Students gathered outside after a shooting at East High School in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)
5 min

DENVER — Osvaldo Garza had just played violin at a student assembly when an administrator took to the stage to announce the third lockdown of the 15-year-old’s freshman year at East High School. Or maybe it was the fourth — they were so frequent that he couldn’t remember.

But this lockdown, Garza said outside the school on Wednesday, counted as a “bigger one”: Two administrators had been shot near the entrance of the school while patting down a student who the police chief said was on a “safety plan.” The student’s past behavior, chief Ron Thomas told reporters, warranted daily pat-downs that had not previously yielded a weapon.

This time, staff members located a handgun, which the student fired multiple times, officials said. Two male administrators, known as deans, were hospitalized with injuries, and one required surgery. The student, later identified by police as 17-year-old Austin Lyle, fled campus and is still at large.

The shooting added to a list of incidents of gun violence that have shaken East High this year in a city where public safety has become a flash point in next month’s mayoral election; in a state where infamous mass killings and everyday shootings have prompted Democrats to push stricter new gun laws; and in a nation where drills and lockdowns so often disrupt school days that some children feel inured to them.

In mid-February, Luis Garcia, a 16-year-old sophomore and East High soccer player, was shot outside the school. He died of his injuries March 1. In September, a 14-year-old student was shot in the face at a recreation center near the school. Police said he was an innocent bystander.

“I’m more desensitized to it than anything,” said Finn McGirk, 16, a sophomore who was in the auditorium for the assembly when Tuesday’s lockdown was announced. He estimated that he’d experienced “10 to 20” lockdowns or alerts of some nature — some bomb threats; most false alarms — in his time at East. “It’s scary, but it still somehow feels far away to me.”

But the violence has galvanized others. Two days after Garcia’s death, hundreds of East High students marched to the state capitol to protest gun violence and push legislators to address it. They filled the galleries of the House and Senate, some wearing soccer jerseys in honor of Garcia. They swarmed the halls of the capitol, where lawmakers are considering bills that include banning assault weapons and raising the minimum age for purchasing firearms. Garza was among them.

A stream of senators addressed them from the floor that day, assuring the students that they were taking their concerns seriously. But they cautioned that the problem was enormous. “I send my son to school each day and I wonder if something is going to happen,” state Sen. Chris Hansen (D), a candidate for mayor who represents the area that includes East High, told them. But, he said, “there is no perfect law. There is no single thing we can do to end it.”

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Alex Marrero has said gun violence in schools is his top concern, telling the school board in the fall: “This is a city of Denver issue. This is a county, a state issue — quite frankly, a national phenomenon in terms of access to guns.” Weapon confiscations at district schools have soared since the pandemic, rising from 40 in the 2018-2019 school year to 200 last school year, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

“I’m deeply sorry that we’re here,” Marrero said Wednesday at a news conference Wednesday. “I really, really feel strongly that we shouldn’t be here but here we are.”

The administrators shot on Wednesday were quickly treated by paramedics who happened to be on campus to assist a student who was having an allergic reaction, officials said. Marrero described the safety plan that required staff to search the suspect daily as “common across the nation.”

Police had been present outside the school at the start and end of the day for the past month, Thomas said, but Marrero said no school resource officers were in the school to carry out the pat-down of the student. That’s district policy: The Denver school board in 2020 voted to remove school resource officers, which were provided by the city police department, from campuses. On Wednesday, Marrero told the school board that he would bring police back to some district high schools, even if it violates board policy, according to Chalkbeat.

Officials canceled classes for the rest of the week at East High, which goes on spring break next week. Two armed officers will be present inside the school for the rest of the year, Thomas said.

C.J. Buchanan, 15, might not be there to see them. As his mother, Keyosha Buchanan, waited for her son to exit the school on Wednesday, she said she’d reached her limit. She graduated from East in 1998 and remembered fights and gang activity, but not regular shooting threats. She said she planned to find out whether C.J. could finish the year online while she looked into moving him to a suburban district.

A student whose behavior was so troubling that he required daily pat-downs should not be allowed at school, she said.

“This is PTSD it’s happened to kids so much this year,” she said. “It’s a big, big safety concern.”

C.J., who was also at the assembly when the school went into lockdown, credited the injured administrators with preventing a greater tragedy. “You really don’t know what he would have done when he got into the school,” he said.