As he huddled in the dark in a closet in the school gym, 12-year-old Nate Holley clutched a baseball bat, determined to defend himself and classmates if the shooters found them.

That image of her son — prepared to fight for his life — still horrified his mother, Kelly Holley, a day after a shooting at the STEM School he attends in Highlands Ranch in which one student died and eight others were wounded.

Devon Erickson, 18, faces first-degree murder and more than two dozen attempted murder charges in the shooting. A transgender 16-year-old who identifies as male also was arrested in the shooting.

Kelly Holly said Wednesday that Nate told her he heard the gunshots after Erickson and the juvenile accomplice allegedly opened fire in two separate classrooms at the school south of Denver just before 2 p.m Tuesday.

"He heard gunshots," she said. "He told me he just froze." 

The sixth-grader was in gym when the firing started. A teacher told him and the other students to get into a closet.

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"He said, 'I was clutching onto a baseball bat," Holley related. "'I was going to fight if something happened. I wasn't going to go down without a fight.' And I was just totally speechless when he said that."

Holley said it was not something she expected to hear from her son. She never expected he would be in this situation, despite the STEM School being less than 8 miles from Columbine High School, where two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher 20 years ago in April.

"It's unfathomable to me," said Holley. "It's just sickening. I'm proud of his bravery, and at the same time I'm sickened that he has to be in that situation."

Once police arrived at the school, Nate used a friend's cellphone to call his father. He told his parents that he had walked past broken glass and blood when police escorted the students out of the school.

Walking through the rain with their hands raised behind their heads, children were loaded into buses and shuttled from the school to Northridge Recreation Center down the street.

Parents of the students were gathered at the recreation center. While waiting nearly four hours to be  reunited with her son, Holley said she remembered the camaraderie among anxious parents. 

"It was as if people just knew," she said. "All of us were just in there. They brought chairs out and gave us bottled water. At one point I had my head in my hands and someone came beside me and started rubbing my back and asking if I was all right. It was just a total stranger who was another mom."

Holley said after reuniting with her son, she couldn't stop thinking of what the families of those injured were going through, especially Kendrick Castillo's family. Castillo, 18, was killed during the shooting, with only three days of classes remaining before he was set to graduate. 

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"Where I'm at right now is obviously focusing on my child and helping him to get better," said Holley. "But I'm also really devastated for the families (of the victims).

"During those four hours that we were in that gym, just waiting, it was anguishing. I just kept trying to remind myself, 'Be grateful that you have the opportunity to wait for your child because other families are not in this position.'" 

Neither Nate nor his mother knew Castillo, but the Holley family mourned Castillo's family's loss.

"We failed him," she said. "We failed our children yesterday. And all the other shootings, we've failed our kids. We've failed to come up with solutions and to help work towards minimizing these incidences. We just continue to say, 'Oh it's another school shooting' to a point where it's become normalized."

In the aftermath of school shootings, families of the suspects are often left behind, said Holley. 

"We failed those two kids," she said. "I'm devastated for those families too. I can't imagine what they're feeling now. Their children were in pain and were suffering and there's a reason why they came into that school. Maybe it wasn't seen or they hid it from people but no mental health issue is completely invisible. We need more training as educators."

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Multimedia Journalist

Liz is a multimedia journalist with a specific interest in space exploration and environment. She watches way too much Star Trek and is working toward her rescue scuba divers certification. Liz joined the Gazette staff in 2019.

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