DENVER (AP) — A student shot and wounded two administrators at a Denver high school Wednesday morning, after a handgun was found during a daily search of the boy that was being conducted because of behavioral issues, authorities said.
The 17-year-old suspect remained at large. Denver school officials, facing criticism over lax security, said they would put armed officers into the city’s public high schools.
The shooting occurred at a school shaken by frequent lockdowns and violence, including the killing of a classmate that prompted East High School students to march on the Colorado Capitol earlier this month. Parents who converged on the 2,500-student campus on Wednesday faulted officials for not doing enough to protect their children.
“I am sick of it,” said Jesse Haase, who planned to talk with her daughter about taking her out of classes for the rest of the school year.
Police were searching for Austin Lyle for attempted homicide. The gun used in the shooting was not immediately recovered, Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas said.
Police issued an alert linking Lyle to a red 2005 Volvo X90 with Colorado plates and offered a reward up to $2,000 for information on the case.
The shooting happened just before 10 a.m. in an office area as the student was undergoing a search as part of a “safety plan” that required him to be patted down daily, officials said.
One of the wounded administrators was released from the hospital Wednesday afternoon and the second remained in serious condition, said Heather Burke, a spokesperson for Denver Health hospital. Both victims are male.
Thomas said police know where Lyle lives and believed they would apprehend him.
“He obviously is armed and dangerous and willing to use the weapon, as we’ve learned this morning,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock warned as law enforcement searched.
Hundreds of students on March 3 skipped class and marched in support of stricter gun laws following the death of Luis Garcia, 16, who was shot while sitting in a car near the school.
There were no school resource officers on campus at the time of Wednesday’s shooting, Thomas said.
In June 2020, amid a summer of protests over racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd, Denver Public Schools became one of the districts around the US that decided to phase out its use of police officers in school buildings. That push was fueled by criticism that school resource officers disproportionately arrested Black students, sweeping them into the criminal justice system.
After Wednesday’s shooting, two armed officers will be posted at East High School and other city high schools also will each get an officer, said Denver Public Schools Superintendent Alex Marrero.
In a Wednesday letter to the city’s Board of Education, Marrero said his decision would violate the district’s policies. But Marrero added he “can no longer stand on the sidelines.”
“I am willing to accept the consequences of my actions,” he wrote. “I am the leader of this district who is charged with keeping our scholars and staff safe every day.”
Gun violence at schools has become increasingly common in the U.S. with more than 1,300 shootings recorded between 2000 and June 2022, according to researchers from the Naval Postgraduate School and Center for Homeland Defense and Security. Those shootings killed 377 people and wounded 1,025, according to a database maintained by the researchers.
Students from East High School had been scheduled to testify Wednesday afternoon before the Colorado Legislature on gun safety bills.
“This is the reality of being young in America: sitting through a shooting and waiting for information just hours before you’re scheduled to testify in support of gun safety bills,” said Gracie Taub, a 16-year-old East High School sophomore and volunteer with Students Demand Action in Colorado.
“Our school experience should not be completely shaped by gun violence,” she added.
Lyle had transferred to East High School after being disciplined and removed from a high school in nearby Aurora during last school year because of violations of school policies, Cherry Creek School District spokesperson Lauren Snell. She declined to specify the violations, citing student privacy.
Officials did not reveal why he was being searched daily.
Marrero said safety plans for students are enacted in response to “past educational and also behavioral experiences,” adding that it’s a common practice throughout Colorado’s public schools.
But daily pat downs are rare, said Matthew McClain with the Colorado School Counselor Association, and Franci Crepeau-Hobson, a University of Colorado Denver professor specializing in school violence prevention.
“Clearly they were concerned,” said Crepeau-Hobson. “I can’t imagine they’d do that if there wasn’t a history of the kid carrying a weapon for whatever reason.”
School safety plans are often imposed after students exhibit threatening or suicidal behavior, said Christine Harms, director of the Colorado School Safety Resource Center. A team that can include counselors, administrators and police officers assesses the possible threat and develops a safety plan, which can include mental health support, more supervision and searches, she said.
East High School, not far from downtown near a busy street that cuts through the city, was placed on lockdown as police investigated the shooting.
Hundreds of parents lined up along a road near the school, with the scene sealed off by police.
Some parents and students vented frustration over violence at the school as they surrounded the police chief. Others argued about the causes of the violence.
Thomas listened quietly, nodding and promising to engage with the school board.
At the edge of the crowd, a man said the city’s school board members should be recalled for getting rid of police in school, telling a police officer nearby “I just want you to be able to do your job.”
Another man shouted that it was a problem of “evil in the world” while a girl responded that the violence wouldn’t happen if guns weren’t so easily available.
Parent Haase said her daughter, a senior, texted while hiding in a classroom with the lights off during the lockdown. Haase said lockdowns have happened too frequently at the school this year and she was frustrated.
Denver Public School confirmed the victims were administrators.
Wednesday was also the second anniversary of 10 people being shot and killed at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said she wasn’t sure whether President Joe Biden had been briefed on the school shooting, but said, “Our hearts go out to the families of the two school administrators in Denver today, and to the entire school community.”
She repeated Biden’s called for stricter gun laws, including bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, and for Congress to “do something” on gun control.
Associated Press reporters Sarah Brumfield in Silver Spring, Maryland and Matthew Brown in Billings, Mont. contributed.
Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.