East High School shooting: Students, parents struggle amid gun violence

Janaiya Hopper‘s eyes scanned through a crowd of anxious parents, searching for her mother. Then, from across a crowded intersection outside Denver’s East High School, they locked eyes.

The 18-year-old senior’s face crumpled as she ran into her mother Jamela Brown‘s open arms.

Hopper sobbed into her mother’s shoulder as a single tear trickled down Brown’s cheek. When the two finished their hug, the teen looked at her mom, and said, “I don’t want to go back to school.”

On Wednesday morning, Brown joined hundreds of East High School parents gathered at the intersection of 17th Avenue and City Park Esplanade after police say a student shot two administrators inside the building. They waited while officers wearing ballistic vests surrounded the school, City Park and nearby businesses on East Colfax Avenue, all while a police helicopter circled overhead.

It’s a scene repeated far too often outside the nation’s schools after campus shootings. Worried parents flock to the schools and wait until their children are escorted by police from their classrooms. The parents scan social media and news websites for information. They talk amongst themselves about what went wrong and what can be done to prevent further bloodshed.

And they exchange text messages with their children, who are locked in classrooms:

“High school shouldn’t be like this.”

“Hey there, I’m in lockdown. Not sure what’s happening.”

“I’m fine. I’m on the third floor.”

“I hate school.”

Those were among the texts East parents shared with The Denver Post on Wednesday.

This time, no students were injured, but two administrators — Jerald Mason and Eric Sinclair — were hospitalized. Mason was listed in good condition and Sinclair in serious condition Wednesday evening, a Denver Health spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, police were searching for a 17-year-old student, Austin Lyle, in connection with the shooting, Denver police Chief Ron Thomas said he was to be considered armed and dangerous.

“I don’t know what the solution is”

Julie and Luke Siekmeier left their jobs as soon as they saw reports of the shooting. Their daughter, Sophie, an 18-year-old senior, had texted that she was fine. But those words didn’t necessarily reassure her parents.

“My gut reaction is to run and get her out of the school as fast as possible,” Julie Siekmeier said.

It’s the third time this school year that at least one Siekmeier parent has left work because of reported violence at the high school. Just last month at East, a junior soccer player was shot as he sat in his car near the campus; he died two weeks later. In September, students were evacuated after a “swatting” incident, and two teens were injured in a shooting at the Carla Madison Recreation Center, which is next to the school on East Colfax.

The ongoing violence was condemned by the Denver Public Schools’ teachers union.

“Today’s act of gun violence marks the second school shooting at East High School just this year. It is unacceptable that our students and educators are forced to work in environments where we fundamentally cannot ensure their safety from gun violence,” said Rob Gould, special education teacher and president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

But the threat of violence doesn’t just hang over East.

The Siekmeiers also have a child who attends Northfield High School, and they receive alerts from that school as well.

“It seems like every couple of weeks we have a text alert or an email message that something is going on at school,” Luke Siekmeier said. “As if having teenagers isn’t nerve-wracking enough.”

The Siekmeiers don’t know what needs to be done to stop the violence.

“It’s not because it’s an inner city school,” Julie Siekmeier said. “It’s because it’s a school. I don’t know what the solution is.”

“I fear for my safety every day”

All of the parents standing outside the school worried about their teens’ well-being.

“These kids are really scared,” said Jeannie Hernandez, the grandmother of a 15-year-old student. “How can you come and learn and be scared at the same time? How do you fix that? I have no idea, but I don’t think her not coming to school is going to fix anything. These people who are doing this stuff, we’re not going to let them win. You keep going to school every day and you keep learning. Don’t let bad stuff stop you from learning.”

Senior Saedra Gurfinkel, who was in her choir a capella class on the fourth floor, said the shooting rattled her. Again.

Gurfinkel was friends with Luis Garcia, the soccer player who was fatally shot outside of the school in February.

“It’s terrifying after what happened with Luis,” she said. “Being at school is terrifying and not knowing who’s walking around with a weapon and having the understanding that I could possibly not be safe. There’s no way to tell, no way to protect myself.”

Instead, Gurfinkel said, it’s just “sort of a hopeless feeling.”

“It feels like we’re screaming at every adult and person in charge and in any type of ability for help and for them to do something, to do anything and we are getting nothing,” Gurfinkel said.

When students walked out to protest for more gun legislation earlier this month, Gurfinkel drove her car instead of walking with the other students to the Colorado State Capitol because she was afraid of getting shot.

“I fear that all the time,” Gurfinkel said. “I fear for my safety every day.”

“Just in case, I love you so much”

Senior Julia Donahue was in her third-period thesis class when the announcement came that East was on lockdown. At first, everyone appeared calm, but then the teacher asked the students to push all of their desks against the room’s door and to sit in a corner of the room, she said.

As the students huddled in the corner, rumors spread across social media about the reason for the lockdown.

“No one knew what the hell was going on,” Donahue said.

Students then heard teachers in the hallways, their voices raised as they urged students outside of the room to get into a classroom with a teacher.

As other students came into the classroom, Donahue realized the lockdown wasn’t a drill. She texted her parents, sister and friends: “I think we are going to be good, but just in case, I love you so much.”

“I was like, ‘Who is doing this?’” the 18-year-old said. “Are they going to come to my classroom and hurt us? Why are they doing this? I hadn’t heard gunshots so I think we could be safe, like we should be good, but in case this doesn’t get better or we don’t get more information I need to text someone and tell them I love them.”

East students on Wednesday circulated a Twitter post from Students Demand Action, a youth-led gun control advocacy group, that read, “Just three weeks after students walked out of East High School in Denver to demand action on gun violence, details of another shooting at the school are developing. We should not have to live like this.”

“It’s just like our community can’t catch a break with this stuff, even after begging for change, begging for safety and protection,” Donahue said.

Jayda Westmoreland, a freshman, has settled into her freshman year by joining East’s girls flag football and rugby teams. Now she’s worried her mother is going to withdraw her from the school and send her somewhere else for her sophomore year.

“This is a good school,” Westmoreland said. “It’s sad because I have friends here.”

“Shouldn’t be part of our experience”

Already, Janaiya Hopper, the senior who cried in her mom’s arms, was struggling with school.

High school hasn’t been a particularly easy time for the teen because of transferring schools and missing in-school learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopper only attends classes on Wednesdays because she just needs two more classes to graduate in May.

On Wednesday morning, she told her mother she didn’t want to go.

“I pushed her this morning to come — and now this,” Brown said.

Brown was relieved East High School canceled classes for the rest of the week and that next week is spring break. That time will give her daughter a chance to relax, and the two will discuss how they will approach school for the remaining weeks before graduation.

But convincing Hopper to return will be a challenge.

“It’s not safe,” she said. “As seniors, we’re just trying to graduate. Freshmen are trying to figure out what school is about. This shouldn’t be part of our experience at all.”

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