This week, students filed back into classrooms as Denver Public Schools started the 2023 school year. For some kids and parents, it can bring first-day jitters. But for those at schools like East High School, the anxiety of returning may be more intense.
Last spring, two separate shootings involving students occurred within just over a month. On Feb. 13, 2023, East High student, Luis Garcia, was shot and died two weeks later after succumbing to his injuries. On March 2, students gathered in front of the school to remember their friend and peer. Three weeks later, a student shot two school administrators, injuring them.
The East High community turned to the district looking for help and solutions. The district immediately began creating a safer environment for students, faculty, and staff. In June this year, the district appointed Greg Cazzell as the next chief of Climate and Safety, who has implemented the district’s long-term safety plan for the 2023-24 school year.
“We’ve taken a deep dive into every area of safety and seeing where we’re at, and where we can make improvements,” Cazzell said. “[The long-term safety plan] really kind of just encompasses a lot of different areas from social-emotional support, mental health, and safety protocols. It’s an operational plan that we’ll use year around to make sure that the district is prepared and is responding appropriately to any crisis.”
“I feel more safe, to be honest,” said Dayanara Diaz, a junior at East High School after the second day of school. “I feel very comfortable,” added Diaz’s freshman sister, Yesenia.
Dayanara who was a sophomore at the time of the shooting, did not provide details of her experience during the shooting within school grounds. Most East High School students preferred not to discuss either event.
The long-term safety plan, which received input from the DPS community and the Board of Education was released on June 30. Community input was necessary to identify the concerns and needs of students, which resulted in the district taking on a layered approach to provide a safer school environment. The plan looks at three areas of conditions which are personal, school, and system.
The personal condition part of the plan focuses on supporting students’ psychological needs as a preventative approach to addressing youth violence and school safety.
“I think we should take mental health into consideration more because I feel like we don’t talk about that enough just because people are shy and don’t know how to express their feelings as much,” Diaz said. “I think there should definitely be more classes or groups that can help with that.”
East High freshman student, Janessa Mcadory, hopes that schools will focus on well being and discover signs of danger in students earlier.
“Watch what the kids are doing, mainly watch how they act, how they talk, what they do, how they get their work done. Watch them in class, mainly because they could be struggling through something and you can see a big decrease from how they were from the beginning to the end of the school year,” Mcadory said.
Increased monitoring of well-being for students will be done in the form of mental health screenings by the district. The district will also further increase resources that students can have access to inside their schools, such as teletherapy and training in crisis response.
“[Students] will see mental health providers at schools. These are social workers and school psychologists who can support students with needs identified, both in terms of services identified on special education, but as well as any other support and needs that students and families may have identified over the summer,” said Meredith Fatseas, senior manager of the Department of Mental Health.
After assessing school and system conditions, the plan includes training in the Standard Response Protocol for students, faculty, and staff, which will teach participants how to respond to any incident that threatens personal safety like weather events, fires, and intruders. Perhaps the biggest change to school conditions will be the return of School Resource Officers to the campuses of 13 DPS high schools. The board had voted in 2020 to remove SROs due to concerns about racial profiling and inequity.
“It’s definitely a balance. We want to make sure that we are not writing students a ticket for sometimes what could be considered adolescent behavior. We want to make sure that the SRO is in the building and is acting first and foremost as a mentor and as a resource,” Cazzell said. “We really want to try to strengthen that relationship with the SRO and the community in the school.”
As East High students return to school and reunite with peers and teachers, many are aware of the efforts of the district to create a safer learning environment and are encouraged as individuals to help the cause. Diaz hopes that as students get to know their peers and become involved in student activities nd create a safer environment at the school.
“[Counselors] have some resources. You can always contact them,” Diaz said. “I try to watch my peers and make sure they’re good mentally and if they’re not, talk to them. Honestly, it’s nothing to be ashamed about.”