DENVER — Less than a month after Denver East High School students organized a large-scale walk-out in protest of gun violence, the school and student body is once again confronting a too-familiar tragedy.
Two school administrators were shot at Denver’s East High School Wednesday. Both victims are men and were taken to the hospital. One of the victims is in stable condition and another is in critical condition, undergoing surgery.
The sadness, anger and frustration was palpable among the parents and caregivers who arrived to East High School to pick up their students. The parents yelled at Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas, saying things like “no more violence” and calling for increased gun control measures.
“They’re frustrated, and they’re angry,” Hancock said of the parents during a press conference. “As they should be. … We must continue to work on addressing safety in our school buildings and in our city in general. And we will.”
The shooter, who police said was a male minor and student at East, fled the scene. Police later identified the suspect as 17-year-old Austin Lyle. Late Wednesday, the Park County Coroners Office confirmed Lyle passed away and that his body was recovered on Park County Road 68. His cause of death was not released.
Hancock and Thomas said in a press conference that Lyle had previously been required to get patted-down before entering the high school. The shooting took place while Lyle was undergoing this security protocol, Thomas said.
“There was a student .. as part of a safety plan, they were undergoing a search. During that search, obviously a weapon was retrieved — a handgun was retrieved — and several shots were fired, striking those two individuals,” Thomas said. “That individual [the student suspect] then fled the school, but we do know who that individual is and a search is underway to try to locate that particular individual.”
Reporters asked Thomas what led up to the safety plan that required Lyle to be patted-down and DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero stepped in to say that those details could not be released. Marrero said that the plan was put in place due to “previous behavior” from the student but that was all the information he was comfortable releasing because “bound by FERPA, we cannot disclose any particular student’s individual plan, whether it’s academic or behavioral.”
Marrero did add that this specific security plan is “common for all schools, in all districts.”
“It’s very common across the nation,” he added.
Asked by reporters why a school resource officer would not be the one conducting the daily pat-downs, Thomas said, “right now we don’t have school resource officers.” When a reporter asked why that was, Thomas said it was not an appropriate time to talk about the lack of SROs.
In 2020, the Denver school board voted unanimously to end its contract with the Denver Police Department, which provided SROs to the schools. The vote followed nationwide protests against police brutality after the murder of George Floyd. But as gun violence rises, some leaders are calling for a renewed, if reimagined, relationship with the police.
In a statement issued after the shooting, Hancock said removing SROs from DPS "was a mistake and we must move swiftly to correct it."
It should be noted, though, that even if an SRO was present, Thomas said the officer would not have conducted the pat-down search of the student. "We don't want to have negative iteractions with students," the chief said.
“This should never — as a parent, I can tell you — never be a concern of a parent, of whether or not their kids are safe in their building,” Hancock said during the press conference.
But the unfortunate reality is that there is a major concern for the safety of schoolchildren in this country. In the past decade, there have been more than 1,000 incidents of gunfire on school grounds, according to data from Everytown for Gun Safety. In those incidents, nearly 350 people died.
And according to recent data from the Pew Research Center, more than 1 in 5 parents reported being “extremely/very” concerned about their student being shot. That percentage is higher among Black and Latino parents.
Most of the East students were in a large assembly at the time of the shooting, students told local reporters. The school went into lockdown after the shooting and students were held in their third period classrooms, DPS said in a tweet.
The shooting occurred less than a month after East students led a large-scale walkout in protest of gun violence. Students chanted “no more silence, end gun violence,” “safe schools now,” and “Luis Garcia” as they marched nearly two miles in frigid temperatures to the Colorado State Capitol.
The student protest came after Luis Garcia’s death on March 1. Garcia, a 16-year-old East High School student, was shot inside his car near the school, according to a statement from Marrero.
Kyle Cooke is the digital media manager at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.