In Places They Don’t Talk About at Parties: Lessons from STEM School Highlands Ranch
The Attacks–and the Initial Counterattacks
On 07 May 2019, two homicidal idiots with separate vengeful agendas attacked different portions of the Science, Technology, English and Math school in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, at the same time. Strategically, we would consider it a coordinated attack, but tactically, at the classroom level, it was more like two separate lone wolf attacks not too far from each other.
One went to the high school. As he entered a classroom and prepared to shoot his classmates, Kendrick Castillo and (at least) two other brave students pushed him up against a wall and disarmed him. Internet accounts differ as to who the other two unarmed heroes were; Wikipedia lists them as Joshua Jones and Brendan Bialy. Kendrick Castillo was killed; Jones was wounded in the leg and hip; Bialy managed to wrestle the gun away. Lord only knows how many lives they saved.
Wikipedia, which is notoriously approximate, also stated that the other homicidal maniac wounded 8 students in the middle school portion of STEM Highlands, but those numbers don’t add up. Only one person (Kendrick) was killed. In the whole school, 8 others (total) were injured. If one of those was Josh Jones, and one or two others were wounded in the crossfire of a Blue on Blue (see below), the other bad guy only injured 5 or 6 in the middle school.
The guns they had obtained by breaking into a parent’s safe with an axe and a crowbar were quite capable, but neither of the shooters were Navy SEALS, which is typically the case with these bozos. According to other sources, the wannabe killer who attacked the middle school was tackled by a teacher and students (perhaps Lucas Albertoni and Jackson Gregory), and was disarmed, but managed to escape with another handgun in a backpack.
The Back Story
Highlands Ranch is only a few miles from Columbine High School–we all know what happened there–and from Arapahoe High School, where a disgruntled student shot and killed Claire Davis (and then himself) on 13 Dec 2013.
Denver area school administrators had had two decades since Columbine to learn its lessons. The Arapahoe HS shooting was only 5 years before, too recent to have been forgotten, even with typically short American attention spans.
Despite those facts, the administrators of STEM School Highlands Ranch (or the Douglas County School District) were only willing to pay for less-expensive unarmed security. Probably for budgetary reasons, but possibly also because the administrators making the decisions were unreasonably hoplophobic. Hoplophobia is a term coined by educator Jeff Cooper to describe irrational fear of weapons themselves, dysfunctionally beyond a healthy respect for what weapons can do in untrained or immoral hands.
Enter Shamson Sundara
Which is why STEM School Security Guard Shamson Sundara was supposed to be unarmed. He certainly was not getting paid at the higher, armed rate.
A former Marine (sources also list him as a POST certified peace officer), Sundara took the protection of those kids seriously. He risked his own career, in fact his very freedom, to give those children something the school / district didn’t care enough about their kids to pay for: armed security.
Sundara carried concealed on the job.
That meant a smaller, less capable pistol that would take longer to get to. But Sundara wasn’t going to let any of those kids get murdered in front of him for anybody’s stupid policy.
Sundara found the second active shooter, the one who still had a second handgun, in a hallway. The wannabe killer was trying to get into another classroom. Sundara held the suspect at gunpoint, and disarmed the suspect.
Hero to Zero
Remember, there were shots coming from different parts of the school. It was entirely reasonable for Sundara to assume there was still another bad guy at large.
Seeing a man in civilian clothing coming around the corner with a rifle, Security Guard Sundara tried to do what they allegedly hired him to do: protect the children in that school. Sundara opened fire, attempting to repel boarders.
It”s harder to hit what you aim at with a smaller, more concealable pistol. He missed the man with the rifle, who turned out to be a deputy in plain clothes responding to the active killer event (a classic Blue on Blue, not uncommon in such desperate circumstances–see Arvada PD Blue on Blue below). Sundara’s shots went through a wall, injuring one or two of the kids he was trying to protect (sources vary on the specifics). The cops identified themselves–which they should have been doing already*–and Sundara immediately complied with their commands.
Hero to Zero in a matter of seconds.
The CBS 4 headline? “Shamson Sundara, STEM School Security Guard, Shouldn’t Have Had a Gun.”
Good Lord! The BAD GUYS brought the guns to the school. What would’ve happened if Sundara had NOT been armed? He would have been in the impossible position of having to face multiple armed homicidal maniacs without any means to defend himself–or the precious children he was there to protect. A position the Douglas County School Board tried to put him into.
