Denver public schools close for mental health day after shooting as armed guards prepare a return to campuses and students demand an end to gun violence
By Elizabeth Wolfe and Andy Rose, CNN
Denver Public Schools are closed after a shooting this week at a high school as the district takes steps to bring armed guards back to campuses and teachers, students and parents demand action to curb gun violence.
Friday’s mental health break, ahead of a weeklong spring break, is meant “to allow us all to take a moment to pause and process the challenging events this year,” including the shooting at East High School and a district data breach announced earlier this year, district superintendent Alex Marrero said in a statement. An East High student also was fatally shot this year, CNN affiliate KMGH reported, and the school last month got false threats of violence.
Scores of teachers and students rallied for a second-straight day Friday at the state capitol to urge lawmakers to support gun violence prevention bills, KMGH reported.
“I can’t even walk outside my house without feeling like I’m gonna die, or I’m gonna get shot,” Aubriana Acuna told the station on Thursday.
“We have to be here because we don’t want this to happen again,” East High student Beckett Nelson Gardner told KMGH. “You don’t want to have to take time out of our school just to not be scared and horrified of what just happened to us.”
“We just want to know: Are our kids safe to come back?” parent Steve Katsaros told KMGH on Friday. “Our teachers aren’t gonna come back unless they know they’re safe, and I don’t blame them. I will support them. I will picket with them.”
“Teachers are real big part of this because they’re doing the work of the police department now,” he added. “These are teachers; they aren’t police officers. So, there’s a lot of things that need to change.”
The latest shooting — in which two staff members were wounded — unfolded Wednesday morning at East High as 17-year-old Austin Lyle was undergoing a required pat down search, Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas said. Lyle had been under a school safety plan that mandated he be searched upon entering the building, he said.
It was at least the 18th US school shooting this year at K-12 schools, colleges and universities, according to a CNN tally.
Lyle fled after the shooting and later fatally shot himself, police said. His body and car were found in the mountains about 50 miles southeast of Denver after a manhunt.
The district’s Board of Education on Thursday suspended at least temporarily its ban on placing armed school resource officers or other armed security in schools.
That ban was “a mistake,” Denver Mayor MIchael Hancock said.
It was adopted almost two years ago in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in police custody in MInneapolis. Schools there voted to push police officers out of schools, and districts followed suit across the country, including in Denver.
The East High shooting victims are Eric Sinclair, the school’s dean of culture, and Jerald Mason, a restorative practice coordinator in the dean’s office, a district spokesperson confirmed to CNN. On Wednesday, one was in critical condition while the other was in stable condition with serious injuries, Thomas said.
District’s temporary suspension of ban on armed security in schools
The district’s Board of Education unanimous vote Thursday to suspend its ban on armed school resource officers or other armed security on campuses will remain in effect until June 30, according to the board’s motion, which directed the superintendent to ensure that school staff are not using armed officers to respond to disciplinary issues.
Marrero, the superintendent, said Wednesday that he was “committed” to having two armed police officers stationed at East High School during school hours through the end of the academic year, regardless of the official policy.
“I am willing to accept the consequences of my actions,” Marrero said in a letter to the board.
The superintendent said he doesn’t believe the ban on armed officers contributed to the shooting, saying such an officer “would have never patted down that student.”
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock praised the board’s decision in a tweet Thursday.
The board said the district lacks money to pay for additional armed security indefinitely. It directed Marrero to talk to Hancock to gain money for at east two armed police officers “and as many as two additional mental health professionals” in Denver high schools for the rest of the year.
Shooter was required to undergo daily pat downs
Lyle, who was identified by police as the shooter, underwent mandatory daily pat downs upon entering the school as part of a special school safety plan.
The police chief declined to explain why.
Lyle fled after firing several shots in an office area away from other students and staff, police said.
A multi-agency search followed, ending when the Jefferson County SWAT team found Lyle’s body around 8:15 p.m., not far from his car, Park County Sheriff Tom McGraw said Thursday.
Authorities learned that Lyle liked to shoot and camp in the mountains near the town of Bailey, Colorado, McGraw told affiliate KUSA. Lyle’s car was found on the side a road there, and search crews, including K9 units, found his body about 300 yards from it.
Marrero said he has contacted Lyle’s parents.
“We all as educators came into this profession to support [and] help students thrive, and most importantly, provide them an opportunity to succeed,” Marrero said. “I can acknowledge we failed Austin as a district.”
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CNN’s Aya Elamroussi, Dakin Andone, Eric Levenson, Andi Babineau, Steve Almasy, Tina Burnside and Michelle Krupa contributed to this report.