Dean at Denver’s East High recounts shooting by student for first time

Wayne Mason was stationed at the front desk of Denver’s East High School on March 22 when Austin Lyle walked into the building.

The 17-year-old student, who required daily patdowns as part of his student safety plan, called for an assistant principal. Mason tried them on the radio. No answer.

So Eric Sinclair, another school dean, escorted Lyle to Room 129, where he and Mason shared an office. Sinclair radioed the assistant principal again. No answer. He tried a school safety officer. No answer.

His next call went to Mason.

“Wayne. Wayne. Help me, help me!” Sinclair yelled into the radio.

Mason, a retired probation officer and East’s restorative practice coordinator, for the first time Monday publicly detailed how he and Sinclair were shot inside an office at Denver’s largest high school while struggling to disarm a troubled student.

The dean called out Denver Public Schools for safety policies that allowed Lyle to be searched by a single, untrained administrator. Police and school officials previously had indicated that the two deans were both involved in the patdown.

“There should have been procedures put in place that he did not have to be alone,” said Mason, who was identified in the school’s directory and in previous news reports as Jerald Mason.

The shooting at East that day prompted overhauls to Denver Public Schools’ security procedures, put armed officers back in schools across the city, and spurred legions of students to demand lawmakers take action.

And it’s a day that changed Mason and his family forever.

When he entered the office, the dean said he saw Lyle and Sinclair wrestling.

“Gun! Gun!” Sinclair said. Lyle fired two or three shots.

Mason said he grabbed the teen’s arm. But the student was able to twist his wrist and fire shots that hit Mason in the chest. Lyle broke away, staring at the two injured administrators as he continued to aim his gun at them, Mason said. Then he ran away.

Authorities in Park County later found Lyle dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot.

Mason, injured himself, started applying pressure to Sinclair’s wounds. Then he grabbed his hand and prayed.

“The moment that Austin pulled that trigger I forgave him,” Mason said. “The regret that I have right now is that he is not here for me to tell him that.”

But while the administrator forgave the teen who shot him, he questioned why his friend was put in that position in the first place.

“I was sad that my friend had to go through that,” Mason said.

Deans are not trained to conduct daily patdowns, he said. Superintendent Alex Marrero, the day after the shooting, said the administrator who normally patted Lyle down wasn’t available that morning — a scenario he called “inexplicable and definitely unforeseen.”

Armed safety officers should be the ones performing these safety checks, Mason said.

As a former Navy officer, he recalled how aircraft carriers would be called in as a show of force.

“If police officers are in the school, they know that they’re there,” Mason said.

Before attending East, Lyle had been removed from Overland High School in Aurora due to discipline issues. At the time of the shooting, he was on probation after being arrested and charged with possessing a dangerous weapon and a large-capacity magazine.

After the East shooting, police and school officials said they had never before found a gun on him.

But a few weeks before the shooting, Mason said, a student had reported to the administration that they had seen Lyle with a firearm in school. When school officials went to find and search him, Lyle fled, Mason said.

“That is the biggest red flag,” he said. “Then he was allowed back into the school.”

Mason spoke on Monday as part of a weekly news conference organized by East parents calling for change to DPS policies. Last week, the district superintendent, Alex Marrero, recommended that each Denver high school and school with sixth- to 12th graders decide whether to place armed police officers on their campuses.

The school board in 2020 voted to remove Denver police officers from schools amid the nationwide George Floyd protests over racial injustice. Data and research show students of color are more likely to be arrested or ticketed at school.

The board voted last month to put police back in the city’s high schools through the end of the academic year, pending the creation of a new safety plan. The district expects to release a final draft of that new plan next month.

After telling his story, Mason gathered some of his students — their checks stained with tears — for a group hug beside the Thatcher Fountain in City Park. He wore a red Alabama Crimson Tide hat low on his forehead, his face framed by a salt-and-pepper goatee. His black T-shirt read: “Do justice, love mercy.”

“We’re in a pandemic that doesn’t require a face mask,” Mason said. “We’re in a pandemic that is led by fear, that is led by doubt and violence in our schools.”

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