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My student shared a poem about gun violence. Then he was shot. | #schoolsaftey

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

Every day in my classroom, I invite students to share with the class a poem that they have written. This exercise is a way for the students to get to know each other and the different Denvers that we live in. Park Hill kids share their Park Hill realities. Swansea kids share their Swansea realities.

It was in this setting that, back in February, Jose Luis Garcia, wrote the this line: “My city is the sound of gunshots … Its getting shot just cuz you were at the wrong place at the wrong time.” And then, later that day, Jose Luis — Luis to his friends — was shot. 

Andy Bucher, center, with his family.

The wrong place was 17th and Esplanade. It’s just off of the East High School campus, where I teach English and where Luis was in 11th grade and a member of the school’s championship-winning soccer team. The wrong time was during seventh period. He was in his car and died of his injuries about two weeks after the shooting.

We all thought that he had written poetry, not prophecy.

After the shooting, I worried that I had done something wrong but realized my only sin was getting kids to feel safe and share their truth. Luis’ truth was that he feared getting shot.

The same class sat in a circle two days after the shooting and tried to process what we had heard from Luis. We spoke, cried, and tried to make sense of the nonsensical. 

In the weeks that followed, I found myself obsessed with advocacy for change, such as bringing back school resource officers, or SROs, which had long been stationed at Denver schools. In June 2020, the Denver school board voted unanimously to remove officers from Denver public schools. I remember our staff giving our SRO, Chris Matlock, a standing ovation as we, sadly, reluctantly bid him adieu on his final day. I emailed all six Denver Public Schools board members; two of them responded. One member told me dismissively that SROs would never return, and another explained that I was mistaken in my hope. 

A few weeks later, I found myself at a gun violence prevention summit that was hosted by students from East High School. The students organized the summit, but the participants were politicians and administrators.

I noticed midway through members of Luis’ family came in quietly and found a seat. I was impressed at their attendance, given what they must have been going through. When the summit was over, I watched as his brother, a recent East High School graduate, went up to a school board member who opposes SROs. I listened as he told the school board member, “If my brother had had an SRO to run to, then he might be alive today.” I listened as the school board member responded with, “I’m sorry for your loss, but …” and then went on to give a bunch of reasons that Luis’ older brother was wrong.

We all thought that he had written poetry, not prophecy.

A few weeks later, I sat through another lockdown as two of my friends and colleagues were shot by a student whom they were patting down as a part of a safety plan. And while we were sitting in lockdown, the Denver superintendent announced that he would send SROs back to schools. The following day, the school board, whose members had ignored the community — and had ignored Luis’s family — finally saw the wisdom in having officers on campus and voted 6-0 to bring them back for the spring. (Just a few weeks ago, a divided school board voted to keep SROs on campus next year and beyond.)

My students and I have a very simple desire: safety. What I want is for Denver’s school board members to listen and not assume that they know better than students, teachers, and family members who have lost loved ones to gun violence what is best for schools. The return of SROs is not the only solution to school safety. But it is a piece of a puzzle that includes common-sense safety plans as well as exploring possibilities such as closing the Esplanade in front of the school or adding metal detectors. We need to be open to new ideas. We need to be proactive, not reactive. 

Luis wrote about his fear of being shot for being in “the wrong place at the wrong time.” May all of our schools, and East High School in particular, cease being the wrong place at the wrong time. And may we remember Luis not only as a victim of violence but also as a scholar, soccer champion, and poet whose words were painfully prophetic. 

Andy Bucher is an English teacher at East High School in Denver. He is a husband and a father. He faithfully follows the Chicago Cubs and semi-faithfully rides his bike.

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