Denver high school shooting suspect dead; parents push security

Police investigate at Denvers East High School after a shooting there on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

A 17-year-old student was found dead in a wooded mountain area outside Denver late Wednesday after authorities say he wounded two administrators in a shooting at his Denver high school where students and parents were already fed up about a rash of recent violence and lack of action by officials.

The shooting occurred Wednesday morning at East High School, not far from downtown, while two administrators searched Austin Lyle for weapons, a daily requirement because of the boy’s behavioral issues, authorities said.

Lyle fled after the shooting and his body was found Wednesday night near his car in a remote, mountain area about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Denver, outside the small town of Bailey, in Park County. The county coroner’s office confirmed early Thursday that the body was Lyle’s. Cause of death was not released, pending an autopsy.

The shooting, at a time of rising gun violence on school campuses across the U.S., has stoked a backlash against a policy adopted in Denver several years ago of not putting police or armed personnel into schools.

The administrators who were shot were unarmed, said Denver schools spokesperson Scott Pribble.

"It stuns me that we have civilian people... charged with having to search a student or anyone for weapons," said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. He said patting down students -- especially for weapons -- should fall to trained, armed school resource officers fitted with body armor.

If a resource officer had done the search at East High School, he added, "for the most part, I don’t see it being a tragedy."

The city's Board of Education convened a special meeting at 10 a.m. Thursday to discuss the shooting and school security. The meeting came after parents who converged on the 2,500-student East High campus Wednesday voiced frustration that officials were not adequately protecting their children.

The shooting occurred at a school shaken by frequent lockdowns and violence, including the recent killing outside the school of a classmate that prompted East High School students to march on the Colorado Capitol earlier this month.

"I am sick of it," said Jesse Haase, who planned to talk with her daughter about taking her out of classes for the rest of the school year.

Some parents questioned why the school district became one of many in the U.S. that decided to phase out school resource officers in the summer of 2020 amid a summer of protests over racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd by police.

Amid the flurry of criticism over lax security, Denver school officials said after the shooting that they would once again put armed officers into the city’s public high schools.

There were no school resource officers on campus at the time of Wednesday’s shooting, Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas said.

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Shootings in the nation's schools more than tripled during a five-year period ending in 2021 compared to the previous five years, jumping from an average of 38 annually to more than 130 annually, according to a database from the Naval Postgraduate School. Since 2000, there have been more than 1,300 school shootings and related incidents that killed 377 people and wounded 1,025, according to the database.

The Colorado shooting was at least the second to occur at or near a school this week in the U.S. On Monday, a 15-year-old was arrested in the fatal shooting of a student outside of a Dallas-area high school.

Wednesday's shooting happened just before 10 a.m. in an office area as Lyle was undergoing a search as part of a "safety plan" that required him to be patted down daily, officials said.

The gun used in the shooting was not immediately recovered, Chief Thomas said.

One of the wounded administrators was released from the hospital Wednesday afternoon and the second was in serious condition, said Heather Burke, a spokesperson for Denver Health hospital.

Hundreds of students skipped class March 3 and marched in support of stricter gun laws following the death of Luis Garcia, 16, who was shot while sitting in a car near East High School.

In June 2020, amid a summer of protests over racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd, Denver Public Schools joined other districts around the country and decided to phase out its use of police officers in school buildings. That push was fueled by criticism that school resource officers disproportionately arrested Black students, sweeping them into the criminal justice system.

After Wednesday’s shooting, two armed officers will be posted at East High School through the end of the school year, and other city high schools also will each get an officer, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Alex Marrero said.

At least one East High School students testified Wednesday afternoon before the Colorado Legislature on gun safety bills.

"This is the reality of being young in America: sitting through a shooting and waiting for information just hours before you’re scheduled to testify in support of gun safety bills," said Gracie Taub, a 16-year-old East High School sophomore and volunteer with Students Demand Action in Colorado.

Lyle transferred to East High School after being disciplined and removed from a high school in nearby Aurora last school year because of unspecified violations of school policies, said Cherry Creek School District spokesperson Lauren Snell.

Marrero said safety plans for students are enacted in response to "past educational and also behavioral experiences," adding that it’s a common practice throughout Colorado’s public schools. Officials did not give further details on why Lyle was searched daily.

But daily pat-downs are rare, said Franci Crepeau-Hobson, a University of Colorado Denver professor specializing in school violence prevention.

"Clearly they were concerned," said Crepeau-Hobson. "I can’t imagine they’d do that if there wasn’t a history of the kid carrying a weapon."

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Associated Press reporters Sarah Brumfield in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana, contributed to this report.