“Hey, I’m going to be a senior next year, and no school shooting yet,” Jude Ruscha told their mother JoyAnn, a few weeks back. “If I die in a school shooting, send my picture to everybody in Congress.”
Those are the kinds of remarks youth make after a lifetime of active-shooter drills in the United States, a nation with more guns than people, and in Colorado, a state known for Columbine, the Aurora Century 16 and the Boulder King Soopers shootings.
Weeks after that conversation, on Tuesday, the country witnessed the 27th school shooting of the year, at Robb Elementary, in Uvalde, Texas. Nineteen students and two teachers were murdered.
JoyAnn had already been on edge the past two days, eager to see Northfield in Central Park let out for summer on Thursday.
But on her way to work — the last day of the school year — she received a text from Jude that she long feared she would get: There were a bunch of cops outside. There was a thumping noise — maybe a gun.
If anything happens, “I’m sorry, and I love you,” Jude texted.
JoyAnn turned her car around, honked her horn to clear traffic, and shot through red lights, racing to Northfield. When she arrived, police were on the scene. Parents were parking a few blocks away.
She ran to the school, tripping over her sandals and trying to find out what was happening. She wished her kid hadn’t texted.
“Many times I have told Jude, ‘If you’re ever in this situation and you’re hiding or there’s active danger and you try to run, don’t stop and text me. I already know you love me,'” she recalled. “When I got their text, I thought, ‘They’re not listening to their mother.’ I texted, ‘Stay safe. Don’t be a hero.'”
Outside the school, rumors spread among parents. Inside barricaded classrooms and dark closets, students sent out texts speculating about what was happening: The gun was a toy… or a BB gun… or a paint-ball gun…or maybe a decoy for an actual shooting.
Officers told JoyAnn they didn’t know what was happening inside or whether everybody was okay.
“We were all obviously very anxious because we weren’t being told anything,” she said. Parents were praying and hugging, and wondering if their children were alive.
A sheriff’s deputy walked up to a weeping mother, JoyAnn recalled. “Are you okay?” he asked. “It’s gonna be okay… I have a son in there too.”
Though she was thirsty, JoyAnn refused to drink the cold water she had brought with her. What if Jude was thirsty?
Parents tried to climb a fence separating them from their children at the pickup spot. Students, teachers and security shouted at each other. Seniors with younger siblings begged police to let them reunite, all to no avail. The sun bore down on everybody.
By the time JoyAnn and Jude finally reconnected, two hours had passed. The water in her bottle was warm. As they drove away, pizzas began to arrive. Families were in for a long wait.
What happened at Northfield
Denver Police Chief Paul M. Pazen said it took authorities three minutes to arrive at the school after receiving reports of a weapon on campus. Pazen added that two people were taken into custody and charges are pending.
DPS Superintendent Dr. Alex Marrero applauded officials’ response time to the situation.
“We had close to 2,000 students on this campus,” Marrero said. “Our response time, one touch of a button and we were able to secure this campus that has six buildings. Happy that it was not a real situation but if this was a drill, this was the drill to have.”
Juniors Jackson Garofoli and Vicente Rodriguez were running late to class this morning and were stopped by school officials. Both students said they’ve been on high alert since Tuesday’s shooting.
“As soon as we got here we couldn’t go inside the building. They said there were cops all over the campus. They told us to go back to our cars,” Rodriguez said. “[The school] handled it well. I like how they had a lot of cops and a lot of people.”
Garofoli added, “It definitely raises concerns…What happened in Texas earlier this week was really a tragedy and really sad.”
Parents and students at Northfield weren’t the only ones in Denver to get a scare Thursday — or even this week
Cherry Creek High School, Campus Middle School and Belleview Elementary School were all placed on secure perimeter around 10 a.m., according to Greenwood Village Police. Students and staff were brought into the building to go about normal activities, but all exterior doors were closed and locked after an unknown individual threatened to “shoot up the school,” on social media.
Police say they are working to identify the person who posted the threatening message.
And earlier this week, Boulder police arrested a 14-year-old who allegedly made threats of a shooting at Casey Middle School.
Even though the Northfield incident was resolved without injuries, the trauma had already rippled through the community
Omar Reyes, who works as a program manager with the Denver Public Schools Substance Use Prevention team, was in an online meeting at home, half a mile from Northfield High School, when he saw dozens of emergency service vehicles approach the school.
Concerned, he drove to the site and spoke with three kids who said the school was on lockdown.
The incident shook him, both as an educator and as a parent.
“It was really hard,” he said. “It’s really hard given what happened in Texas the other day.”
He immediately called his son’s elementary school to see if it was also on lockdown and was happy to find it wasn’t.
“As a parent, given what happened earlier in the week in Texas and what’s been going on in America for 25 f****** years now, I feel like I had to do something for my kiddo,” he said. “I am elevated. I’m in some level of fight or flight mode because of the context. There’s been a school shooting this week already… So I’m upset. I’m looking for comfort.”
Denverite visual journalist Kevin Beaty and CPR audience editor Obed Manuel contributed to this report.