Gun violence in and around schools has emerged as one of the most pressing issues in Denver’s crowded mayor’s race.
On Wednesday, a 17-year-old student was suspected of shooting two administrators at the city’s East High School, critically wounding one. The shooting comes just weeks after East High student Luis Garcia, 16, died from injuries he sustained after being shot in his car near the school’s campus on Feb. 13.
In the wake of the second shooting, Denver mayoral candidates took to social media to respond to the violence that has left students at East fearful to be on campus.
Lisa Calderón’s background includes work as a college professor and a long history of criminal justice reform advocacy. On Wednesday, she called for stricter gun control and more mental health resources on school campuses as a response to the violence. East students marched from the school to the Colorado Capitol earlier this month to urge state lawmakers to pass gun control legislation.
“I hear and agree with the pleas of students: Words are not enough. It is time for action. We need stronger restrictions on firearms. We also need more mental health counselors and de-escalation experts in our schools to support young people to prevent violence before it happens,” Calderón wrote as part of a Twitter thread addressing Wednesday’s shooting.
Violence is an outgrowth of the failures of support systems for young people, Calderón said. She vowed to work with lawmakers and Denver Public Schools to decrease access to guns and make it easier for students to get mental health support.
Absent from Calderón’s Twitter thread was a mention of bringing armed Denver police officers back into schools. In 2020, the elected Denver school board voted to remove Denver Police Department resource officers from schools in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Board members at the time said having police in schools was harmful to students of color and contributed to the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Term-limited Mayor Michael Hancock went to the East High campus on Wednesday to make a public plea for help locating the shooting suspect who was still at large. In a statement, the mayor called for more gun control but also a return of school resource officers to DPS buildings.
Other candidates in the race for mayor took this position.
Trinidad Rodriguez retweeted the mayor’s statement and added “We can learn from past mistakes in schools and do this equitably and, as is increasingly clear, save lives.”
Mike Johnston, a former teacher and high school principal, also called on the school board to reverse its policy and allow individual schools to decide if they want armed police officers in their buildings.
“As a former principal, today’s shooting at East High School is particularly heartbreaking because two educators had to search a student they suspected of having a weapon — and they both got shot with that weapon — because they didn’t have a metal detector or an officer to do that search,” he tweeted.
One of Andy Rougeot’s chief campaign promises has been hiring 400 additional police officers as a response to Denver’s rising crime rates in recent years.
The mayor doesn’t have the power to set policies for DPS, but Rougeot tweeted on Wednesday that if the school board did not bring back school resource officers he would “post a police officer outside every high school campus in a position as close to the school as legally allowed as mayor.”
Rougeot and Calderón argued at a debate last week over whether or not more police officers made a community safer. Calderón worked on the Denver Task Force for Reimagining Policing and Public Safety. One of that group’s recommendations was to minimize unnecessary interactions between law enforcement and residents.
Debbie Ortega is a sitting City Council member in addition to running for mayor. In a statement Wednesday she was praying for the victims of the shooting but added that prayers are not enough.
“I called the Mayor and have made a request to convene City leadership, DPS and school leadership to address this issue, immediately,” Ortega tweeted.
Candidate Robert Treta shared a photo of himself standing on the statehouse steps with racial justice protestors in June 2020 in response to the shooting. He vowed to be the type of mayor that will stand with the community in times of crisis.
“Another school shooting at East High school. I can’t believe it. We need to figure this out and we need to do this now,” Treta said in a separate tweet.
State Sen. Chris Hansen tweeted Wednesday that his heart was breaking again for the East High community.
“Our children and families are hurting and this is another terrible reminder of the work we still have to do,” his post read.
Kelly Brough and Leslie Herod both put out statements about the shooting.
Brough said every option should be on the table to protect students and faculty in city schools including bringing back the school resource officer program which she emphasized may have made a difference on Wednesday.
“What we are doing isn’t working, and our families deserve better,” Brough said. “At the bare minimum, those schools and communities who want SROs should have them immediately.”
Herod, who was the primary sponsor of the state landmark police accountability bill in 2020, did not address school resource officers explicitly in her statement but said that any instance in which educators are being tasked with searching students for weapons is a policy failure. Denver schools are “under-resourced to meet the diverse and growing needs” of students, she said.
“Curbing youth violence is fundamental to the safety and wellness of our city. Our city’s leaders should be bringing our state’s top experts together to address the root causes of this crisis and to make sure that we never again put our educators on the front line to keep our schools safe,” her statement read.
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