DENVER – 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 beset with violence.
More than 1,000 students rallied at the Colorado Capitol to push gun reform legislation, while school board members endorsed the district superintendent's abrupt reversal of a policy that had banned armed officers from Denver schools.
The shooting at East High School near downtown occurred as administrators were searching for weapons on suspect Austin Lyle, who fled from the scene and was found dead Wednesday night in the mountains southwest of Denver. He died from a self-inlflicted gunshot wound, the Park County coroner said.
Educators for decades have grappled with how to keep students safe as violence has intensified, and the Denver shooting 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 Colorado shooting was one of at least four 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, on Tuesday a student was hurt in another Dallas-area school shooting 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, said Mo Canady with the National Association of School Resource Officers.
Parents converged on the 2,500-student East High School campus following the shooting to voice frustration officials were not protecting their children. East High School in recent weeks experienced 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.
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 have increased dramatically, from fewer than 100 annually over the last several decades to 303 last year, said David Riedman, founder of the K-12 School Shooting Database.
"This year is on pace for 400 shootings," Riedman said. “There's pretty much an incident every single school day.”
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 remained hospitalized in serious condition Thursday and the second was treated and released, said Denver Health spokesperson Heather Burke.
In response to the shooting, two armed officers will be posted at East High School through the end of the school year. Other city high schools will each get an officer, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Alex Marrero said.
A state lawmaker voiced concern about the swift change in policy, citing research that shows having police in schools is 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.
Another East High School parent, Dr. Lynsee Hudson Lang, said she was open to having police in schools, but suggested it was an insufficient response to a multi-faceted problem. Lang wanted other strategies considered, like setting up a secure perimeter around the school and evaluating if students are “emotionally safe enough” to attend classes.
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 because of unspecified violations of school policies, according to officials.
The teenager was facing a firearm charge at the time of the shooting and officials at East High School were aware of the charge, Marrero confirmed Thursday during a news conference. But Marrero said the district does not turn away students with struggles.
“We are obligated to provide a free and adequate education for all students,” he said. “We failed Austin.”
The administrator who usually searched Lyle was absent on the day of the shooting and Marrero speculated that may have played a role.
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 and access to 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.”
Associated Press reporter Rio Yamat contributed reporting from Las Vegas. Brown reported from Billings, Montana.
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.