DENVER — It was lunchtime on a mild day in the sprawling Denver suburb of Aurora when a truck full of teens pulled into a high school parking lot where students were gathered, and gunfire rang out.
Three were wounded as others ran in fear.
One of the boys charged in the Nov. 19 shooting later told investigators he brought his armed friends to an expected gang fight because “it’s the way it is in this town,” court documents said.
The shooting was one of several involving teenagers within a two-week span that have placed renewed attention on a long-running problem of gun violence and gangs in the state’s third largest city, where the police department has been under scrutiny for its treatment of Black residents. Activists and officials say easy access to guns is contributing to the problem, which has also been exacerbated by the pandemic and its effect particularly on the mental health of minority teens in the city.
Across the United States, shootings involving children and teenagers have increased in recent years, including 2021. A March report from the Children’s Defense Fund found child and teen shooting deaths reached a 19-year high in 2017 and have remained elevated. Black children and teenagers were four times more likely than whites to be fatally shot.
Aurora has seen an increase in Black and Latino families and immigrants from around the world as Denver has grown more expensive in recent years. These families of color have been hit harder health-wise but also economically by the COVID-19 pandemic, contributing to mental health problems, said Maisha Fields, an activist who works with youth and families in the city of about 379,000.
The Nov. 19 shooting started with an argument in the parking lot at Hinkley High School after the truckload of boys arrived. After the initial shots were fired, the pickup drove away, with at least two teens pointing guns from the windows, sending students running in fear, according to police.
Three 16-year-olds were later charged, including the boy who spoke to investigators about the gang fight.
Fields, who is also vice president for organizing for the Brady gun control advocacy group, said the teen's attitude about the need to be armed gave her chills. It reminded her of the callousness that led to her brother, Javad Marshall-Fields, and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe, being shot and killed in Aurora in 2005 as he was preparing to testify against a man charged in the fatal shooting of his friend at a concert.
Jason McBride, a violence prevention expert who works with teens for the Struggle of Love Foundation in Denver and Aurora, and Aurora City Council member Angela Lawson both said teens have showed them Snapchat posts, where messages disappear, offering guns for sale.
McBride thinks gangs are to blame for much of the problem — not necessarily the organized Crips and Bloods as in previous years, but smaller, loosely affiliated groups of teens who may not be associated with a particular neighborhood but who get into disputes on social media.
Some also create their own untraceable guns using a 3-D printer or by buying and assembling parts purchased online, McBride said.
Generational trauma caused by seeing relatives killed in shootings has also normalized them, he said. And being kept away from school, an escape from problems at home, has strained the mental health of some teens.
McBride said a 16-year-old recently told him he would use bullets if he got into a fight so he would not have to worry about messing up his clothes.
“That’s the head space our kids are in,” he said.
While shootings involving teens are not a new problem in Aurora, ones on or near school grounds are unusual, said Kyla Armstrong-Romero, who was president of the city’s school board until stepping down last week after newly elected members took office. She said she hopes the attention given to the shootings near schools will ignite more interest in the work that needs to be done to prevent teen gun violence, which she said has often been underfunded.
Lawson agrees that social media fights and the effect of students being required to stay home last year have contributed to the violence. But she thinks gangs are only part of the reason for shootings.
The city’s original anti-gang program ended after its funding — fines from drivers caught on camera going through red lights — disappeared when voters eliminated the cameras in 2018. In April, the city started a new youth violence prevention program funded by an increase in the marijuana sales tax. However, only three of the planned six positions, including one outreach worker, have been filled, Lawson said.
With a $1.1 million budget, the city is in the process of recruiting for the remaining positions, city spokesperson Ryan Luby said. Some of the funding will also support community-led efforts, he said.
Teens in the city also need a dedicated place they can go, possibly one of the city’s recreation centers, where they can participate in organized activities, get access to services including mental health counseling and just talk to others, Lawson said.
Stemming the violence though will also require help from parents, police and the wider community, she said.
“It’s all hands on deck,” Lawson said.