Written by Julie Turkewitz, Jack Healy and Patricia Mazzei
HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. — It was three days before the last day of school and the students inside Ms. Harper’s English classroom were whiling away the last period of the day watching “The Princess Bride” when one of their classmates walked in late and pulled out a gun.
“The only thing he said out loud to the students was ‘Don’t you move,’” said Nui Giasolli, an 18-year-old senior who was in the class at the time.
In that moment, she recalled, Kendrick Castillo, a gentle teenager fascinated by cars and engineering, lunged to stop the gunman and was shot dead. Eight other students were wounded in the shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch on Tuesday afternoon, which authorities said was carried out by two fellow students.
On Wednesday, parents and students across this stunned suburb south of Denver described Castillo’s actions as the latest act of self-sacrifice by students who now find themselves on the front lines of fighting off gunmen in America’s schools. His death came only a week after a student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte was killed as he stepped in to stop another gunman on campus.
Giasolli said Castillo’s split-second decision to lunge for the gunman gave the other students a precious few seconds of cover to dive under their desks or rush the gunman. Giasolli said a cluster of boys then tackled the gunman, allowing her and others to flee the classroom.
“I don’t have enough words,” Giasolli said in her living room Wednesday. “They didn’t have to risk their lives to save the 15 of us who were left.”
Schools across Colorado’s Front Range have been on edge over security concerns in recent weeks and hundreds closed temporarily last month after authorities reported a threat in the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the attack at Columbine High School. Then came the news that a man had opened fire on a classroom at UNC Charlotte, killing two and wounding four.
“You always have to think, what if this was my school?” Giasolli said.
Giasolli said the seniors stayed close to one another Tuesday afternoon as SWAT teams cleared their school and then took them to a recreation center, where thousands of anxious parents waited to reunite with them. They hugged one another and broke down sobbing in groups as they learned that Castillo, also a senior, had died. Giasolli said the tight-knit class was now bonded by grief and shock.
“We’re all shaken,” she said. “It happened right before our eyes. It happened right in our classroom. We’re all hurting. We all did know these kids. We did know the shooter. We did know the people who got hurt. We’re all hurting in our own ways.”
The suspects carried at least two handguns, and at least one of them had been restrained by a school security officer by the time law enforcement arrived, Sheriff Tony Spurlock of Douglas County said.
Spurlock said deputies had to force their way into the school because it was locked down. Law enforcement happened to choose a door that was near the shooting scene and quickly apprehended one of the suspects, who was identified as Devon Erickson, 18.
The contrast between the tributes to Castillo, who was hailed as a hero by his friends, his community and Colorado’s governor, and the first court appearance of the two suspects could hardly have been starker.
Erickson entered court Wednesday wearing a red jumpsuit draped over his thin frame. His hair, dyed pink and blue, hung over his face. He sat between his lawyers with his head hanging, and he was shackled at both the wrists and the ankles. At times his body shook slightly.
Castillo’s parents sat in the front of the court gallery. His father, John, wore a checkered shirt and a tense expression on his face. During the hearing, he turned his head toward Erickson and glared.
The younger suspect, whom court documents identified as Maya Elizabeth McKinney, entered the courtroom with a short brown haircut, wearing a polo shirt and shackles. The suspect’s lawyer began by saying that his client went by “Alec” and used male pronouns. The suspect, who prosecutors said is 16, stared straight ahead as the judge continued with the proceeding, calling the suspect “Mr. McKinney.”
The second suspect sat with his mother, an allowance the court permitted because he is a minor. The mother declined to be named. While details of the shooting remained sparse, students relayed some of the chaos that erupted in their classroom as they began to eulogize Castillo.
“He cared about his faith and his family and friends more than himself or anything,” said Sara Stacks, 17, who said Castillo had been her childhood best friend. “He was always the first to help when anyone needed it; if it was a friend to talk to, someone to hold the door, or carry something, he would always help no matter what.”
After the court hearing Wednesday, District Attorney George Brauchler said that he would consider trying the juvenile suspect as an adult. Brauchler, a Republican, is well-known in the state for his support of the death penalty, and he led the prosecution of the man convicted of killing 12 people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012.
Spurlock said neither suspect had been on law enforcement’s radar before the shooting and that the motive was unknown. He declined to say how the suspects had obtained the guns; in Colorado, it is illegal for anyone under 21 to own a handgun.
The shooting at the Highlands Ranch charter school is the latest at an educational institution, a phenomenon that has rattled communities nationwide as young people continue to face mortal danger in places long considered safe havens.
STEM School Highlands Ranch, which has about 1,800 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, will be closed for the rest of the week. Douglas County is an affluent area south of Denver with about 350,000 people. It sits next to Jefferson County, home to Columbine High School.