Commentary: Band-Aids Won't Fix Bullet Holes at East High | Westword
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Commentary: Band-Aids Don't Fix Bullet Holes at Our Schools

East High students return to school today. What will they find?
East High students took their complaints about school safety to the Capitol on March 23.
East High students took their complaints about school safety to the Capitol on March 23. Ellie Moran
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On Thursday, March 23, I stood next to Kate Mimken, the mother of a sophomore and a senior at East High School, as we looked from the third floor of the Colorado State Capitol down into a flurry of teenagers dressed in red. It was the second time we had been at the Capitol in three weeks. The day before, at 9:45 a.m., two deans had been shot on the first floor of East High School after a routine pat-down of a student. They were taken to the hospital, where one had emergency surgery. I started chatting with Kate about her experience as a parent with two children in a lockdown while a shooter was in the building.

“My daughter was texting me that she heard the gunshots from the assembly, and from there, we just had to wait.” The emotion came crawling from behind her eyes, as she thought about how the day before, both of her children had sat in a lockdown, fearing for their lives. “My husband is a kindergarten teacher, and he has told me that he hopes he comes home after work. One time a kid crawled under the desks and hit the security button, which he had never shown them. They just knew. Kids are smart.” This hyper-vigilance has seeped into early childhood education; children growing up in this generation have lockdowns in their DNA. We talked through how her son wanted to continue going to East next year, as that is where his friends are. She fears this will happen again, but her son has found a home in that school.

That is exactly what a school should be: a home. But right now, they are war zones.

I smiled slightly with a revelation. “I never thought I would ask a teenager where I needed to be…,” I turned to her and said. “I have no idea where we are meeting, but I will follow them anywhere.” The tables have turned from me rolling my eyes at students handing in late assignments and asking for their grades to me now believing with every fiber in me that I would follow them into war. The deep, cold, muddy abyss of war could be led by the sixteen-year-olds just below me, milling about the marbled corridors of a government building.

A former colleague of mine told me that during the lockdown on March 22, there were no locks on the auditorium doors, so he held them shut in order to keep the 1,500 students and staff at the assembly safe. This teacher is one of the most energetic, kind and competent human beings I know, and in sharing his experience, his body was bereft of that technicolor goodness he brings to students daily. Seeing passionate educators crumble is something to behold. This job is terrifically hard without the threat of death, and seeing excellent educators terrified, deprived and exhausted from yet another trauma sends you into a helpless state. My former colleagues and I stood in a circle, staring at the door to the Senate, watching teenagers get interviewed by major news channels and flag down their local legislators about the newest gun bills. They should have been in English class, roasting their teacher about the coffee smudge on their sweater or calling them “sailor” because they wore a striped shirt. They should have been laughing, sharing sandwiches in the hallway and chugging extra-large Brisk iced teas against their teacher's wishes because those have so much sugar. Teachers should have been in their department offices laughing about their weekends and the cute thing their toddlers said during dinner. They should have been standing in front of a classroom, waxing poetic about the use of line breaks in Langston Hughes’ poetry or sharing the fact that every second, your body produces 25 million new cells — meaning in fifteen seconds, you will have produced more cells than there are people in the United States. Kids in science class should be in awe about how wonderful and powerful our bodies are, but their bodies most certainly are not being treated that way.

The combination of lacking mental health support and unregulated gun laws failed Austin Lyle, the seventeen-year-old shooter on March 22. It failed him completely. I was not happy to hear of the death of a kid who never got the help he deserved. No one should be. That makes two deaths this year in the East community due to gun violence. These children should be riding their bikes in the summer and prank-calling people with popsicle sugar dripping down their chins. They should be at family barbecues and asking dumb questions in class that get a laugh. They should not be dead in cars and dead in forests. This is a grotesque and unchecked system that has bled into the daily lives of an institution meant for learning and the development of young minds. Now those young minds are the ones I find myself following.

We’ve been doing a lot of that recently: following the lead of adolescents. On February 13, Luis Garcia, a beloved sixteen-year-old student at East High School, was shot in his car on the campus of East High School in Denver. Two weeks later, he died in the hospital. On March 3, students flooded the Capitol wearing red shirts saying, “Angels Against Gun Violence” and shouting, “WE WANT TO BE SAFE LIKE OUR SENATORS”; they had to pass through metal detectors in order to get into the Capitol itself. The irony abounded.

I am a member of the East community, and have been since 2008. I have written this piece multiple times, trying to figure out where to start. Do I just launch into the cold hard facts of the recent shootings? Do I go all the way back to September, when two students were shot in the 7-Eleven parking lot across the street? Do I talk about how SWAT showed up last fall and pointed their guns in student and staff faces as they evacuated from a fake active shooter threat, followed by hours sitting on 90-degree turf? This school year, there have been two dead and four shot in the East community. A place of great spirit, exuberance, creativity and pride has seen pure evil, and I have no idea what to do about it.

But here's a start:
click to enlarge
East High students protesting outside the State Capitol in early March.
Ellie Moran
Denver School Board and SROs

The answer here is polarizing, as many within East and the community believe that the removal of SROs (security resource officers) was a key factor in this violence happening; a large number of teachers believe quite the opposite as well. The Denver School Board voted to remove these officers after the George Floyd protests in 2020 but offered zero alternatives to replace the much-needed presence of resource officers in buildings. The alternative could have been trauma-informed/crisis-trained teams like those of Denver’s STAR program. Instead, the largest public school in Denver has a few security guards around the school who can issue low-level tickets but have no experience in crisis management. This is not a school choice, but rather the strong arm of the school board. It should never have been the job of a dean to pat down a student who was known to carry a weapon at a previous school, even if Denver's police chief says that an officer most likely would not have done that search, either. Okay…so then you put two unarmed, underpaid deans in harm's way? The Denver School Board has a lot to answer for by not providing alternative solutions to the safety of a large public high school.

Teacher Demands

How do teachers return to the treacherous landscape in which educators find themselves? A veteran educator and former East High teacher sent me the list of teacher demands that the union is attempting to negotiate with the district; many of these are universal and could apply to most schools in the U.S. currently. Included are:

Safety plans that are universally shared with all adult staff that will be interacting with students

Better communication from the district to parents and staff about the lockdown instances, as these should not be coming from the principal during a time of trauma

Partner with community-based organizations (GRASP, Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, Servicios de la Raza)

Increased pay for deans/Restorative Justice coordinators/support staff (who were not included when teachers got enhanced pay scales after the strike in February 2019)

Create and implement Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum that is mandatory for all students

Hire more deans, counselors and mental health/support staff

Increase access to mental health supports for teachers and students

Create a safety vestibule for entrances to every DPS school (Westminster Public Schools has this for most of its schools)

Install infrared sensing cameras in and outside of the school; these cameras use thermal imagery to detect weapons.

Enhance the scope and responsibilities for DPS security personnel on campus

Have a radio on every floor or wing of the school

Have two staffed entry points with a single point of entry

Install metal detectors

Bring back SROs

More resources:

Follow @studentsdemandaction on Instagram for national coverage of gun reform. Follow @momsdemand for national updates on gun legislation and look into local chapters within your state.

These bills have passed the Colorado Legislature and are currently awaiting Governor Jared Polis's signature: SB23-169: Increasing Minimum Age to Purchase Firearms and SB23-170: Extreme Risk Protection Order Petitions.

These are still pending in the legislature: SB23-168: Gun Violence Victims' Access to Judicial System, HB23-1219: Waiting Period to Deliver a Firearm; HB23-1230: Prohibit Assault Weapons in Colorado.

Frankly, I feel utterly helpless. How are teachers and students supposed to return to school at East High School today? Another day, another goddamn shooting. But if these children can walk up to their Capitol, with signs that read, “I should be reading Shakespeare, not obituaries,” we can most certainly get involved with our politicians and stay up to date with gun legislation.

Ellie Moran is a high school English teacher on hiatus, getting her master's in Creative Writing Nonfiction. She grew up in Denver and went to East High School, where she taught for the last five years. In her time away from the classroom, she hopes to write about the state of public schools in America. A version of this essay was originally published on her Substack, Mis(s)Education.

Westword.com frequently publishes commentaries on matters of interest to the community; the opinions are those of the authors, not Westword. Have one you'd like to submit? Send it to [email protected], where you can also comment on this piece.
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