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‘He knew the kids and they loved him’: Minn. shooting victim was an adored school cafeteria manager

A sign reading, “Justice for Philando,” and police tape are draped over the entrance of the Minnesota Governor’s Mansion following the police shooting death of Philando Castile on July 6, in Falcon Heights. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Before he was fatally shot Wednesday by a police officer in Minnesota, before his name became a hashtag, Philando Castile was known as a warm and gentle presence at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, where he managed the cafeteria.

He was there when children streamed into school for breakfast in the morning, playing music and bantering. He was there when they returned for lunch: Laughing with kids, urging them to eat more vegetables, helping keep order in his easygoing way.

And so it is difficult for anyone at J.J. Hill to understand why he won’t be there anymore, and how he could be gone.

“We’re just devastated,” said Anna Garnaas, who teaches first-, second- and third-graders at the school, located in St. Paul, Minn. “He just loved the kids, and he always made sure that they had what they needed. He knew their names, he knew what they liked, he knew who had allergies. And they loved him.”

Minnesota cop fatally shoots man during traffic stop

A police officer shot and killed Castile, 32, during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn., on Wednesday evening. His girlfriend used Facebook to broadcast the bloody aftermath of the confrontation, saying on camera that they had been stopped for a broken taillight. Castile was legally licensed to carry a gun, she said, and was reaching for his identification when an officer began shooting. Those who knew Castile said it was difficult to imagine how he could appear as threatening or why an officer would have felt he had to react with deadly force.

The officer who fatally shot Philando Castile, 32, has been charged with second-degree manslaughter. Here's what you need to know about the traffic stop gone wrong, which ended up live-streamed on Facebook. (Editor's note: This video has been updated.) (Video: Monica Akhtar, Jenny Starrs, Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

“I still can’t quite wrap my mind around it,” Garnaas said. “If you’re going to pick someone to feel threatened by or to feel like you have to feel you have to defend yourself against, this is not the guy.”

Rebecca Penfold Murray, who has two 5-year-old children at J.J. Hill, said Castile seemed to know every student’s name. He knew them, too, carrying on conversations about their classrooms and their interests as they made their way through the cafeteria line each day.

“When you see 400 kids a day and you can remember those details about them, I think that you really care about how those kids are doing,” she said. “It’s preposterous for anyone to die violently, but I am still unable to wrap my head around the fact that this happened to a person like him.”

She said that one of her children has a sensory processing disorder that makes it hard for him to make eye contact and show affection. But with Castile? Her child would fist-bump him, she said, and hug his legs. Her son felt safe with Castile, she said.

Castile graduated from Central High in St. Paul in 2001, and went on to join the school system’s nutrition services department in 2002, when he was 19. He was promoted to his supervisory job at J.J. Hill two years ago.

“Colleagues describe him as a team player who maintained great relationships with staff and students alike. He had a cheerful disposition and his colleagues enjoyed working with him. He was quick to greet former coworkers with a smile and hug,” the school system said in a statement. Valeria Silva, the superintendent of St. Paul schools, called him “one of our own.”

“I am deeply sorry for his family and for their loss,” Silva said.

J.J. Hill Montessori, a school that describes its mission in part as teaching children to make peace and build community, is planning  to hold a vigil Thursday evening.

Parents have been grappling with how to explain Castile’s death to their children. Angie Checco de Souza said she told her children that he was killed because “police were worried that they were in danger because he had brown skin.”

She said her oldest, age 10, told her that he thought such a thing didn’t happen anymore. Her eight-year-old told her it must be a bad dream. And her 6-year-old said it couldn’t happen because “that’s our guy.”

“He said, ‘Mom, can you tell the police that they were wrong?'” Checco de Souza said, quoting her son. “‘This is our guy, who served us lunch at J.J. Hill Montessori School.'”

Checco de Souza said she was nervous at the beginning of last school year when she decided to let her son, who has food allergies, eat the hot lunch served at school. She said she went in to talk with Castile on the first day of school, and then called him every single day for two weeks to make sure her son knew which foods were safe for him to eat.

And Castile never balked or told her to stop calling. “He was incredibly patient and reassuring,” she said.

Garnaas, the teacher, said it’s been difficult for her to try to explain Castile’s death to her own child, a rising fifth-grader at J.J. Hill. And she knows it will be equally difficult to explain to the children she teaches when school resumes in the fall.

“I think that’s when we’ll see them crying and wondering and asking questions, the first day of school in September,” she said. “Where’s our buddy? Where’s the guy who takes care of us and makes sure we have our most fundamental needs met?”

She said she worries particularly about the African American boys in her class.

“To think about them growing up and having to be scared because of how they look. … really?” she said. “What will happen to their self-esteem and their self-awareness when they find out, and they come back to school and find out he was gone? And why is he gone? Because his taillight was out.”

Garnaas said she was pulled over recently for a broken brake light. She told the officer that she had an appointment to get the light fixed, and he let her go without a ticket or even a warning.

“I’m certain that part of that is because I have blond hair and blue eyes and white skin,” she said. “Granted, there were no weapons involved. But I could have been lying to him. … And he just let me go with a wink and a nod, super respectful. And that’s not what happens to many people.”