The executive director of STEM School Highlands Ranch adamantly denies allegations made by an anonymous school parent that STEM's climate and culture are out of control.
"I can't even fathom why someone would fabricate these sort of statements,” Penny Eucker said when reached by phone on May 9.
The allegations were the focus of an article published by CNN.com on May 9, two days after a shooting at the school that killed one student, Kendrick Castillo, and injured eight others.
Among the allegations that were made in December 2018 were rampant drug use, bullying, concerns about violence and misuse of school funds.
In an emailed statement through a public relations company on May 9, STEM said school officials investigated the allegations months earlier and found them to be false.
"At STEM School Highlands Ranch, our priority is the safety and wellbeing of our students, staff and the STEM community," the statement says. "We investigate every complaint and concern, regardless of the source. This includes threats, bullying, allegations of criminal behavior and/or mental health concerns."
STEM, a K-12 charter school of about 1,800 students, had been asked to do an investigation by a Douglas County School District official after the accusations came to light. Like other charter schools in the district, STEM has its own governing body and operates autonomously — though the school receives public funding and must have its charter renewed by the school district's board of education.
Candice Craig, a parent of three STEM students, said she was disappointed to see the allegations surface in the media. The school has a strong community, she said, adding that her kids thrive in the "hands-on" learning environment.
"We need to heal right now," Craig said. "We don't need to be part of the collective voice."
On Dec. 19, Daniel Winsor, director of choice programing at Douglas County School District, sent an email to Eucker outlining allegations made by the anonymous parent to school board member Wendy Vogel via phone.
Vogel reported certain information to the Department of Human Services and the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, and the district requested the charter school investigate the allegations to determine their legitimacy, according to the email.
Vogel did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
One of the concerns the anonymous parent shared with Vogel was that of "student violence due to a high-pressure environment."
"The individual expressed concerns about a repeat of Columbine or Arapahoe," the Dec. 19 letter states, in reference to the sites of fatal shootings in 1999 and 2013, respectively, at schools less than 10 miles from STEM.
In January, Eucker filed a lawsuit against "Jane Doe" for what she called “defamatory statements” against the school. The lawsuit was filed in district court on Jan. 17, according to a copy obtained by Colorado Community Media. Eucker and STEM are listed as the plaintiffs.
In response to the district's initial email, Eucker and Mark Alpert, the president of STEM's board of directors, sent a letter to the school's parents on Feb. 1 outlining the allegations.
In the emailed statement on May 9, the school provided background information on the allegations.
"Some of the allegations were the type many schools receive – student drug-use, the pressure to perform well, and students with mental health concerns. Other allegations were more unusual – staff members or board members embezzling money and laundering it in China and Mexico, forcing students to clean up human feces with their bare hands, and teachers instructing students how to build bombs in class.
"STEM’s administration team immediately opened an investigation to determine whether there was any substance to the allegations. As part of this investigation, and in the spirit of full disclosure, STEM reached out to its 2,800 parents to inform them of the complaint in the hopes that any student or family member with knowledge of the allegations would confidentially share that information. STEM did not receive responses from any parents or students with information about these allegations. While STEM took the allegations seriously, our investigation revealed no evidence to support any of the allegations raised in the anonymous complaint."
DCSD Superintendent Thomas Tucker would not comment on the matter when reached by phone May 9, directing inquiries to the district's communications staff, which responded with contact information for STEM's public relations firm.
School board President David Ray also referred questions to the district's communications department.
STEM recently had its charter renewed for three years rather than the optimal five years. The charter renewal came with the following conditions: that the school adopt and publish a parent complaint and communication policy, show the school’s graduation standards meet the state's requirements and provide a description of the school's strategic plan to expand.
In STEM's May 9 statement, Eucker said the school's highest priority is the safety and wellbeing of students and staff.
“We are proud of the welcoming, inclusive community at STEM School Highlands Ranch, and we strive to meet each of our students' unique needs,” Eucker said. “Like any school with more than 1,800 students, we receive complaints, all of which we take seriously and investigate promptly.”
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