By COLLEEN SLEVIN, JESSE BEDAYN, THOMAS PEIPERT and MATTHEW BROWN
DENVER (AP) — Outraged Denver students and parents demanded better school security and pushed for tighter firearm controls Thursday, a day after a 17-year-old student shot and wounded two administrators at a city high school that’s been beset with violence.
Hundreds of students rallied at the Colorado Capitol to push gun reform legislation, while school board members met privately to discuss security and the district superintendent abruptly reversed a policy banning armed officers from schools.
Educators for decades have grappled with how to keep students safe as violence has intensified, and the shooting at East High School near downtown Denver stoked an immediate backlash among parents who said security was too lax.
The uproar echoed community outrage after other school shootings — from last year’s unchecked rampage by a gunman in Uvalde, Texas, who killed 19 elementary school children and two adults, to January’s shooting of a Virginia teacher by a 6-year-old student. The tragedies underscore a chronic problem: keeping guns out of schools even as they proliferate in the community.
“We’re scared to go to school,” East High School sophomore Anna Hay said during Thursday’s rally at the Capitol. “We want to have these legislators look us in our eyes when they tell us they won’t pass gun legislation.”
As Wednesday’s shooting unfolded, Hay heard sirens from emergency vehicles and had a sinking realization that the danger was real. “Watching your friends and the fear in their eyes…it’s the worst feeling in the world,” she said.
The shooting occurred as two administrators were searching suspect Austin Lyle for weapons, a daily requirement because of the boy’s behavioral issues, authorities said.
Lyle fled after the shooting and his body was found Wednesday night in the mountains southwest of Denver. A cause of death was pending.
The Colorado shooting was one of at least three at or near a school this week in the U.S. On Monday, a 15-year-old was arrested in the fatal shooting of a student outside of a Dallas-area high school, and on Wednesday two teenagers were killed and another wounded in a shooting near a North Carolina middle school.
East High School parent Steve Katsaros said putting police into schools was just part of the solution. He also wants the campus closed to outsiders and a ban on students wearing hooded sweatshirts so they can be more easily identified following disruptions.
“This place is a ticking time bomb,” Katsaros said.
The administrators who were shot were unarmed, said Denver schools spokesperson Scott Pribble.
Experts say putting civilian administrators in charge of searching a student for weapons was a mistake. Such tasks should be left to trained, armed school resource officers fitted with body armor, they said.
The city’s Board of Education convened a special meeting Thursday, after parents converged on the 2,500-student East High campus following the shooting to voice frustration that officials were not protecting their children.
East High School in recent weeks has seen a spate of lockdowns and violence, including the killing of 16-year-old Luis Garcia, who was shot while sitting in a car near school. The violence prompted students to march on the Capitol earlier this month.
“I am sick of it,” said Jess Haase, who planned to talk with her daughter about taking her out of classes for the rest of the school year.
Denver is one of many communities in the U.S. that decided to phase out school resource officers in the summer of 2020 amid protests over racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd by police. The shift away from an armed presence in schools followed concern that officers disproportionately arrest students of color.
Meanwhile, shootings in the nation’s schools more than tripled during a five-year period ending in 2021 compared to the previous five years, jumping from an average of 38 annually to more than 130 annually, according to a database from the Naval Postgraduate School.
Since 2000, there have been more than 1,300 school shootings and related incidents that killed 377 people and wounded 1,025, according to the database.
The Denver shooting happened just before 10 a.m. in an office area as Lyle was undergoing a search as part of a “safety plan” that required him to be patted down daily, officials said.
One of the wounded administrators was released from the hospital Wednesday afternoon and the second remained in serious condition Thursday, said Heather Burke, a spokesperson for Denver Health hospital.
In response to the shooting, two armed officers will be posted at East High School through the end of the school year, and other city high schools also will each get an officer, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Alex Marrero said.
A Colorado state lawmaker voiced concern about the swift change in policy, citing research that shows school resource officers are associated with more suspensions and expulsions for students of color.
“In order to provide some sense of safety they are going to an extreme that is safe for a certain population and extremely unsafe for another,” said Democrat Rep. Lorena Garcia, noting that she supports other solutions such as stricter gun control.
In Nevada, activists have renewed calls for less police in schools after an officer in Clark County last month was caught on video slamming a Black student to the ground. The debate over resource officers comes almost a year after leaders in the district declared a hard line on fights in schools.
Lyle had transferred to East High School after being disciplined and removed from a high school in nearby Aurora last school year because of unspecified violations of school policies, according to officials.
Superintendent Marrero said safety plans for students are enacted in response to “past educational and also behavioral experiences,” adding that it’s a common practice throughout Colorado’s public schools.
But daily searches of students are rare, said Franci Crepeau-Hobson, a University of Colorado Denver professor specializing in school violence prevention.
She said there should be community input into whether officers should be installed in schools, adding that the accessibility of firearms needs to be addressed.
“Firearms are now the leading killer of youth in this country between homicides, suicides, and accidents,” said Crepeau-Hobson. “This is what’s killings our kids.”
Brown reported from Billings, Mont.
Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.