Yeah, but he clearly lacked training, you might think. A cop wouldn’t have shot at the wrong guys, or missed. Is that so?
Arvada PD Blue on Blue
On 21 June of 2021–in that very same metro area (Highlands Ranch is a suburb SW of Denver; Arvada is NW of downtown Denver)–a madman intent on murdering a bunch of cops shot and killed Arvada Police Officer Gordon Beesley. Then he used the same shotgun to shoot out some windows and fired into the air to draw other cops into his kill zone. He retrieved an AR-15 rifle from his car to kill responding officers.
Then armed citizen John Hurley drew a handgun and shot him dead.
Hurley carefully approached the killer, reached down, and took the AR-15 from him. That’s when Hurley was shot dead by responding officers.
We encourage you to “trade up” to a better weapon–yours or his–during the opening salvos of a coordinated, multiple assailant attack. But drop that gun like it’s on fire when the police have had any time to respond, especially if you hear them approaching.
That’s why we teach Transition to Police Control of the Scene as an adjunct to the Wyatt protocols in our scenario based training.
Unarmed “Security”–What Can They Do?
Let me ask you: What can an unarmed security guard do, that any teacher, administrator, or parent with a cell phone can’t?
The ABB plant in St Louis had a secure parking lot with entry controlled by unarmed security guards. Part of the active shooting on 07 Jan 2020 took place IN the ABB parking lot. Unarmed security guards did NOTHING to prevent or ameliorate it.
At Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, unarmed security guards saw the killer approaching the school with a long satchel capable of carrying a rifle. They recognized him as a student who had been kicked out and was supposed to be denied entry to the school. They called the principal’s office to let them know, but unarmed security did ZERO to prevent the killer from executing 17 and wounding 17 others.
I reiterate, Columbine is just down the road from Highlands Ranch (the day I took the photo of the STEM Middle School entrance, I’d visited Columbine as well). Douglas County school administrators had two decades to learn this lesson.
The Douglas County School District should have provided TRAINED, ARMED security for those precious children. Shamson Sundara went above and beyond, overcoming and stopping an armed killer during a spree. As a reward, he was placed in a diversion program with 50 hours of community service, in some sort of plea agreement.
No good deed goes unpunished.
If he hadn’t injured those kids in the crossfire of a Blue on Blue, Sundara might even have been lauded. But ask any protector, from a street cop to a Navy SEAL:
If you’re looking for thanks and recognition, you’re in the wrong line of work.
The sheep fear the sheepdog almost as much as they fear the wolf.
To the sheep, sheepdogs and wolves look similar. Both have sharp fangs. The sheepdogs bark meanly at the sheep if they drift too close to the woods around the pasture (where the wolves hang out). Sheep don’t like being protected from their own risky behavior.
*How to Prevent Blue on Blue
Responding police frequently announcing their presence might’ve prevented either of those Blue on Blues. Issuing a challenge might have, as well.
I’ve had rifle bullets fly past me while responding to an active shooting in progress. I trained LEOs in Active Killer response for decades.
I taught them to yell “Police!” constantly, for two reasons:
- Specifically to avoid Blue on Blue (friendly fire) incidents, and
- To draw the killer’s attention away from his hapless victims
Implications for Armed Citizens
Sundara’s story reminds me of that scene from Blame It On Rio when an adolescent daughter is telling her father that she had sex. When he tells her she could have gotten pregnant, she replies that she was already taking the oral contraceptive pill.
“Is that how you listen to me?” he screams, before reconsidering.
“Thank God you don’t listen to me!”
I would never encourage anyone to break the law (or to have premarital sex), but every responsibly armed citizen who carries concealed faces a choice when they see that useless “No weapons allowed” sign with the pistol and the circle with the line through it.
The sign ignored by every crook, ever.
Many store owners and restauranteurs only post those signs because their insurance company demands it. Everybody knows (or should I say, every intelligent person who has thought about it, even a little, knows) those signs do ZERO to prevent crime. In fact, they encourage crime by providing an armed-defensive-capability-free zone for killers and robbers to operate in.
The insurance company knows they don’t work, too. But afterward, when the killer has been put down by SWAT (over the dead and dying bodies of the customers), and the ambulance chasers are looking at that insurance policy for deeper pockets to sue, the insurer wants to be able to say they TOLD that active killer no guns were allowed.
But wouldn’t ignoring that sign make me a crook, too? Technically, depending on your state’s concealed carry laws, it could. But the real question is, why are you going in there? To rape and pillage, or to have dinner with your family?
