Aurora leaders, community members call for an end to youth gun violence

Separate shootings outside high schools injured 9 teens in one week

By: - November 23, 2021 10:44 am
Aurora town hall

State Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, hands the mic to Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn at a town hall on gun violence, held at the Dayton Street Opportunity Center in Aurora on Nov. 22, 2021. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

Following the shootings of nine Aurora high school students in two incidents that took place within a single week, state Sen. Rhonda Fields brought local leaders and community members to the Dayton Street Opportunity Center to talk public safety. Close to 100 people packed into the space.

“My soul is heavy. And it’s weary,” said host Maisha Fields, Sen. Fields’ daughter and the vice president of organizing at Brady, a national gun violence prevention organization. Maisha Fields’ brother — Sen. Fields’ son — and his fiancee were murdered in 2005.

“I’m a part of a club that nobody should have to be a part of, and it is to be a gun violence survivor,” Maisha Fields said. “So we’re here today to say enough is enough.”

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At 12:45 p.m., Nov. 15, the Aurora Police Department responded to what it later called a “possible drive-by shooting” at Nome Park, across the street from Aurora Central High School. Officers found five teen shooting victims, whom emergency medical staff transported to the hospital. A sixth teen victim later transported himself to the hospital, police said. The injured teens included four boys, ages 14, 16, 17 and 18; and two girls, ages 15 and 16.

The next day, police investigators said they believed two vehicles — a black Chrysler 300 and black Chevrolet Tahoe — were directly involved in the shooting.

Just after noon on Friday, Aurora police responded to another shooting. This one apparently took place in the parking lot of Hinkley High School.

“Preliminary information revealed that there was a fight in the parking lot during a school lunch hour,” a police statement said. “Shortly after this fight, a white pickup truck, occupied by several people, drove through the school parking lot and began firing shots. The Aurora Public Schools (APS) Security Officer working at the school fired his weapon but it is unknown if anyone was struck.”

The officer later applied a tourniquet to an injured student, the statement said. One victim was transported to a hospital. Two more victims later showed up at hospitals after transporting themselves.

The three victims of this second incident included a 16-year-old male student at APS Avenues, a 17-year-old female student at Hinkley High School and a 17-year-old male student at Hinkley High School.

Police arrested three suspects — all 16-year old boys — in the Hinkley High School shooting. One of the suspects was arrested Nov. 19 after police contacted him at a local hospital. Police apprehended two other suspects on Sunday, one in Aurora and one in Parker.

“We have a call to action for parents: check on your kids,” Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said in a Sunday statement. “Kids are getting guns from somewhere. We need parents to be more involved and start checking their kids’ rooms and vehicles and pay attention to who they are associating with. “We can only stop this violence by working together as a community.”

Wilson said Monday that police believed the suspects were former Hinkley students, but said she wouldn’t elaborate further because of the pending court case and the suspects’ ages.

The suspects’ names have not been released because of their ages, but all three are being held on the charge of attempted first-degree murder. The charge comes with a maximum sentence of seven years in juvenile court, or a potential prison sentence of eight to 24 years if the teens were tried as adults. The cases will be prosecuted by the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

Mental health and pandemic-related trauma seen as factors

Aurora has seen a 20% increase in aggravated assaults in the first 10 months of 2021 as compared with 2020, according to the Aurora Sentinel.

“Youth violence is often symptomatic — it comes from a period when our youth don’t necessarily see opportunity in their community,” Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn said at the town hall. He added that it was important for students to learn about healthy ways to resolve conflicts.

APS Board President Kyla Armstrong-Romero pointed out that incidents like those in the news lately had been happening in the community for a long time. She called for “proactivity” rather than “reactivity,” through strategies like expanded mentorship opportunities, and partnerships between the school district and community organizations that work with youth.

In an interview, state Sen. Janet Buckner told Newsline she believed the uptick in youth violence had a lot to do with mental health.

“We don’t know how many kids saw loved ones really sick or in the hospital,” Buckner said. “We don’t know how many family members died with some of these children. We don’t know what they have seen and how they’re processing it.”

“We know we don’t have enough mental health providers,” she added. Buckner said she would like to see more legislation like the bipartisan bill she sponsored this year with Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat, House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican, and Assistant Minority Leader John Cooke, a Republican from Greeley. House Bill 21-1030 expanded a grant program for peace officer behavioral health and allowed the grant funds to be spent on co-responder programs that send behavioral health providers to incidents alongside police.

Aurora, Denver youths weigh in

Buckner and others at the town hall emphasized the importance of asking Aurora’s youths what they see as the solutions.

“The children just need to know that we need to hear from them,” Buckner said. “We need to hear what they’re thinking. … I think the children are the key. And I think they’re going to be able to help us come up with a solution.”

Elijah Rene, 28, said he attended Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver and had been involved in gang violence in the past.

“What it took for me to come away from that was unfortunately just seeing my friends around me either die or going to jail, and I had to make a conscious decision,” he said. “What really was the catalyst for the change in my life was seeing that, and also just knowledge, learning about who I was.”

Andre Coleman, 16, is a student at Manual High School in east Denver who came to the town hall with youth mentorship organization From the Heart. Coleman said he believed that a rise in social media usage among teens, fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, was contributing to increased violence.

“Social media and COVID came together and created one of the biggest years on social media ever,” Andre told Newsline. “So it probably was a lot of arguing on there, and so it creates a lot of anger, and so when people actually see these people, who knows what they’re going to do to them.”

“Nowadays, there’s stereotypes people want to grow into,” added Jayden Randon, a 15-year-old student at Montbello High School who came with From the Heart. “I’ve been hearing, when you go to high school, you got to act hard … just cause of what school you go to.

“I go to school in the hood. We all go to school in the hood. And we got to act hard because somebody else thinks they’re better than me? I mean, we all bleed the same blood, you know, and I feel like that’s really what the issue is: It’s (that) people think they’re better than one another.”

Jailan Cook, a 16-year-old student at Denver East High School who’s also involved with From the Heart, said he’s seen a rise in substance use among teens.

“There’s halls that smell like weed, bathrooms that they smoke in,” Jailan said. “Especially at my school, it’s more like a substance abuse type of thing (than violence).”

Firearms seen as part of the problem

Also on Monday, Denver Councilmember Amanda Sawyer and Aurora Councilmember Curtis Gardner announced a joint gun buyback program in the two cities, launching in March. The councilmembers plan to hold four buyback events in each city in partnership with RAWtools, a Colorado Springs nonprofit that destroys firearms and turns them into garden tools and jewelry.

“As part of a broader community public safety strategy, the goal of our gun buyback program is to reduce the availability of firearms through a voluntary buyback effort, so these weapons are not available to be stolen for use in future crimes,” Sawyer and Gardner said in a joint statement. “We believe it is the responsibility of elected officials, community leaders, faith leaders, parents, and other stakeholders to invest in the safety of our cities.”

Buckner said she was thinking about state legislation she could sponsor next year to restrict youth access to firearms.

“Guns are one of the biggest issues,” Buckner said. “It’s access to guns.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 7:15 p.m. Nov. 23, 2021, to correct the number of shooting victims whom police had identified as Aurora students.

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Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Reporter Faith Miller covers the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories for Colorado Newsline.

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