Hundreds of students from at least five Denver high schools, reeling from another school shooting, filled lawmakers’ offices and surrounded them in the hallways of the Capitol on Thursday to demand safer schools.
The rally was in response to the second shooting at East High School in as many weeks, but violence at any school affects every school, students said. They chanted slogans like “protect schools, not guns” from the Capitol steps.
“This should have stopped with Luis,” Jasmine Brown, a junior at West High School, said. “This should have stopped with Columbine.”
Luis Garcia, a junior and varsity soccer player at East High School, was shot last month while sitting in his car outside of school. He died of his injuries.
On Wednesday, two administrators at the school were shot by a student, according to law enforcement. The student suspected of shooting the administrators was found dead by suicide hours later in Park County.
“I’m numb to it,” East High School sophomore and Students Demand Action member Stella Kaye said just outside the state Senate chamber. “I shouldn’t be, but I am.”
Soon after, a group of more than a dozen surrounded state Sen. Perry Will, a Republican from New Castle, as he left the chamber.
“I don’t think you understand how scary it is to hear the lockdown go out and I don’t know if my friends are going to be safe, I don’t know if I should send a goodbye text to my family because I might die,” one student said to Will.
Will, like all the Republicans in the legislature and a handful of Democrats, has opposed a slate of gun laws the Democratic majority believe will stifle gun violence.
The four proposals include raising the legal age to possess firearms, increasing the legal liability for firearm manufacturers, waiting period for buying guns, and expanding the state’s red flag law. All four have passed one of the two chambers after long filibusters by Republican lawmakers who argue they infringe upon Second Amendment rights among other concerns. Lawmakers expect more long debates Friday.
“I understand the frustration,” Will said. “If I really thought these gun bills would help and cure the situation, I’d be standing right there (with the students). The reality is, it won’t make a difference.”
People who want to do evil will find ways to do evil, with or without a gun, he said. He told the students he instead wants to focus on mental health.
State Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat and former school board member, left the Capitol on Wednesday to go to East High School at the news of the shooting. On Thursday morning, she noted the deep divisions on gun policy but called for empathy after the shooting.
“Even though we may have political conversations for decades, today is the day to receive people, to allow people to emote, to allow people to grieve,” Bacon said, “as the lives of two very special educators were put in jeopardy yesterday, and a child did lose his life.”
State Rep. Leslie Herod, another Denver Democrat whose district includes East High School, went to the school in the aftermath of the shooting — just as she had for the shooting there a month prior, and like she had for the shooting at Planned Parenthood in 2015, and the shooting at Club Q in November.
“The anger and frustration is higher than I’ve ever seen,” Herod said after talking with some of the students Thursday. “The lack of coming together is higher than I’ve ever seen. And that’s because of the inaction. That’s the evil right now. The evil is the inaction.”
She said the students she talked to just want to feel safe in school, though it looks different for different people. Herod used school police as an example striking the balance between school resource officers to keep students safe and not over-policing kids just being kids.
“This is the nuance we should be having this conversation about,” Herod said. “It should not be yes or no, raise your hand if you agree or you don’t. It should be true solutions that are not so polarized that nothing gets done.”
State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat whose district also includes East High School, described feeling frustrated, angry and sad at the ongoing violence. His 16-year-old son, who attends George Washington High School, was at the Capitol with the rallying students. In addition to the district overlap, Hansen and Herod are both running for Denver mayor.
Hansen said he discussed ongoing efforts around gun violence prevention with the students. He plans to introduce a bill next week prohibiting so-called ghost guns, or those without serial numbers. The bill had been in the works since before the session began.
“Our kids do not deserve any of this,” Hansen said. “They should not even have to think about their safety at school. They should be focused on growing up, on being kids.”
It was a point echoed by some of the students. No matter the solution, they just wanted to feel safe.
“At what point are we just going to allow kids to go to school just to feel safe and learn?” Nico Gomez-Lucero, a senior at West High School, said. He noted the lockdown drills and other safety precautions that have become part of school life. “When can we just be kids again?”
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