Educators at Denver’s East High School were aware that a troubled 17-year-old was on probation from an Aurora weapons criminal charge, so were careful to check him each day for firearms.
But the specialized security plan that allowed Austin Lyle to attend classes at East, despite having been expelled from Cherry Creek’s Overland High, unraveled on Wednesday when the administrator who regularly searched him was unavailable.
“There was a common administrator who normally would engage with the student upon arrival,” explained Denver Public Schools Superintendent Alex Marrero. “That administrator was not available.”
That meant the task of searching the student fell to administrators Jerald Mason and Eric Sinclair, who were shot in rapid succession when they found a gun. Mason was treated and released from Denver Health, while Sinclair underwent surgery Wednesday and was listed in serious condition on Thursday afternoon.
Lyle then ran from the school and drove to Park County, where authorities said he took his own life.
As the DPS Board of Education met Thursday to create a plan for reintroducing police to high school campuses for the remainder of this school year, Marrero wondered whether the change in administrators conducting the search might have somehow contributed to the incident.
“Perhaps that prompted it,” Marrero said. “It’s hard to speculate. But that’s what we’ve learned.”
What we know about the suspect's previous charge, and how he was enrolled at DPS
Little is known about the previous charge Lyle faced in Arapahoe County for possession of a weapon and a high-capacity ammunition magazine. He was charged as a juvenile, so the court records are not public.
But a source told CPR News that he was initially placed in a diversion program that would have allowed him to avoid a criminal record, but failed to complete it and was placed on probation.
On Thursday, Marrero defended the district’s decision to enroll the student.
“There are a lot of students that are struggling whether it’s emotional, academic or behavioral and we receive students throughout the year,” Marrero said. “We are obligated to provide a free and adequate education for all students.”
That’s not always the case. Colorado law gives districts the right to refuse admission to students who meet certain criteria, like being expelled from another district within the previous 12 months. Districts typically share all previous student records when a student transfers from one district to another, and hiding a prior expulsion would mean surrendering all the credits earned at the prior school.
Officials in both Denver and Cherry Creek have cited federal education privacy laws in declining to release additional information about the student’s academic history or the specialized security plan that required the daily searches. His family could not be located on Thursday.
Denver Police are often called to East High
What is known is that even without having full-time officers on campus, Denver Police are not strangers to the school situated between Colfax Avenue and City Park.
Denver Police data shows 113 calls for service to East so far this school year — that’s roughly one a day. Calls with complaints of assault and sex assault were up sharply in 2022. According to DPD data, there were three calls for assault in 2021 and 12 in 2022. Calls with complaints of sex assault jumped from 3 in 2019 to 26 in 2022, according to the data. Almost all the sexual assault calls were mandatory reports of incidents that occurred off campus or on weekends, away from school. Any report to a counselor, dean or teacher initiates a required call to law enforcement.
The school or the grounds just beyond it have been the scene of three shooting incidents in a matter of months.
A history of school searches in Colorado
The district has not said how many students are on specialized security plans and subject to searches at East, but Marrero said the practice was commonplace across the country. Police officers do not conduct the searches unless they have probable cause, but schools can require students in certain circumstances to submit to them if they are conducted by educators.
Former East High principal John Youngquist said, in his experience, the number of students subject to searches is very small.
“It is in no way typical for a student to be patted down in a school site on a daily basis or for a backpack to be searched on a daily basis," Youngquist said. "Maybe that is a student or two at a time in a particular space. But it is a very unique circumstance where that would be occurring in my experience.”
In Colorado, the practice was upheld by the Court of Appeals last year.
That case involved a student, J.G., who was searched as part of a safety plan agreed upon by the student, his mother and several administrators in his school. The opinion concluded it was justified to conduct searches of students and that students with criminal charges in the juvenile justice system if they are on safety plans.
“A school search is reasonable if it is justified at its inception and conducted in a manner reasonably related in scope to the circumstances,” the court ruled.
On Thursday, as DPS officials scrambled to get officers in place at high schools by the time classes resume after spring break, they also reflected on Wednesday’s events and seemed to take on some of the blame, even though a student had the gun.
“I can acknowledge that we failed Austin as a district,” Marrero said, noting that he planned to talk to the student’s family Thursday night.
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