was more for comfort than security. The sheriff’s office stationed deputies at entrances so they could be visible across the campus.

Slowly, Spurlock said, the sheriff’s office weaned those deputies off, leaving Uribe to keep watch.

In closing the school year, Uribe said “nothing compares” with getting close to STEM students or changing an “I don’t want to be here” attitude into a smile, and an “OK, I’m going to try.”

The work, he said, is rewarding.

“I want those kids to go back to being kids, to being children. I want them to go back to laugh, to cry, to have fun, to get into trouble, the regular trouble that you get into at that age,” Uribe said. “And I want parents to go back to being parents.”

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