School Climate & Safety

School Shooting Prompts Denver to Bring Back Armed Officers

By Caitlynn Peetz — March 23, 2023 3 min read
Students leave East High School following a school shooting on March 22, 2023, in Denver. Two school administrators were shot at the high school after a handgun was found on a student subjected to daily searches, authorities said.
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Denver was one of at least 50 districts that removed police officers from their schools following the May 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis that focused much of the country’s attention on racism.

But on Wednesday, the 89,000-student district became the latest to backtrack, and it now plans to return officers to its 43 high schools for the rest of the school year following a shooting that left two administrators injured.

On Wednesday morning, school leaders were patting down a 17-year-old boy at East High School as part of a “safety plan” that had been developed for him under which he was searched every morning. The teen shot two administrators before fleeing, according to local police. One administrator was released from the hospital Wednesday, but another remained in serious condition as of Wednesday night, according to NBC News. The teenager identified as the alleged shooter, Austin Lyle, was found dead Wednesday night.

In a letter to the Denver school board Wednesday, Superintendent Alex Marrero said he intends to go against a district policy implemented in 2020 and station an armed officer at each of the district’s comprehensive high schools for the rest of the school year, according to reporting by Chalkbeat.

In 2020, amid a national movement for police reform following the police killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a young Black woman in Louisville, Ky., the Denver school board voted to remove school resource officers from the city’s campuses, and wrote into policy that the superintendent could no longer staff schools with police.

But in his letter to the school board this week, Marrero wrote that he “can no longer stand on the sidelines,” and is “willing to accept the consequences of my actions,” Chalkbeat reported.

Some districts that cut SRO programs are bringing them back

The Denver district isn’t alone.

Between May 2020 and June 2022, at least 50 school districts ended their school policing programs or cut their budgets, according to an EdWeek tracker.

As of last June, eight districts had reversed course and brought them back, including two—in Montgomery County, Md., and Pomona, Calif.—that did so after shootings on or near campus.

Policing in schools gained traction in recent decades, prompted, at least in part, by an increase in school shootings. Research by the University of Connecticut, for example, found that in 1975, 1 percent of districts had police on campus. By 2018, more than half of districts had at least one armed officer.

As districts across the country considered severing ties with police in recent years, advocates for the move pointed to data that suggest the presence of school resource officers contributes to an increase in disciplinary actions, particularly among Black and Hispanic students and students in special education programs.

And there is some research that suggests having police in schools doesn’t actually improve school safety.

Still, proponents argue that school resource officers can foster positive relationships that can help stifle potential threats before they turn into a problem—a student may feel empowered to tell the officer of a threat they saw online, or that they overheard a student say they would bring a gun to school, for example. They argue that it’s impossible to gather data about incidents that were prevented simply by proactively having law enforcement on site.

Students from East High School and West High School call for gun control measures to be considered by state lawmakers Thursday, March 23, 2023, during a rally outside the State Capitol in Denver. A shooting left two administrators injured at East High School on Wednesday, one of a series of gun-related events at the school in the past six weeks.

In Denver, East High School students were already attempting to process a shooting that led to the death of a student just weeks before Wednesday’s shooting.

Luis Garcia, a 16-year-old junior, died March 1 after he was shot in a vehicle near campus on Feb. 13.

Two days after Garcia’s death, hundreds of students from the school led a walkout calling for gun safety reform.

On Thursday morning, less than 24 hours after the shooting that injured two administrators, many of those students again gathered at the Colorado capitol to protest and demand lawmakers pass firearm safety legislation.

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