Last month, as the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting approached, STEM School Highlands Ranch joined hundreds of schools near Denver in closing temporarily amid security concerns. The anniversary came and went, and schools returned to their routines.
But Tuesday afternoon, the STEM school's worst fears were realised when eight of its students were shot and one killed — less than 12km from Columbine — and two fellow students were being held as suspects.
"We know two individuals walked into the STEM school, got deep inside the school and engaged students in two separate locations," Sheriff Tony Spurlock of Douglas County said at a news conference. "There were a number of students that were shot and injured."
Eight students had been taken to area hospitals and one died of their injuries.
"Several" were in critical condition, the sheriff said, although local hospitals described their conditions as less dire.
Spurlock said the suspects, who were armed with a handgun and other weapons, confronted law enforcement officers when they arrived. He said the suspects, one adult and one juvenile, were not injured.
"I can tell you that there were shots fired," he said. "Our officers went in and engaged the suspects. We did struggle with the suspects to take them into custody."
Spurlock said he would not release details about the injured students, their ages or their injuries Tuesday night.
"I heard a gunshot," said Makai Dixon, 8, a second grader who had been training for this moment, with active shooter drills and lockdowns, since he was in kindergarten. "I'd never heard it before."
Makai's parents said they joined thousands of others in rushing to the school as news blazed through this suburban community.
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"We're more messed up than they are," Makai's mother, Rocio, said as they walked to their car.
The shooting at the Highlands Ranch charter school is the latest at an educational institution, rattling communities nationwide for putting young people in mortal danger in places long considered safe havens. One week earlier, a man with a pistol shot six people on the last day of spring classes at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, killing two.
Littleton Adventist Hospital in Colorado said five people were transported there after Tuesday's shooting. Two are in serious condition while three have been discharged, the hospital said. Sky Ridge Medical Center said two children were transported there and were in stable condition.
Spurlock said the school, which has about 1,800 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, had no police officer assigned to it and used private security instead, but he did not say what actions that security service may have taken during the shooting. The sheriff said that the school alerted law enforcement "almost immediately after the first gunshots were fired" and that deputies arrived roughly two minutes later.
"I have to believe that the quick response of officers that got inside that school helped save lives," the sheriff said.
Students were taken to Northridge Recreation Center in Highlands Ranch, where hundreds of anxious parents gathered to look for their children Tuesday afternoon.
Earlier in the day, local media showed video footage of tear-stricken parents gathering near the school as at least two air ambulance helicopters arrived at the scene after the shooting, which was reported before 2 p.m.
Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado said the state government was monitoring the situation.
"We are making all of our public safety resources available to assist the Douglas County Sheriff's Department in their effort to secure the site and evacuate the students," he said on Twitter. "The heart of all Colorado is with the victims & their families."
Douglas County is an affluent area south of Denver with about 350,000 people. It sits next to Jefferson County, home to Columbine High School, and students there are already primed to watch for gunmen.
Last month, hundreds of schools in the Denver area were closed as law enforcement searched for a Florida woman who they said had made threats ahead of the 20th anniversary of the deadly shooting that claimed 13 lives at Columbine High School, which is about 7 miles from the site of Tuesday's shooting.
The woman, Sol Pais, 18, was found dead April 17 of an apparent self-inflicted shotgun wound in the mountains of Jefferson County.
Douglas County is more conservative than traditionally blue Denver, and like much of the region has been at the center of the national debate over gun violence.
Last month, Polis signed into law a so-called Red Flag bill, allowing authorities to take guns from people deemed a threat after a court hearing. The bill divided the state, and some sheriffs said they would not enforce it, while some counties began calling themselves "Second Amendment Sanctuaries."
In Douglas County, the county commission criticised the bill, saying they feared it threatened constitutional liberties, while Spurlock emerged as one of its most vocal supporters.
The area's history of gun violence was front and center in last year's election for its U.S. representative. Jason Crow, a Democrat, unseated Mike Coffman, a five-term Republican incumbent supported by the National Rifle Association.
Crow campaigned openly on gun control — including universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons and restrictions on high-capacity magazines — and the issue dominated the race.
He was one of several public figures to express his sorrow on Twitter on Tuesday.
"It is with broken hearts that we respond to the news coming out of Highlands Ranch," he wrote. "We still don't have all the details regarding the situation at STEM school, but we do know this: we have a public health crisis on our hands. This cannot continue."
Patrick Neville, a Columbine survivor and the top Republican lawmaker in the Colorado House of Representatives, said in a statement that the shooting was a reminder "of the need to secure our schools."
He said armed security guards and facility upgrades were the best way to keep students safe.
"School safety programs which include armed security and safety upgrades to school facilities are the best way to stop these criminals from harming our children," he said.
Written by: Jack Healy and Liam Stack
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES