For Once, Cries for Stricter School Safety Aren't Falling on Deaf Ears in Denver | Westword
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For Once, Student Cries for Stricter Gun Safety Don't Fall on Deaf Ears

Student activists from East High School are finally getting local officials to listen to them about gun violence and school safety solutions.
Students wait to testify in support of legislation which would mandate a three-day waiting period for gun purchases.
Students wait to testify in support of legislation which would mandate a three-day waiting period for gun purchases. Ben Neufeld
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Denver students are sick and tired of all the gun violence in and around their schools, and they're finally getting local leaders to take their cries seriously.

Earlier this month, activists from East High School managed to get officials from the state, city, school board, Denver Police Department and East itself to gather at Boettcher Concert Hall for a student-organized summit aimed at finding solutions for the never-ending bloodshed. Days later, on March 16, the students were heard by the State, Veterans, Military Affairs Committee in support of House Bill 23-1219, which would establish a mandatory three-day waiting period between the purchase and acquisition of a firearm.

The bill wound up passing and is now headed to the Senate floor.

"It was impressive to see the group of people they were able to get in the same room and answer the same questions," says Denver City Council District 10 candidate Noah Kaplan, a former teacher at East, of the March 9 summit. "I don't think it’s that often that you have city council sitting with the state legislature, sitting with the chief of police, sitting with administrative leadership with [Denver Public Schools]."      

On February 13, sixteen-year-old Luis Garcia was shot while sitting in a car outside of East — sparking widespread conversation about school security and local safety. The February 13 shooting became a major topic of discussion for Denver mayoral candidates as well as others in the community.

Students with the Denver chapter of Students Demand Action have been spearheading the movement, saying enough is enough. "I think it's exciting that there's so much momentum right now," says Gracie Taub, a sophomore at East and co-president of SDA. "Unfortunately, I think the reason for that momentum is because gun violence has touched really close to our homes and to our schools and communities because of the death of Luis Garcia."
                                     
On March 11, the Denver Public Schools Board — in partnership with Moms Demand Action — hosted a community meeting on student safety at Manual High School. "I think that we were able to move the needle," says board vice president Auon'tai M. Anderson. "I think that elected officials and [other] officials were able to really understand the importance that we need to have gun violence reform or gun reform at the state and national level in order to keep our kids safe."

Anderson, Taub and Kaplan all express optimism about the action they see state legislators discussing at the Capitol, where multiple bills related to gun violence are primed and ready. 

"We're really excited about the waiting-period bill, raising the minimum age, the assault weapons ban... expanding the red flag law, and the protection of lawful commerce in arms act, at least in Colorado," Taub says. She and other student activists hope to see at least four of the five bills passed.   

"The fact that even five bills have been introduced on this issue is a lot, considering that in a lot of states, you’re lucky to pass one," she adds.

Student voices are finally having an effect on the gun safety conversation, Taub notes, pointing to the Boettcher Hall summit: "Really, I think what we got from that is that that was a good start, and it was, I think, really important to get all of those community leaders together on one stage in support of this issue."

However, for solutions below the state level, Taub believes that in order for real change to come, city council and school board officials will have to come together, rather than continue to pass the burden of responsibility back and forth, as they have in the past.

"If you ask the school board what they can do, they'll tell you that it's not their job, it's city council's. And city council will say the same thing," Taub points out. "They'll say it's the state legislature's job. So it's just [this] whole passing the blame to someone else — not taking responsibility."

Anderson maintains that action must be taken at a level higher than that of the school board. "This is a Denver and Colorado and United States issue," he says, adding that in order for a real and lasting improvement on gun safety to actually stick, state officials must take immediate action to limit the amount of firearms on the street. "All eyes are on the legislature," he adds. Having a sibling who goes to East also makes this a very personal issue for him.

"Folks want to feel safe, but there's a difference between the feeling of safety and actually being safe," Anderson says in regard to possible solutions that have been offered up by the public recently, like the reinstatement of school resource officers, aka SROs, which has been a controversial topic in the past.

"There is not a scenario, at this time, where we at the board would entertain the reinstatement of school resource officers," Anderson insists.
         
The school board made the unanimous decision to remove SROs ahead of the 2020-2021 school year in the interest of student safety, according to Anderson, amid civil unrest over their policing. He cites a U.S. Department of Justice study which says that firearm-related incidents at schools are two and a half times more likely when an SRO is present, while also bringing up cases of school shootings across the country — like Parkland in 2018 — where SROs were present but unable to prevent the loss of lives.

Anderson argues that even if an SRO had been at East on the day of Garcia's shooting, the officer would have been inside the school and unable to prevent the incident. "Their job was to be inside with the students," he says.

Still, Taub believes that DPS acted prematurely by doing away with the safety precaution. "If they remove them, which is a totally valid decision, they need to replace them with something," she says. "That decision was very political, and it was not motivated by school safety concerns, from what I’ve seen. It was motivated by the need to look good politically."

Kaplan acknowledges the complex and sometimes dangerous relationship SROs can have with schools, but also agrees on the need for a replacement. "We can’t go about removing safety mechanisms without thinking about addressing the things that will no longer be addressed," he admits. "It’s like, okay, so what is the city going to do to make sure kids feel safe?”

In the end, Taub thinks the politicization of the school board could create some difficult in working toward progress, but she appreciates the board's overall support. "The truth is, from my understanding, they are all on our side," she says.
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