The day after the San Bernardino shooting, SWAT teams stormed Denver’s East High School after rumors spread about a mass shooting. A senior, Elhadji Samba Dioum was arrested and is in jail facing felony charges. But East students say the incident was a misunderstood joke gone awry.
Denver — The same morning Elhadji Samba Dioum would be accused of felony assault for an act that drew SWAT teams to East High School, he paid a visit to my French class. As a native French speaker, Dioum helped us practice for our Advanced Placement exam.
It was the day after the San Bernardino mass killing, and also Dioum’s birthday. At the end of class, we wished him a “joyeaux anniversaire.” It was anything but.
Last year, he moved to America from Senegal wanting a better education. He plays varsity basketball. His teammates love him.
“He was always very motivated to do well in basketball. Never was he violent or upsetting. He consistently lifted people up on our team. He always motivated me to practice off the court because he was so uplifting and dedicated,” said teammate Aaron Brines, who graduated from East last year and now attends the University of Denver.
East students, like Brines, value what Dioum has brought to our high school community.
But that afternoon, as the country reeled in terror after San Bernardino, East went on lockdown after rumors spread that a student had a gun.
Kids crouched in classroom corners, frantically texting loved ones, waiting quietly as SWAT officers flooded the school, sweeping each room.
Several hours later, news came: There had been no real threat. No weapons were recovered. No shots were fired. Nobody was wounded. Nobody was dead.
Students said the response was overblown, and the trauma of witnessing SWAT teams inside school far surpassed concerns about the incident that inspired the raid.
Denver Police Department spokesperson Sonny Jackson said Dioum was trying to mug a peer, and threatening him with what the victim believed to be a gun.
Students there said he was just joking with a friend, that a bystander misunderstood and reported it, and that the entire incident was fueled by paranoia in the wake of San Bernardino.
Police later found a BB gun in a parked car near campus. Colorado state gun laws require mandatory expulsion for students possessing pellet or BB guns on school property.
But Dioum faces consequences much greater than the expulsion required under state law.
On Thursday afternoon, he was arrested for aggravated assault and felony menacing.
In court on Friday morning, Dioum’s attorney argued that the episode was “a joke gone awry,” and that the seriousness of his charges is the result of bad timing.
Judge Andrea L. Eddy told 9News that Dioum’s bail is set so high — $100,000 — partially because she is “unsure of Dioum’s ties to the community.”
The Internet has not been kind to Dioum. Comments have flooded stories about Thursday’s incident with racial slurs and accusations of terrorism.
“Another raghead terrorist. Round these critters up and put them in guantano [sic] bay,” read a comment on the 9News article that released Dioum’s name and identity.
Other comments included “Sounds like this 19 year old didn’t take advantage of being an American or our education system and wants to be a thug. Let him get treated like one,” and “Nice to see blacks from Africa act just like our homegrown variety when exposed to civilization.”
East students have gone online to dispute that Dioum is violent. Oliver Round, who witnessed the arrest, has challenged racist comments
Round wrote on a 9News post, “Sure, the kid made a mistake and he did create quite the disturbance. But by no means should adults be going after high school students and wrongfully accuse the suspect of being a terrorist just for having black skin and not being an American citizen.”
Senior Remi Ruyle wrote, “I want the public to know that students are not going to let strangers slander one of our own.”
Several East students came to school Friday wearing homemade “Free Samba” T-shirts.
“Samba never intended for anyone to feel threatened… He sits in jail for a joke that he didn’t foresee the consequences of,” said East senior Char McClintock.
“Growing up in Colorado, hearing about Columbine, we understand the seriousness of potential guns on school grounds, but being from Senegal, Samba couldn’t understand the reaction everyone would have… No harm was intended, but now his future is in jeopardy for a crime he didn’t know he was committing,” said Cheyenne Shorts, another East student and friend of Dioum’s.
A police statement reports that while being searched for weapons Dioum told officers, “It was just a joke, the gun was just a toy.” McClintock wondered whether Samba understood his Miranda Rights as they were read to him, given his limited English skills.
“I can’t stand how the media is portraying him as a violent person, because if you know him at all, you know he would never do anything to purposefully harm anyone. He is one of the sweetest people I know, and it kills me knowing that he is going through all of this,” said Shorts.
Dioum continues to be incarcerated at the Denver County Jail.