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Ex-teacher connected to Parkland helped STEM School students

May 9, 2019

HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. (AP) — When almost 30 STEM School Highlands Ranch students ran into Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery during a school shooting Tuesday, they were met with someone who knew exactly what to do.

Bartender Julie Finkelstein is a 12-year teaching veteran — a high school teacher who worked at the sister school of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. She knew and worked with many of the victims of the 2018 school shooting, and she had been through lockdowns at J.P. Taravella High School where she worked.

It was the Parkland school shooting that led her to call it quits on teaching. She didn’t feel safe in her job anymore.

So when the restaurant’s general manager told his staff that an influx of STEM School students had just arrived after fleeing a shooting, Finkelstein’s first thought was, “It’s happening again.”

“It’s hard and it’s heartbreaking and it’s sad and it’s disturbing,” she said on Wednesday.

Diego Palmer, 13, was one of the students who ran to the restaurant and brewery. He told The Denver Post on Tuesday that a group of students came to warn him and others of the shooting and told them to get out of the school. So, they kept running until they reached Rock Bottom on Park Central Drive, less than a mile from the school.

There are several businesses in that same shopping center — some students ended up at Starbucks, among other locations.

Before jumping into action, Finkelstein went outside and took a deep breath as she felt a familiar sense of panic coming on.

Finkelstein’s son, a high school senior, is so afraid to walk into a school building, he decided to finish his coursework online, even if it meant graduating late.

“It was hard, hard, hard,” Finkelstein said. “Even now, it’s still hard.”

So, the broadcast journalism teacher decided to leave the profession and move to Colorado.

“Parkland was the final straw,” she said. “It’s hard to go back into a classroom.”

Even substitute teaching proved too difficult.

During her first month in Colorado, Finkelstein was faced with a manhunt for a 18-year-old Florida student who made threats against Colorado schools, leading to mass school district closures. The young woman was found dead by suicide at Mount Evans.

Then, there was the STEM School shooting.

“Is this happening again?” Finkelstein thought. “Is this following me?”

Instinct took over and she went into “teacher mode.”

She helped general manager Jimmy Gibson and other employees organize the students. They asked them to sign in on a sheet of paper and sign out when picked up. She helped them contact parents.

Gibson also wanted to make sure the students felt safe, “to let them know, ‘We’ve got you.’” Employees locked the restaurant doors and secured the building. They brought out food and drinks.

The general manager then called the non-emergency police line to let authorities know where the students were. He talked to parents and police that evening.

He also changed his big plans for the store’s one-year anniversary celebration set for that day.

Gibson is a father himself. “To see those kids with the look of panic on their faces was tough,” he said.

That night, he had a difficult conversation with his kids about school shootings and getting out of harm’s way when possible, like the students who arrived at his restaurant’s doors.

Gibson plans to host an event for STEM School families in the fall. He wants them to know they have the business community’s support.

“It’s going to be a tough road,” he said.

Finkelstein said that after Parkland, she thought the country was finally saying, “enough is enough.”

But school shootings continue to happen. Something needs to change, she said.

“I think it’s important to keep our kids safe and important to do whatever it takes to keep them safe,” Finkelstein said.

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Information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com