In Places They Don’t Talk About at Parties . . .
When I was a rookie cop, one of my FTOs, whose name was Bob, was teaching me how to be proactive. That means trying to stop or even prevent crime before the 911 call. Proactive enforcement is an endangered species these days, but it was pretty popular in the 1990s when we were serous about stopping crime.
We drove past a man locking up his business at 2 o’clock in the morning. Bob insisted I stop and talk with him. I thought that was nosey and rude–after all, the poor guy had had a very long day, and probably just wanted to get home as soon as possible.
Afterward, my FTO explained, “George, that business owner coming out at 0200 WANTS you to check and make sure it’s him, not some burglar who stole the keys.”
“Deep down in places they don’t talk about at parties,” as Jack Nicholson said in A Few Good Men, most of the people who post those “no weapons allowed” signs (at least the ones who aren’t irrationally hoplophobic) actually WANT trained, sober, responsible, concealed, out-of-sight-out-of-mind, plain clothes, and don’t forget FREE, armed security.
They just can’t admit it.
Responsibly armed citizens protect everyone within sight of them, without thanks or compensation, every single day, all over the USA. The protected don’t even know, much less appreciate, that they are being protected.
Armed citizens frequently use those concealed firearms to prevent crimes and mass killings. But you don’t read about it, because they do such a good job of it. It’s only “newsworthy” if there’s a high body count–or on those rare occasions when the armed citizen screws up.
But make no mistake: just carrying won’t, in and of itself, protect anyone–especially from you. A firearm is not a magic talisman, although too many people treat them as such. You must train, well and often.
Training is Imperative
I’m not faulting any good guy in this blog. I wasn’t there, seeing what they saw, experiencing what they experienced.
Sundara was not untrained. We can all always use more training than we have time for, but suffice it to say Sundara may not have had the right kind of training.
Every Marine who graduates from Boot Camp is an above average rifle shot. Key word, rifle–although, to be fair, the Marines and former Marines I have worked with and taught were also pretty good with handguns. Most of them became so by training with their own pistols and their own expensive ammo on their own time, as USAF Security Policeman Andy Brown did before the one time in his life other people’s lives depended on his outstanding pistol skills.
Marines are programmed to seek out, close with, and destroy our nation’s enemies. The very best Marine Corps recruiting ad I ever saw had one simple question: “Which way would you run?”
Marines who can make the transition from “Kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out” to the selective application of force end up making great law enforcers. They tend to be very professional, well disciplined, self starters–all traits that are desirable in a police officer. Sometimes it takes a little while to temper that indomitable warrior spirit into that of a warrior protector. But probably far less time than it would take to train your stereotypical Berkeley professor to do the same job.
There is a warrior protector within each one of us. Too many victims of crime don’t start looking for theirs till it’s too late. Whether you were trained to kill by your government, or wouldn’t step on a spider, training can help you to discover and hone the warrior protector within you.
As Shamson Sundara found out the hard way, you do the bad guys’ jobs for them if you accidentally shoot at the wrong people. That’s why our shooting programs address line of fire issues.
It’s also why we do scenario based Use of Force training, target discrimination hooded drills, and decision shooting (“Shoot / Don’t Shoot”) in our classes.
The Rest of the Story
The saddest part of the whole sordid STEM School affair was that when the “evil” police arrived, and forced their way into the classroom where Kendick Castillo was murdered, one of those “ACAB fascist pigs” put a gun to the poor misunderstood killer’s head (to avoid hurting anyone else in the dog pile, if it became necessary to shoot) and may even have said some bad words, apparently hurting his feelings. How dare they!?!
I’m not making this up: during subsequent court proceedings, the defense attorneys actually tried to paint the killer as a victim because the cops responding to the attempted (and in Kendrick’s case, accomplished) murder of children said some unkind words to the murderer.
God bless America.
In just about every other country on this planet, responding security forces would have drilled a bullet through his ear on the spot, and been done with it. Never can be too sure, especially in the era of the suicide bomber.
The Bottom Line
You do what you gotta do, to stay safe and stay out of jail at the same time.
As for me, I made my choice in July of 1998. In the dark days after one of my law enforcement partners bled to death all over me, another was also killed, and a third wounded in the same gun battle, I made a few pledges before the Supreme Being of the Universe. One of the oaths I swore to God was that I would never, ever, die–nor would I ever let an innocent person near me die–for anybody’s stupid policy.
–George H, lead instructor, Heloderm