Restaurant provided a safe haven for fleeing school kids


Lucas DeLeon works as a manager for Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery, which sits at Lucent Boulevard and Plaza Drive in Highlands Ranch. As he drove to work May 7, he turned off Broadway and headed west on Plaza Drive, just in time to see two sheriff's office vehicles tear down the street.

He neared the restaurant while more sirens and lights flooded the area. With a Wells Fargo nearby, he thought it might be a bank robbery.

Then he saw a group of children, maybe six or seven of them, sprinting down Plaza Drive — holding hands.

They didn't seem to look at where they were going. At one point they skipped in front of a turning vehicle, narrowly avoiding a collision.

DeLeon parked in Rock Bottom's parking lot and watched the children, trying to figure out what they were doing.

Inside Rock Bottom, bartender Julie Finkelstein and other restaurant employees had just watched a steady stream of other students walk through the front door and straight toward a private room near the back of the building, almost as if they knew where they were going.

The general manager went to speak with the group, which eventually grew to between 30 and 40 children. That's when they learned an active shooter had attacked the STEM School almost one mile away, sending students fleeing on foot.

DeLeon believes the children he saw on Plaza were the last of the STEM students who self-evacuated to the restaurant.

Neither DeLeon nor Finkelstein could say why the kids came to their restaurant. All DeLeon knew was: “A teacher told them to run.”

Springing to action

When Finkelstein heard why the students were there, her heart sank. She'd been through this before as a former teacher who taught at J.P. Taravella High School in Florida, the sister school to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She was teaching at Taravella when the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas left 17 people dead.

Finkelstein's first reaction May 7 was to calm the children and assure them they were safe. In the room, she found students huddled in a corner, lining the walls and crouched on the floor, as if they were still in lockdown.

After running nearly a mile, they still didn't feel safe, she said.

DeLeon, another of several Rock Bottom employees with a teaching background, said they all knew exactly what to do thanks to their training as educators. He'd been through two lockdowns when teaching at a prep school in Colorado Springs.

The kitchen started making nachos. They passed out candy and juice boxes. Staff locked every door and DeLeon stood post at the front entrance for the entire time the children stayed in their care.

“To make sure that no one was coming, no one was coming out,” he said. “Because at that point we had just started getting details that there might still be someone on the loose.”

Children called their parents and over the next hour some adults arrived to pick them up. Other parents came to see if their children were at Rock Bottom, and if not, ran from business to business to see if they were somewhere nearby.

More than an hour passed until an armored vehicle arrived at the restaurant, and the remaining children were released into police custody.

The effect of drills, lockdowns and school shootings on children are long-term, DeLeon said. Finkelstein believes her son, a student at Taravella who had many friends at Marjory Stoneman Douglas during the shooting, likely suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Frightening is not the word,” she said when trying to describe school shootings. “Paralyzing. Life-altering.”

Seeing another school shooting unfold so nearby is “shattering,” DeLeon said.

“You just never know if it's your school or the next,” DeLeon said. “Today or tomorrow.”

Finkelstein said it's clear the issue of threats against schools is not specific to one community or state, but everywhere.

“It's here,” she said. “I've seen it.”

Rock Bottom Brewery, Jessica Gibbs, STEM School Highlands Ranch


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