Home News Shooting at Denver High School Focuses Attention on School Safety Plans

Shooting at Denver High School Focuses Attention on School Safety Plans

by Staff

The shooting of two administrators at a Denver high school on Wednesday has focused attention on student safety plans, which are commonly used by schools across the country as a way to monitor troubled students and prevent violence.

A day after the shooting at East High School, Denver school officials voted to bring armed police officers back into the city’s high schools for the remainder of the school year, nearly three years after they were removed.

The student, Austin Lyle, 17, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound hours after the shooting, was required by a safety plan to be searched before entering the school each day, the police said.

It was not clear what specifically had prompted officials to create the plan, but Superintendent Alex Marrero of Denver Public Schools said that administrators at the high school were aware that Mr. Lyle had a criminal history.

Mr. Lyle had been placed on probation after officers in Aurora, Colo., found a “ghost rifle” with a large-capacity magazine at his house in 2021, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity to share the details of a case involving a juvenile.

Mr. Lyle had been “removed” from Overland High School in Aurora over discipline issues during the 2021-2022 school year, a Cherry Creek School District spokeswoman said. She declined to elaborate.

On Wednesday, two administrators at East High School, identified by the district as Eric Sinclair, dean of culture, and Jerald Mason, coordinator in restorative practice, were patting down Mr. Lyle in an office when they found a gun, the police said.

Mr. Lyle fired several shots, injuring both men, the police said. By Thursday, Mr. Mason had been discharged from the hospital. Mr. Sinclair remained hospitalized in serious condition.

Mr. Lyle’s body was found on Wednesday night near his car in Park County, about a two-hour drive southwest of Denver. He had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the county coroner’s office said on Thursday, citing the findings of a preliminary autopsy.

“I believe there has been a societal failure,” Xochitl Gaytan, president of the Denver Public Schools Board of Education, said at a news conference on Thursday afternoon. “For us to incur the death of students is not OK. It is not OK. And it really weighs heavily on each of us.”

Mr. Marrero said at the news conference that while the shooting was inexplicable and unforeseen, “there was a common administrator who would normally engage with the student upon arrival. That administrator was not available.”

In the absence of that administrator, Mr. Mason and Mr. Sinclair patted down Mr. Lyle, Mr. Marrero said. “Perhaps that prompted it,” Mr. Marrero said. “It’s hard to speculate, but that’s what we’ve learned.”

Chief Ron Thomas of the Denver Police Department said on Wednesday that Mr. Lyle had previously been searched “and had never had a weapon on him before.”

Safety plans like the one put in place for Mr. Lyle are “very common” in schools nationwide, said Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit that seeks to increase school safety.

They are often used to reintegrate students after they have been expelled for carrying a gun, fighting or being arrested on a serious charge, he said. They can also be used to help students who threaten to harm themselves or others, he said.

The plans may call for students to be patted down or to check in with a school police officer or meet with a school mental health counselor, Mr. Dorn said.

“I feel it’s a valid technique,” he said. “I have seen hundreds of students in my experience who were able to continue their education without harming themselves or anyone else because of this type of concept.”

But Mr. Dorn, who was a school police chief in Bibb County, Ga., said that he did not believe it was safe to ask unarmed administrators to search students. That should only be done, he said, by armed school security officers.

In 2020, Denver Public Schools voted to remove school resource officers from its schools and ended its contract with the Police Department over concerns that the officers were funneling students, particularly nonwhite students, into the criminal justice system, according to the district’s website.

The Denver Board of Education voted on Thursday to place at least two armed police officers as well as at least two additional mental health counselors at each high school for the remainder of the school year.

Even so, Mr. Marrero said that armed police officers would not pat down students unless they had probable cause. It is standard for educators to conduct such searches, he said.

Student safety plans have come under scrutiny before.

School officials in Parkland, Fla., for example, had drafted a safety plan that prohibited a student from bringing a backpack to school before he shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. The student, who had made threats to himself and others, was also barred from practicing shooting skills with the Junior R.O.T.C. at the school, which he had joined.

Several school safety experts questioned whether the school district in Denver had provided Mr. Lyle with mental health counseling and other services, in addition to the searches required by his safety plan.

“The bigger question is, what else were they doing for this student?” said Odis Johnson Jr., a professor of social policy at Johns Hopkins University and executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools. “There has got to be something else going on if they’re going to pat them down every day. It can’t be just the pat-down.”

Janet Robinson, who was superintendent of schools in Newtown, Conn., when a gunman killed 20 first graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, said that teachers and administrators need to establish a relationship with students who are being subjected to searches and other requirements.

“It’s more than checking whether he or she has a weapon,” Ms. Robinson said. “What are the kind of opportunities to just talk to the kid: ‘Hey, what’s going on today?’ I think that relationship, as difficult as it might be for these kids, is going to make or break it.”

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