East High shootings leave people grasping for any answers (Local News and Reviews)

When my grandchildren, 8 and 4, were playing “school” the other day after coming home from their actual school, the older grandson was writing the day’s activities on the white board for the edification of the students, which included me, my daughter the law school professor (who’s also their mother), and about a dozen stuffed animals, including a flying squirrel.

My grandson Lalo wrote that in 10 minutes the class would be conducting a “lockdown” drill, which would come in the midst of a lesson on shapes, in which I failed to correctly identify a rhombus.

It was all very cute until I realized that both grandchildren were already well schooled in lockdown drills. And the later realization, that the pretend lockdown drill came the day before the latest East High shootings and yet another genuine school lockdown, leaves me fairly shaken.

That’s life for our children in 2023, as a friend of mine, who has a kid at East, was telling me when I suggested there must be some solution to all this, and she said, “What makes you think there is a solution?”

It was a great question. And one for which I already knew the answer.

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In the aftermath of the shootings, which left two East administrators wounded and the 17-year-old shooter a gun-suicide victim, it was clear to the school superintendent, to the mayor, to the chief of police, to many parents and to nearly all politicians that something must be done, even if the something accomplishes next to nothing.

East students marched to the Capitol on Thursday and Friday, demanding legislators do something about America’s gun crisis and, in particular, how it affects schools. Watching the students interact with Republican legislators who generally oppose gun-safety laws was maddening.

By one count, that was the fifth time this school year that East students — well known for their activism — had marched on the Capitol seeking answers. They had marched only weeks ago after the fatal shooting of Luis Garcia, a 16-year-old East student, in a car outside the school. 

And so in Denver schools, the knee jerk solution — which is not really a solution at all, as many students informed legislators at the Capitol — has been to return School Resource Officers (SROs) to schools. The officers were removed nearly three years ago in the wake of the George Floyd murder by police.

Nearly all the studies at the time showed that SROs lead to increased arrests of students, often for minor offenses, leading not only to early interaction with the justice system and what is often called a pipeline to prison, but also to inordinate effects on students of color. One study shows that Black students are more than twice as likely as white students to be affected, leading to obvious concerns about profiling. Let’s call it Studying While Black.

And that’s why the Denver school board unanimously voted to dump the SROs with the plan to presumably move on to more enlightened security and social-work resources. At the time, I thought it was the right call. I still do. But that isn’t to say that the school board doesn’t have its own problems. Has the Denver school system done enough over those last three years since ending the SRO presence? Those on the board complain they don’t have enough money — and they don’t — but $276 million, I’m told, came to the Denver school system because of COVID and the continuing mental-health needs of students.

I asked Sen. Michael Bennet about the latest East shootings, given his experience as the Denver superintendent of schools before he moved on to the Senate in 2009. He said he couldn’t talk about the individual case, but did say, “In general, it is better not to have kids in the justice system prematurely. In general, it’s better not to expel kids. But also in general, it’s better to have a school safety program that kids can feel they can play a part in and that parents can feel confident in.”

He went on to add, “Even before COVID, when people ask me what’s different about K-through-12 today than when you were superintendent, I say, ‘Mental health. Mental Health. Mental health.’ … Kids are basically saying to all of us that they didn’t cause any of these problems. It’s their responsibility to go to school and apply themselves so they can get a decent education. It’s our responsibility to make sure they have a safe environment in which to do that.”

This reaction to bring back the cops was perfectly predictable and, in many ways, entirely understandable. Hours after the mass murder at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, Sen. Ted Cruz said, “We know from past experiences that the most effective tool for keeping kids safe is armed law enforcement on the campus.” 

Yes, he wanted armed cops in elementary schools. The problem is, studies show that armed cops are not an effective tool for keeping kids safe, although Bennet says it can depend on the individual school officer. But a variety of studies have shown that armed cops on campus have little to no impact on the number of school shootings. It may be counterintuitive. But it’s an apparent fact, and one that pro-gun senators like Cruz choose to ignore.

In Colorado, the legislature is considering a series of gun bills this session, most of which are expected to pass into law. The legislature probably won’t pass, or maybe even seriously consider, a ban on so-called assault weapons because, for some reason, Gov. Jared Polis opposes the idea. Still, particularly for a western state, Colorado has been fairly progressive in addressing gun violence.

But, of course, gun violence is not only a Denver problem or a Colorado problem or a school problem or a church/synagogue/gay nightclub/movie theater problem, but a national problem, affecting so many phases of life. We all know that gun ownership — and gun violence —  in America is out of control and that Congress has shown little to no political will to take any serious steps that might make a difference.

Our fealty to an anachronistic Second Amendment, which was written when muskets were the most deadly gun, has led directly to the fact that gun violence — homicides, suicides, accidents — is the leading cause of death among Americans under the age of 20. Over the past 20 years, gun deaths among children in America have risen by 42% while in the same period, gun deaths in peer countries, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, have all fallen.

There are many unanswered questions in the East case.  Austin Lyle, the 17-year-old who shot the administrators and then took his own life after fleeing to Park County, had been expelled for taking a gun to Overland High School in the Cherry Creek school district. And he was on a year’s probation since police found him in possession of a so-called “ghost rifle” with a large-capacity magazine. What is East’s responsibility in such a case? What is our responsibility?

Lyle transferred to East, where he was apparently under a safety plan — a security agreement — that included having him patted down every day. Did you know there are safety plans for some students that include daily searches for guns?  I didn’t. But I can’t really say I’m surprised I never heard of it. Is that really a plan you could sell to parents who want to know their kids are safe at school? Or, for that matter,  a plan that kids would think makes them safe? One East parent told me the idea was “insane.”

Did the East High administrators who were shot have any training in searching a student who may be armed? Although armed police are returning to Denver high schools for the remainder of the school year — two at each school, along with two mental-health workers, according to a vote by the Denver School Board — the police have said they will not participate in such searches.

In the words of Chief Ron Thomas, “We don’t want to have negative interactions with the students.” And so, Superintendent Alex Marrero has said that staff will continue to do the searches. Does that really make any sense?

The biggest question, of course, even bigger than why Lyle had a gun on his person when he knew that he faced a daily search at school, was how he got the gun in the first place.

We don’t yet know the details, but we don’t have to guess at the answer: In America, a 17-year-old on gun-related probation can easily find a gun, take it to school and add to the horrific gun-violence statistics that we, as a nation, continue to refuse to confront.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.

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