Going to school has become difficult for Ellie McGoldrick in recent weeks.
The senior was in math class when she first heard about the gunshots outside of Denver’s East High School on a Monday afternoon in February. Not long after, the 18-year-old learned there had been a second shooting near Denver Public Schools’ headquarters downtown.
Later that day, she found out a classmate, 16-year-old Luis Garcia, was critically injured in the shooting outside of East. Garcia died Wednesday after being hospitalized for two-and-a-half weeks.
Now, when she’s at school, McGoldrick becomes anxious. She gets butterflies in her stomach, her palms become sweaty, her chest tightens and she becomes restless. The anxiety is so high she’s started missing classes, choosing instead to make up work at home because she no longer feels safe when she’s at school.
“How do you really cope with something like this?” McGoldrick said.
Students at East, including McGoldrick, described school days interrupted by lockdowns and other alerts in the weeks since their classmate was shot on Feb. 13. Those who spoke to The Denver Post said they no longer feel safe on campus and said DPS officials haven’t responded aggressively enough to the threat of gun violence.
Some students and parents have called for tighter security on campus, although they acknowledged an increase in police presence wouldn’t make every student, especially people of color, feel safer. (The Board of Education voted in 2020 to remove Denver Police Department resource officers from DPS schools by June 2021.)
Others said they wished DPS leaders would find other ways to improve safety, such as investing in community programs or adding metal detectors at East. They also criticized the district for what they called a lack of communication about the Feb. 13 shooting.
“What’s frustrating is that there’s no concrete steps,” said Karen Einisman, a parent of a student at East. “Kids are getting shot while the progress on school safety is stalled.”
Superintendent Alex Marrero said in an interview with The Post that since taking the helm of the state’s largest district he has worked to rebuild the relationship between DPS and the city’s police department after hearing from high school principals that there was “tension” between the two.
Marrero and Board of Education members also have emphasized that the shooting did not occur on East’s campus, but, rather, nearby. Gun violence, Marrero has said, is a serious issue in the city and nationwide.
“I can’t stress enough — although we’ve had these horrific acts, they have not happened in our schools,” he said in an interview.
Marrero said he is calling on city officials to address access to guns in the community and he wants to know how the 17 people running to be Denver’s next mayor will tackle youth violence in the city and prioritize safety around schools.
“This requires lawmakers, legislators and mayors,” Marrero said, adding, “What I’m looking for is creative solutions. Commitment to the partnership. I’m urging them to help us help the city. Our students need it but our community as well.”
“It’s happening in our community”
Luis Garcia, a junior, was sitting in his car near East High School, at East 17th Avenue and City Park Esplanade, on Feb. 13 when he was shot. The 16-year-old played on the school’s varsity soccer team, earned good grades and was described by family as a “hard worker”
He died Wednesday. more than two weeks after being shot.
So far, the Denver Police Department has said officers do not know a motive for the shooting. They arrested two other DPS students — who do not attend East — last month. However, the two were not arrested on charges tied to shooting Garcia.
Police officials said they were investigating a 17-year-old for illegal possession of a handgun and a 16-year-old for auto theft and felony eluding. The teens’ names were not released because they are juveniles.
Denver police said Wednesday that the shooting of Garcia remains under investigation and that they had no updates.
Gun violence among Denver teens is on the rise. Last year, 17 teens were killed in Denver — almost double the number who died five years ago. Another 70 teens were shot and injured. Most of them were injured or killed by other teens, according to previous reporting by The Post.
“It’s happening in our community,” Marrero said, adding, “My call to action is to prevent it from getting into our schools.”
East students and parents said they understand the shooting is part of a broader trend.
“This is just a problem in our society; there’s way too much gun violence,” said parent Karla Kyte.
Kyte’s son, Wesley Krebs, played on the soccer team with Garcia and was walking to the student parking lot when he heard the gunshots that day.
Initially, Krebs, a senior, didn’t think the noise was unusual. He found out roughly an hour later, when he was at the gym and texts began flowing into the soccer team’s group chat, that Garcia had been injured.
“It’s kind of like still a shock to me,” the 17-year-old said, adding, “A lot of East students and staff members are pretty devastated about the whole situation.”
Some students said that even if the shooting didn’t technically occur on campus, it happened in an area they frequent often.
“It doesn’t matter where it happened,” said 16-year-old Clara Taub, who co-founded East Students Demand Action, which advocates ending gun violence, with her sister. “It happened to a student and right next to a school.”
The student-led group has organized a walkout at East for Friday morning to advocate for more legislation to curb gun violence. Students plan to walk to the Colorado Capitol.
Senior Tayler Secrest wasn’t on campus the day of the shooting, but he said other students saw it happen.
“I’m not sure it’s entirely possible to feel safe after something like this,” said Secrest, a senior who played on the soccer team with Garcia.
“I definitely felt symptoms of anxiety and fear and not really sure at school if I was safe,” he added.
“We just never hear from them”
The day after the shooting, East administrators canceled school. When they returned, students said they struggled to focus on lessons. Some of their teachers spoke to them about the shooting, letting them know mental health services were available.
While mental health professionals were on site, it was difficult for students to access the resources without drawing attention to themselves, junior Anna Boyle said. And while some teachers mentioned the shooting, they also said students were behind in their work and continued on with class as normal, she said.
“For a lot of people it feels like we’re pushing the situation away and just waiting for the next one to happen,” the 17-year-old said.
Like others, Boyle said she wished for more transparency and communication from the school and district regarding the shooting and safety. For example, she wishes the principal had held an assembly to discuss what happened and how safety was being improved.
“We just never hear from them,” said Boyle, who is editor-in-chief of the school newspaper.
The day after students returned to class — two days after the shooting — a weapon was discovered on campus. The following day, on Feb. 16, students were placed in a “secure perimeter” because of “an unrelated disturbance in the neighborhood,” according to emails school administrators sent families.
A week later, several Colorado schools, including East, received false reports of active shooters and other threats.
East students also recalled how in the fall they were escorted out of the high school with their hands raised above their heads because of a separate batch of false threats that were made to schools across the state.
“It’s just something that continues and continues to build up and nothing has stopped it,” Secrest said.
Debate over police in schools
During a Denver school board meeting last week, directors acknowledged the concerns expressed by students and parents. They also adopted a policy that stated the district will collaborate with local law enforcement and community organizations to “mitigate” threats.
“We have family and students who currently feel unsafe,” board member Scott Esserman said. “That desire to feel safe. That appearance of safety is real.”
The district has faced calls to bring police back into schools since the shooting near East.
In 2020, the school board voted to remove the Denver Police Department’s resource officers from schools following the national reckoning over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
School board members argued that police in schools are detrimental to students of color and contributed to the school-to-prison pipeline.
“DPS is a safe district,” board vice president Auon’tai Anderson said during the meeting. “We just need other elected officials, other branches of government to step up and do their jobs as well. DPS can only protect kids within our local (level) of control.”
The board has given no indication it will revisit its vote on police officers in schools.
Marrero, though, in an interview, expressed support for PEERS: Police Establishing Equitable Relationships with Students, a program that would identify primary police officers for each school who would respond to calls, participate in community service projects, mentor students and meet with administrators about neighborhood safety.
Students and parents who spoke to The Post said the district must find ways to make teens feel safer at school.
Some, like McGoldrick, said they would feel safer with more security officers on campus. Others said removing police from schools might have been the right decision, but another response hasn’t been offered by the district or school board.
“The board focuses a lot on why it’s not their fault and what they can’t do,” said Taub, the teen who co-founded East Students Demand Action. “Them just bowing out of that responsibility is what makes it really frustrating as students.”
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