Denver Public Schools superintendent says gun violence at school is his top concern

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Dr. Alex Marrero, who was chosen by Denver Public Schools to be its new superintendent, speaks to South High School students after a press conference announcing his appointment on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

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Denver Public Schools Superintendent Alex Marrero recalled standing in September by the bedside of an East High School student who’d been shot in the face. The bullet had pierced the teenager’s cheek and exited through his ear. He couldn’t speak, but he wrote something down.

“Why was I shot?” the student wrote, according to Marrero.

“I have no answer for that,” Marrero said.

The shooting happened about an hour after school let out, outside a recreation center next to East High on busy Colfax Avenue. Two 16-year-olds were arrested in connection with the crime. The police said the 16-year-olds had been fighting with a 20-year-old man, who was also injured in the shooting. The student had been a bystander to the fight.

For Marrero, the shooting was the latest in a string of gun incidents this past fall. The superintendent says preventing gun violence is his top concern in a district with plenty of challenges, from academic struggles to declining enrollment.

“This is, pardon the pun, a ticking time bomb,” Marrero said at a public school board meeting in November. “I can’t stay silent any longer.”

Marrero said that while he’s used to delivering tough messages as the superintendent, “the last thing we want to do is say, ‘We don’t have an answer for a loss of life or a tragedy.’”

District data backs up Marrero’s concerns. The number of weapons found at schools and confiscated from students has skyrocketed since before the pandemic.

In the 2018-19 school year, the district found 40 weapons at schools, according to data that Chalkbeat obtained through an open records request. Those included two guns and nine fake guns, the data shows.

Last school year, five times as many weapons — 200 total — were found at schools, including 13 guns and 28 fake guns, the data shows. This year is likely to be similar. As of late November, the district had recovered 79 weapons, including seven guns and 17 fake guns.

That doesn’t count weapons found near schools or shootings that happened just off campus, like the shooting near East High in September or a juvenile who was shot in the park next to Montbello High School on a Friday afternoon last month.

In most cases, students are carrying guns not to start violence but because they’re scared and feel the need to protect themselves, Marrero said. It’s illegal to carry guns on campus. Even if district staff can keep students safe in school, Marrero said he’s worried about the conflicts that happen just beyond their reach, when students are on their way to or from school.

“This is not a DPS issue,” Marrero told the school board. “This is a city of Denver issue. This is a county, a state issue — quite frankly, a national phenomenon in terms of access to guns.”

Jason McBride is worried about the conflicts too, but he disagrees with Marrero that it’s not a school district issue. McBride is a youth violence prevention specialist with the nonprofit Struggle of Love Foundation. He thinks the district’s tally of guns on campus is likely an undercount. There are more guns in backpacks that never get reported, he said.

McBride said there have been times when his organization tries to step in and help after a shooting but isn’t let into a school because the incident happened off campus. He recalled one recent incident in a park next to a school in which a student held a gun to another student’s head and pulled the trigger but the gun jammed.

“A lot of these shootings are happening in broad daylight by kids who are supposed to be in school,” McBride said.

He thinks schools should be mandated to work with community organizations like Struggle of Love that provide mentorship and counseling to students at risk. Instead, it’s up to each school principal whether they want to contract with an organization that does violence interruption work, which often means taking money from another budget item. Last year, Struggle of Love was in eight schools, McBride said. This year it’s just four, he said.

In an interview, Marrero stopped short of agreeing with that approach. While he acknowledged it would help, he said the solution needs to be broader. He also dismissed the idea of more police, which touches on another hot-button issue.

The school board voted in 2020 to remove police officers from Denver schools, about a year before Marrero was hired as superintendent. Marrero said he’s proud of the district’s response to that directive. While Denver Public Schools still has its own unarmed security guards inside schools, as well as a unit of mobile armed guards, far fewer students are being referred to law enforcement now than before police officers were removed.

State data shows that in the 2018-19 school year, Denver students were referred to law enforcement 657 times. That compares with 125 In 2021-22, a whopping 81% decrease.

“We are not interested in increasing the school-to-prison pipeline,” Marrero said. “We’re doing our best to ensure students continue to get second chances and to right their path and succeed.

“But certain cases are so extreme. We’re doing an incredible job with low-tier incidents and even high-tier incidents. But my concern is those high-tier ones are off the scale.”

Marrero said he wants to make sure youth gun violence is the top priority for city leaders. Denver voters will elect a new mayor in April from a crowded field that does not include current Mayor Michael Hancock, who is barred from running for reelection due to term limits. Marrero said he plans to ask mayoral candidates himself how they plan to address gun violence.

“I cannot guarantee that every scholar is going to thrive — as has been our tagline here — if something happens outside of our control,” Marrero said.

“I feel like there’s a tragedy that’s brewing, and I need other folks to step in.”

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at [email protected].

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.