Kiara Padilla huddled with classmates beneath tables in her sixth-period class at Aurora Central High School, listening to the sound of swarming sirens and the beat of helicopter blades outside.
It wasn’t until nearly an hour later that Padilla learned that six fellow students had been shot at a park across the street from her high school. She made it home safe, but the shooting so near her school intensified a feeling that there is no place safe from gun violence, she said.
“I feel for some of us it’s just really stressful,” the 16-year-old said. “For me, I’m not really scared but I’m also not calm.”
The Nov. 15 shooting outside Aurora Central was the first of three mass shootings that injured 13 teenagers in Colorado’s third-largest city in less than two weeks. The shootings ignited peace rallies, emergency community meetings, gun buyback programs and increased school security across Aurora.
The rash of mass violence in November and a year-over-year increase in the number of teens killed and injured in Aurora shootings highlight what some city officials and community leaders described as a lack of attention by the city to the issue of youth violence until last year.
“We’re really behind, we’re where Denver was 15 to 20 years ago,” said Christina Amparan, who was hired in April to be Aurora’s youth violence prevention manager.
Eight teenagers have been killed in Aurora homicides in 2021, up from six killings apiece in 2020 and 2019, and two killings in 2018, according to Aurora police data.
The number of teens injured in Aurora shootings more than doubled between 2019 and 2021. Fifty-four teens have been shot in Aurora in 2021, up from 33 in 2020, 20 in 2019 and 26 in 2018.
Padilla felt tense returning to school two days after the shooting, but the day seemed eerily routine even after six kids were shot across the street.
“I feel like it’s normalized now in society,” Padilla said. “We normalized it. I happened and we can’t go back and change it so we might as well move on. But it’s not normal at all, it’s not normal to be talking to your friends sitting at the park and suddenly get shot at.”
“It’s the way it is in this town”
Seven teens have been arrested in connection to two November shootings that happened outside of two different high schools during the school day.
Police arrested two 15-year-old boys in connection with the Nov. 15 shooting in the park across the street from Aurora Central. Because of their age, their criminal cases will proceed in juvenile court. Six teens were injured in the gunfire.
Police arrested four teens in connection with a Nov. 19 shooting in the parking lot of Hinkley High School, which disrupted a peace rally organized in response to the Aurora Central shooting four days prior. Prosecutors were able to charge those teens, all 16 or 17 years old, as adults as allowed in under Colorado law in serious felony cases.
One of the teens involved in that shooting spoke to police about what sparked the gunfire, which injured three teens. The 16-year-old told investigators he and his friends drove to the school to look for members of a gang with whom they’d had a longtime feud. He told police he and his friends knew there would be a fight and at least three of his friends had guns on them, including one who had an extended magazine.
One of the teens charged in connection with the shooting, 16-year-old Diego Flores, told police the group knew they’d need guns in the fight “because it’s the way it is in this town,” the affidavits show.
Nine days after the shooting outside Hinkley High, four teenagers and a 20-year-old were shot and injured in a shooting that police said was possibly connected to a party held at an East Colfax Avenue store. No arrests have been made in connection to that shooting.
Padilla said Aurora teens are arming themselves because they feel unsafe, or feel like guns will bring them social clout.
“They want to protect themselves from any attacker,” the sophomore said.
Filling the gap after voters cut funding
The rise in Aurora teen violence mirrors a deadly increase in teen violence in Denver. That’s because the two city’s problems stem from the same source, said Jason McBride, a violence prevention advocate with Struggle of Love.
“Aurora’s problems are Denver’s problems because Denver never handled the problem correctly,” McBride said. “Aurora’s known they’ve had a gang problem for a long, long time. I don’t think they’ve been ready for what’s hit them the last few years.”
It’s Amparan’s job to address that problem. Her office has a $1.1 million budget and is currently exploring ways to give money to community organizations to do youth violence prevention and intervention work. The office currently employs Amparan, one prevention program coordinator and one outreach specialist. Amparan, who started her position in April, is hiring three more outreach specialists who will work directly with at-risk teens and a program coordinator who will focus on intervention efforts.
Her program was established to fill a gap when city leaders folded the Aurora Gang Reduction Impact Program after voters in 2018 ended the red light camera program that funded it.
A 2020 city proposal for the Youth Violence Prevention Program stated “at the current time, there is no program to conduct gang intervention or prevention work in the city of Aurora. Meanwhile, gangs and gang membership are proliferating, and gang-related crime and violence are increasing in the city.”
The gap between the end of A-GRIP, as the gang reduction program was known, and the creation of the Youth Violence Prevention Program stalled progress, Amparan said.
“If that program would’ve stayed in place we would’ve had a foundation and been able to build on it,” Amparan said. “But there are benefits to starting from scratch.”
Amparan’s office will not focus only on gangs but also on violent behavior overall, she said. Change will not be immediate, she said, as preventing violence means solving entrenched social problems like housing, hunger and opportunity.
“I hope that we as a community realize that a comprehensive approach and long-term funding is what is needed so that what happened with the A-GRIP program doesn’t happen again,” Amparan said.
The Aurora City Council and other city leaders are scheduled to discuss youth violence in a special study session at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“We have to find how young people are getting these handguns, what are the motivating factors behind this, what we can do from a law enforcement point of view and what we can do from a deterrence point of view to stop this,” Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman said in an interview on Aurora TV.
Community organizations ready to step in
While the city might be behind the curve, Aurora community organizations recognized the need for youth services years ago and have been providing them, said Tia Davis-Burns, program director of nonprofit organization A Promising Future.
“The disconnect is on the other end of it — they’re not being properly funded or acknowledged” by city officials, she said.
Violence is a symptom of underlying problems like unresolved trauma or a lack of safety, Davis-Burns said. The first step needs to be helping young people understand the value of their lives and those around them. That takes adults around them consistently showing up and being with them without an agenda. That means listening deeply and not dismissing their thoughts.
The city needs to offer money and resources — like access to city facilities — to already-existing organizations to use without making organizations overcome weeks of bureaucratic red tape, Davis-Burns said.
Struggle of Love hopes to expand its violence prevention programming into Aurora schools, McBride said. Other Denver-based programs, like Gang Rescue and Support Project and the city-operated Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver, also stepped in after the shootings outside the Aurora high schools.
But many of those programs are spread thin already addressing needs in Denver, McBride said.
Shana Shaw, founder of Aurora nonprofit group Compound of Compassion, said solutions to the problems need to come from the community’s young people. Compound of Compassion helped host dozens of “Safe Zones” over the last year after teens said they needed a safe place to hang out.
The city and community need a full-fledged violence prevention effort instead of being stuck in a reactionary position, triaging issues as they arise, Shaw said.
“Instead of candlelight vigils,” she said. “Instead of burying our babies.”
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