Darlene Apodaca's two young granddaughters didn't go to school Wednesday.
With a 9-year-old boy from Denver's Shoemaker Elementary School dying by suicide last week, and Tuesday's shooting outside the DSST Cole Middle School that her granddaughters attend, Apodaca said it was all too much.
"They weren't up for it," Apodaca said. "And neither was I. It's only two weeks in, and I'm terrified."
A day after the shooting outside Cole left a juvenile male in critical condition, a person was stabbed a couple of blocks away, prompting the DSST campus — which houses middle, high and elementary schools — to go on lockout. Unlike the day before, when parents sobbed outside not knowing whether their children were safe because school officials hadn't contacted them, Denver Public Schools notified families about Wednesday's police activity.
Standing outside the crime scene tape at Cole Middle School after Tuesday's shooting, Will Jones, spokesman for DPS, heaved a heavy sigh.
"I've spent days at Shoemaker, and now this," Jones said. "Nobody wants the school year to start like this."
Denver Public Schools' tragic start to the academic year rattled students, staff and, in particular, parents — many of whom felt in the dark after a "communication issue" left them to learn about Tuesday's shooting from their own children, news reports or Facebook posts, rather than the school or district.
As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, DPS officials hadn't responded to an interview request about what the school district would do differently to better inform parents during an emergency situation.
Mary Smith, a parent who serves on the DPS District Accountability Committee, said the committee made a formal recommendation last spring during a school board meeting asking the district to improve its school safety communication system by adopting specific tools used by local private schools and universities.
"They've ignored our recommendations," Smith said. "They're available, and they're cheap, but I was told that DPS only reviews new technologies every three years, which is crazy to me. A lot has happened in the past three years."
Apodaca did praise the way teachers and staff at Cole handled the children inside the school, reassuring her granddaughters that they were safe while on lockdown.
Ellen Kelty, director of student equity and opportunity at DPS, manages the district's crisis team of school counselors who are rallied when traumatic events, such as a student suicide or shooting, occur.
"Sadly, everything that's happened in the past week is near and dear to my heart and is what I do here," Kelty said. "It's a lot for eight days of school — way more than we would hope for — but this is what we're trained for."
The crisis team, made up of 25 rotating members, heads out to the impacted schools, where they help the school principal plan how to handle the situation, inform administrators and teachers how to talk to students about the situation, work on writing letters to parents, and make sure Spanish-speaking students and families are supported as well.
How students are counseled depends on age and the situation, but in the case of a student suicide, Kelty said the team first must respect the victim's parents' wishes about what to discuss.
School psychologists make sure students know the resources available to them if they or somebody they know feels depressed, they encourage students to write cards for the impacted family and teach the elementary-age students how to grieve and be respectful in the process.
Leia Pierce, mother of 9-year-old Jamel Myles, the student who took his own life, said her son was bullied after recently coming out as gay.
When asked whether bullying would be addressed at Shoemaker Elementary in light of Jamel's death, Kelty said anti-bullying programs have been a priority for a long time. While Kelty said it was too early at this point to know what lessons have been learned for the district after dealing with the boy's suicide, she noted that DPS is already implementing a new type of suicide prevention program for fifth-graders.
"The suicide risks keep going younger and younger," Kelty said. The program started with five Denver schools last year, and there are plans to increase that number this year.
Working with older children who had a shooting take place outside their school building is more about making sure students understand safety protocols and have someone help them work through their emotions, Kelty said.
Tay Anderson, a Metropolitan State University student who works at Hinkley High School and recently announced his candidacy in the the 2019 Denver school board election, said DPS failed communicating to parents on Tuesday.
"The pictures broke my heart watching parents reunite with their children in tears," Anderson said. "We have to do a better job of communication with our parents. We should be able to let them know when they drop their kids off in our care, they are safe."
Apodaca said that in more than 40 years living in Denver and sending her kids to DPS schools, she had never worried about student safety the way she has recently.
"We want to make sure our kids are not being bullied and not being shot and that they're going to come home to us," Apodaca said.