A 17-year-old student shot and wounded two school administrators at a Denver high school on Wednesday morning, after a handgun was found during a daily search of the boy that was being conducted because of behavioral issues, authorities said.
Suspect Austin Lyle remained at large following the shooting at East high school and was wanted for attempted homicide. The gun he used was not immediately recovered, the 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 10am in an area away from classrooms 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 administrators was critically injured and was undergoing surgery on Wednesday at an area hospital. The second victim was in stable condition, Thomas said. Both victims are male.
Thomas said police know where the suspect lives and were confident they would apprehend him.
“He obviously is armed and dangerous and willing to use the weapon, as we’ve learned this morning,” said the Denver mayor, Michael Hancock, warning the community about the search for the suspect.
Earlier this month, students from the school skipped class and marched to the Colorado state capitol to demand stricter gun laws, following the death of a student who was shot while sitting in a car near the school.
East high school did not have any school resource officers on campus at the time of the shooting, Thomas said. Following the shooting, the Denver public schools superintendent, Alex Marrero, said two armed officers would be posted at the school through the end of the school year.
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.
Gun violence at schools has become increasingly common in the US, 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 on 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.
The suspect in the Wednesday shooting had transferred to East high school from another district, Marrero said. Officials did not reveal why the student was being searched daily.
Marrero said safety plans for students were enacted in response to “past educational and also behavioral experiences”, adding that it is a common practice throughout Colorado public schools.
But daily pat-downs are rare, said Matthew McClain of the Colorado School Counselor Association.
“Clearly they were concerned,” said Franci Crepeau-Hobson, a University of Colorado, Denver, professor specializing in school violence prevention. “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 safety plan team can include counselors, administrators and police officers who assess the possible threat and develop 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.
One parent, Jess 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. She planned to talk to her daughter about taking her out of school for the rest of the school year.
“I am sick of it,” she said.
Denver public schools confirmed that 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 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 call for stricter gun laws, including bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, and for Congress to “do something” on gun control.
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