“We just buried Luis”: East High parents, students fume after another shooting and call for stricter security

On their way to school today, students walked past a memorial to Luis Garcia, who was shot outside East earlier this year.
8 min. read
The iconic “E” outside Denver East High School on Wednesday evening, March 22, 2023, with flowers and a “#11” painted on the surface in commemoration of Luis Garcia, who was shot outside the school in late February. Two school staffers were injured in a shooting reported at the school Wednesday morning.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Bundled in hoodies, students walked past frozen, wilted flowers in cellophane wrappers on top of the big "E" that sits in front of East High School on Tuesday morning.

The flowers had been put there over the past few weeks to honor Luis Garcia, a 16-year-old student who was shot outside the school and later died.

As students showed their badges to get into the school, they looked up and saw a poster board sign in honor of Garcia.

Less than two hours later, another shooting took place.

This time, two school administrators conducting a routine safety check found a gun on a 17-year-old student. The gun fired. The adults were shot. Both were taken to the hospital: one, in critical condition, went into surgery. The other was in serious but stable condition.

The school went on lockdown. Parents were called to come pick up their kids again. Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas, school Superintendent Alex Marrero and Mayor Michael Hancock showed up to address the media -- and scared, furious parents who had one collective concern on their minds: How will leaders keep their kids safe?

One immediate response Marrero offered to parents on the scene: Two armed officers will be on site until the end of the school year at East High School.

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Later in the day, in a letter to the school board members, Marrero said he would have an armed Denver Police officer at every high school, and acknowledged his decision was likely in violation of school board policy.

The Denver Public School Board of Education expressed support for Marrero's decision in a public statement.

Denver East High School parent Milena Lopèz gestures as she shouts at Police Chief Ron Thomas after a shooting at East High School on Wednesday, March 22, 2023.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

The shooting happened as students were in an assembly.

"Everyone starts freaking out immediately," said student Anthony Cordova. "It was definitely just chaos, the first 10 seconds where it was like a blur in my mind."

Cordova grabbed his friends and ran out the back doors into City Park. He saw the two administrators who were shot rolled out of the school on stretchers to an ambulance.

Gavin Wehrle also ran when he heard the shots.

"It just gets scary and scarier to be honest," he said. "School hasn't really been feeling safe recently, to be honest."

Denver East High School parent Sonya Black, center, wipes tears from her eyes as she pleads with Police Chief Ron Thomas for information after a shooting at East High School on Wednesday, March 22, 2023.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Outside East High, parents who gathered to pick up their kids were yelling. For many of them, it was the second time this year they came to pick their kids up from a lockdown.

They paced with their phones at the edge of City Park, waiting for students to come out from the lockdown. Many had rushed there straight from work, still wearing suits and scrubs.

At one point, Mayor Michael Hancock and police came down the street, and parents and media swarmed around him. They shouted at Hancock and Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas to beef up security at schools, to keep their kids safe.

Milena Lopèz, the parent of a ninth grader at East, said, "I'm frustrated. Exhausted. We just buried Luis."

"Leaders, stand up!" one parent yelled. "Don't talk to the press, talk to us!" "Do something about it!" "We need to be proactive, not reactive!" shouted others.

"The reason why I'm yelling is because I'm sick of this," said Kawala Selli, a parent shouting at officials while waiting to pick up his daughter. "The first time this happened, the kids went over to the Capitol and it seemed to be like our politicians did not listen to what the kids had to say. So it's about time the parents take the initiative to ask for better gun control in the city."

Less than a month ago, East High students walked out and took to the State Capitol to protest gun violence, following the death of Garcia. Their protest was part of an organized effort to call for stricter gun laws. They, along with some parents and supporters, voiced concerns about wanting to feel safer at school directly to lawmakers.

Now, after this latest shooting, East High parent Lonnie Allen said he was feeling despair.

"Seems like nationally we can't get on board to make environments safer for children," he said.

Lonnie Allen waves to his son, Ian, as parents and kids gather on 17th Avenue after a shooting at East High School. March 22, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

In shouts to officials, side conversations and interviews with Denverite, many parents said they wanted to see metal detectors in schools and a return of school resource officers. That would reverse changes that some parents fought hard for only a few years ago.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the School Board unanimously voted to remove school resource officers. Reform-minded board members and community advocates seized on calls to address systemic racism and pushed for the officers' removal.

Advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos noted at the time that, between 2014 and 2019, school resource officers ticketed more than 4,500 students; 80% of those students were Black or Latino.

District data showed that during the 2019-20 school year, which was interrupted by the pandemic, armed officers were called to schools 5,560 times.

At a press conference on the shooting Wednesday morning, Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas said that had school resource officers still existed, they would not necessarily have been the ones patting down students as part of the routine safety checks the alleged shooter was subject to.

"We don't want to have negative interactions with students and officers, so no, I don't think it would have been appropriate for officers to have done that type of activity," he said.

Vanessa Roberts (left) and Shaneta Dye stand on on 17th Avenue after a shooting at East High School. March 22, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Parent Shaneta Dye said she wishes someone was there.

"Removing security, in my opinion, was not a good idea," she said. "Clearly, we need it, and it's unfortunate that something like this is what maybe forces us to do something more... I don't know what all the answers are, but something definitely needs to happen because our children shouldn't be afraid to go to school."

As students began trickling out of the school, the scene at City Park became all too familiar: children and parents tearfully hugging, while police directed traffic nearby.

Like the parents, some students talked about how metal detectors could help, including Gavin Wehrle, who ran out of the school when he heard shots.

"But at the same time, when I'm going through a metal detector to go to school, it just feels like, I'm kind of going to prison almost," he said. "It's kind of like 'Wow, this is what we came to?'"

David Pantoja embraces Nadine Cetz-Tec as she waits for her brother to ecit East High School after a shooting there. March 22, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Junior Vanessa Roberts also said metal detectors would make her feel safer.

"I feel like I'm normalized to it already, because it happened so many times," she said.

Roberts said that between the many lockdowns and subsequent mental health days off this year -- plus school time lost due to COVID-19 -- she doesn't feel ready to graduate next year.

"I definitely feel underprepared for college," Roberts said.

Eleanor Hunter also worries about what comes next. His brother is headed to East High next year, and he worries about not being there to protect him.

"You see people crying, you see people breaking down, because there's nothing we can do, and we feel just so powerless," said student Eleanor Hunter. "Nobody's doing anything. You have all these idiots who are advocating for the fact that they should be able to keep their damn guns when their kids are dying right beneath them."

Denverite reporter Kevin J. Beaty and CPR News reporters Allison Sherry, Paolo Zialcita, Jenny Brundin and Hart Van Denburg contributed reporting.

Two East High School seniors wait for other students to be released after a shooting, Wednesday, March 22, 2023.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

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