East High shooting prompts fear, frustration, and calls for action in Denver

Addison Goetz, 17, is embraced by her mother Jennifer as they leave Denver’s East High School after a shooting there on Wednesday, March 22, 2023.
Addison Goetz, 17, is embraced by her mother Jennifer as they leave Denver’s East High School after a shooting there on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. (Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post)

Two administrators at Denver’s East High School were shot Wednesday morning as they searched a student for weapons, shaking a school community already reeling from gun violence and prompting a sweeping policy change from the district superintendent. 

It was the third shooting this school year to touch Denver’s largest high school but the first to happen inside the building. The shooting sent the school’s dean of culture and its restorative practices coordinator to the hospital, where one was in serious condition Wednesday evening. 

Late Wednesday, authorities in Park County reported that a body had been found in the woods near a vehicle that police had connected to the student suspected in the shooting. Overnight, the Park County Coroner’s Office confirmed it was 17-year-old Austin Lyle.

In the aftermath of the shooting, students and teachers endured another lockdown, parents another stressful rush to City Park, where they gathered across the street from East High School and searched for their children’s faces among the students released in twos and threes and hugged them fiercely. 

The shooting may also have shifted the conversation about police in Denver schools.

In a letter to the school board Wednesday, Superintendent Alex Marrero said he plans to return armed police officers to all of Denver’s comprehensive high schools for the rest of the school year, stationing two at East. The board voted in 2020 to remove all police from Denver schools.

“I can no longer stand on the sidelines,” Marrero wrote in the letter. 

In a separate statement hours later, the school board said it supports the superintendent.

Students leave Denver’s East High School after a shooting there on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. (Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post)

The shooting happened at about 9:50 a.m. Wednesday while two East staff members — identified by the district as Eric Sinclair and Jerald Mason — were alone in a front office with a male student whom the police later identified as Lyle

The staff members were searching Lyle as part of a safety plan put in place by the school, Marrero and Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas said at a press conference outside East with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.

Lyle fled the scene and was believed to be armed, according to police, who were looking for him on suspicion of attempted homicide. Authorities in Park County, southwest of Denver, reported discovering a vehicle connected to Lyle near the town of Bailey, then a few hours later announced the body had been found.

Lyle previously attended Overland High School in the suburban Cherry Creek school district. District spokeswoman Abbe Smith said he was disciplined and removed from that school last year. Smith said she could not release more information. Citing unnamed law enforcement sources, CBS 4 reported that Lyle was on probation for a previous weapons offense.

Students have safety plans for a variety of reasons, including because they’re at risk of injuring themselves or because they’ve made threats, a district spokesperson said. Marrero said federal student privacy laws prevent him from disclosing why this student had a safety plan. 

Thomas said the student’s plan involved being searched at the beginning of every day. Previous searches of this student at school had not turned up any weapons, he said.

Sinclair, the school’s dean of culture, was in serious condition Wednesday evening following surgery, according to a Denver Health hospital spokesperson. Mason, the school’s restorative practices coordinator, had been released from the hospital, the spokesperson said.

Paramedics were inside East when the shooting happened, treating a student who’d had an allergic reaction, and they began treating the shooting victims immediately, police said.

School will be canceled the rest of the week at East, Marrero said. Next week is spring break.

Denver police and paramedics converged on Denver’s East High Wednesday after two deans were shot while searching a student for weapons. The shooting may have shifted the conversation about police in Denver schools. (Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post)

East students and parents are fearful, frustrated

Freshman students Lydia Nelson-Gardner and Laurel McMahon said they were in the auditorium for an assembly put on by the Latin Student Alliance when a dean came in and whispered to a teacher that the school was in lockdown.

The student who was performing finished their song, and then the students sat in the auditorium being quiet for about 10 minutes before being sent to their third-period classrooms. Students who would have been on the first floor went instead to the school library, they said, where they stayed about an hour and a half before being released. 

They turned to Twitter and group texts to try to figure out what had happened.

What has it been like to experience so many shootings and lockdowns in a single school year? “It sucks,” McMahon said. 

The girls said that they don’t feel afraid for their own safety but that the events add a layer of stress to every school day. They aren’t sure what would help, though. Metal detectors, maybe, but not police, they said.

