Denver Public Schools superintendent Dr. Alex Marrero, right, speaks at Northfield High on May 26, 2022 following a lockdown after a paintball gun was found. Two suspects were taken into custody Thursday afternoon. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

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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.


Melanie Asmar has covered Denver Public Schools for Chalkbeat Colorado since 2015. Asmar previously worked at Westword newspaper in Denver and for a daily newspaper in New Hampshire, where she covered education. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit...