Before he was fatally shot by a police officer in Minnesota on Thursday, 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.

Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile. Photo / AP
Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile. Photo / AP

"We're just devastated," said Anna Garnaas, who teaches first-, second- and third-graders at the school, located in St. Paul, Minnesota. "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."


Police shot and killed Castile, 32, during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, on Thursday (NZ time). 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.

"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."

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 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.

Demonstrators hold signs across the street from the scene of the shooting. Photo / AP
Demonstrators hold signs across the street from the scene of the shooting. Photo / AP

J.J. Hill Montessori is planning a vigil. Parents have been grappling with how to explain Castile's death to their children.

Garnaas 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."