“That’s not going to help,” Nelson-Gardner said. McMahon said it’s been “freaky” to have armed officers around the school since the February shooting that killed 16-year-old East High student Luis Garcia, and it doesn’t make her feel safer.

Sophomore Davianna Carter was outside the school when the shooting happened. The 16-year-old said it’s not just that her school feels unsafe, “it is unsafe. School is supposed to be the safest place to be.” But Carter said it’s not anymore.

Hundreds of parents gathered in City Park on the north side of East High. They talked in small groups about how done they were, how tired they were, of the threats and shootings and lockdowns. 

“Get the police back in school,” said one woman who did not want to give her name as she loaded her children into a minivan. “That’s all I can say.”

Another woman said she didn’t want to do an interview because nobody listens to parents anyway. She asked why the mayor talked to the media but not to parents.

Samantha Lindstrom said her 18-year-old son, a senior, tries to hide how he feels but she can tell this school year has taken a toll.

“Therapy is needing to happen for so many of these kids,” she said. And as a parent, “It’s stressful, it’s frustrating, it’s ridiculous, it’s sad. It’s all of that.”

Lindstrom said she’d like to see metal detectors at the school and added that “we need to refresh the school board.” She hasn’t seen them take any action to make schools safer, and she reluctantly has reached the conclusion that police should return to Denver schools.

“We shouldn’t have to worry about our kids,” she said. “We should be worried about their grades, not them being killed.”

East High students comfort each other after laying flowers in memory of student Luis Garcia. (Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post)

Deans are ‘heroes’ but shouldn’t have to be, teacher says

Even if police officers hadn’t been removed from Denver schools, Thomas said an officer wouldn’t necessarily have been the one to search the student per his safety plan because “we don’t want to have negative interactions with the students.”

School board President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán said the board will hold a press conference Thursday in place of its regularly scheduled meeting. Marrero has also asked for a closed session to talk about safety policy. Gaytán said board members are talking about gathering feedback from students, parents, and other community members about school safety.

“There’s a lot of conversation we want to have with community to hear what their needs and wants are,” Gaytán said.

East High students have been decrying gun violence since the fall, when a student was shot in the face near a recreation center next to the school in September. Five months later, Garcia was shot outside the school. Two days after he died from his injuries, hundreds of East students rallied at the state Capitol chanting “No more silence! End gun violence!”

A week later, a group of East students held a summit with local officials. Many officials said part of the problem is that young people are able to access unsecured guns too easily. 

When the students asked Marrero and Thomas if police should have a larger presence at schools, both said that answer should come from the students themselves.

“If the youth and the parents of these youth that are going to these schools feel like the solution to having safer schools is to have officers in those schools, then certainly that’s something I will comply with, certainly with the school board’s direction,” Thomas said at the forum. “But I don’t think that the police are the only solution.”

Earlier this school year, Marrero called gun violence his top concern. District data shows the number of guns found at schools or confiscated from students is rising, from two guns in the 2018-19 school year, before the pandemic, to 13 guns last year. 

As of Feb. 15, six months into this school year, the district’s department of safety had already recovered 10 guns inside schools, a district spokesperson said.

Andy Bucher, an English teacher at East High, said the school’s deans have been “heroes,” in one case even talking a student into handing over a gun, but they should not have to do the job alone. He hopes school resource officers, as the police officers stationed in schools are called, would serve as a deterrent and allow school staff to focus on their jobs.

Deans were among the first people on scene both times students were shot near East, he said.

“They saw things they shouldn’t see, that belong on a warfront in Ukraine, and they are seeing them on 17th and Esplanade and they are seeing them in the dean’s office,” he said.

Bucher was in a social room overlooking the giant red “E” on the Esplanade outside East working with a student on an essay when the first emergency vehicle arrived. They said little to each other as more and more police and ambulances arrived and the school went on lockdown. It didn’t feel like there was much to say. 

Bucher recalled how on Monday, the school had celebrated the state basketball championship with a pep rally and dunk contest. 

“We’re a school that’s relevant and that’s having success, and we’re pining for those high school experiences of going to prom and all that,” he said. “Instead we’re putting flowers on the E and having moments of silence and navigating the legalese of what can be said and not be said. 

“We love our school, and it’s been hard and heavy.”

Related: After East High shooting, Denver superintendent commits to return police to comprehensive high schools

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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