Seizing life came easy for Kendrick Castillo. In his very brief eighteen years of living it, he aced school; built robots and friendships---robots singularly, friendships by the score. Outgoing and curious; fun and funny; a young man who loved and, in turn, was deeply loved. The high school senior had plans and dreams. But another young man---in a moment of hate and rage---with plans and dreams of his own cancelled Castillo’s future and changed countless lives.
On May 7th, just before 2:00 p.m., two young men---fellow students---arrived at Highlands Ranch’s STEM High School. One carried a guitar case to the literature class where Castillo and his classmates were getting ready to leave. He opened the case, removed a handgun and yelled, ‘No one move,’ before opening fire. Castillo and fellow senior, Brendan Bialy, rushed the shooter but an instant too late. Castillo suffered a fatal wound. In a flash, one life ended, others changed forever.
“Kendrick Castillo died a legend,” said Bialy, a Marine recruit who will be heading to basic training after graduation. “He was a foot away from the shooter and instead of running in the opposite direction, he ran toward it.”
In all, eight students were wounded by the pair. All have been released from the hospital. Meanwhile, two families wait as the legal ordeal unfolds. Another, instead of celebrating a milestone, must sadly plan a farewell.
Days after the ordeal, families and individuals stop intermittently at the memorial that has grown since the day of the shooting. Mid-Sunday morning, the Feiger family arrives to spend a moment at the shrine now populated with bouquets, candles and mementos. There is also an oversized senior class portrait of Castillo who wears a soft smile. The Fiegers’ sons, Evan and Nathan, are STEM students. Nathan, an eighth-grader wipes tears from his eyes as he approaches.
Since Columbine, American schools have drills in the event of a shooting. When the announcement sounded at STEM, both sons initially thought it was only a drill, until they heard gunshots. “I was in marketing,” said sophomore, Evan. At the same time, Nathan was texting his mother.
“He just wrote, ‘I love you…I think I’ll be alright’,” said mother, Carrie. The words provided only a sliver of reassurance because neither she nor her husband, Henry, could reach their boys. “You feel helpless,” she said. “I’ll save that text forever.”
Sophomore Evan had taken a physical education class with Castillo. His recollection of his classmate mirrored those spoken countless times by scores of students since the shooting. “He was nice.” But he also applauded Castillo and Bialy’s decision to act with no thought of their personal safety. “If you’re near it,” he said, “you have to fight. You’re right there.”
The STEM School shooting sits only minutes away from the one that put Colorado at ground zero for school shootings. A fact not lost on the man who will prosecute this crime. “If you had suggested to anybody behind me or in this room that within 20 years in 20 miles we would have dealt with Columbine, the Aurora theater, Arapahoe High School, the shooting of Zack Parrish and four other deputies, we’d have thought you mad, and yet here we are again,” said District Attorney George Brauchler.
But we are here again. And for parents like Denver news photographer, Dan Steffes, the first television news photographer to arrive at Columbine in 1999, frustration falls short of describing his emotions. “What’s it going to take to stop this stuff,” he asked. “Do we have to wait for the child of some Congressman or Senator to die like this before something gets done?”
So far in 2019 there have been eight school shootings across the country, killing four and wounding seventeen. They have occurred in big cities and tiny rural communities. Also, 2019 marked the 20th anniversary of the shooting whose name to many conjures up the image of school violence, Columbine. That anniversary brought together survivors of that event, former students now in their mid-thirties and many with young families of their own.
Like April 20th and Columbine, May 7th at STEM will remain seared in memory. So, too, will the name and face of Kendrick Castillo, a young man who did the only thing he thought he could and should do. And while it cost him his life, it also saved untold numbers of others. Like a meteor, he was a young man who shined bright and lit up the night but only for all too brief a moment.