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Rising Violence Makes Denver Schools Reconsider Campus Police

Three years after the Denver Public Schools’ Board of Education voted unanimously to phase out school resource officers, some board members are now ready to reverse the policy as gun violence among teens in the area rises.

A police officer secures East High School campus in Denver
A police officer secures East High School campus in Denver on Wednesday, April 5, 2023.
(Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post/TNS)
One morning in June 2020, as nights were filled with people marching through downtown Denver to protest the death of George Floyd, school board members stood outside of West High School and called for the removal of armed police from the city’s public schools.

Denver Public Schools’ Board of Education voted unanimously less than a week later, on June 11 to phase out school resource officers, or SROs — one of dozens of school districts in the United States to do so amid the national reckoning that followed the murder of Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

The board’s vote was one of the most high-profile outcomes in Denver of that summer’s push for racial justice, and it followed more than a decade of work by community organizers — namely the advocacy group Movimiento Poder — to end the over-policing of students of color in DPS buildings.

But now, three years later, the school board is on the verge of reversing that policy — a move board members say is being spurred not just by the March 22 shooting inside East High School, but by rising gun violence among Denver teens and the increasing number of firearms being discovered inside district buildings.

Divisions have erupted on the board as members disagree on whether to put police back into schools long-term. But board President Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytán called their return “inevitable.”

“The landscape of policing is shifting from the conversations that the Denver community was having in 2020,” she said. “The access to guns and weapons is outrageous, in my humble opinion, especially the access to guns among our young people.”

Board members temporarily allowed armed police to return to Denver high schools after the East shooting by suspending the 2020 policy prohibiting SROs. And they now are weighing two plans to change the policy, which is set to resume in just under three weeks unless the board takes action.

Among the proposals: a plan that would allow Superintendent Alex Marrero to station officers on campuses and another that would create what board members are calling community resource officers, who would be placed in regions across the district, but not inside schools.

The board is expected to discuss those proposals Thursday and could vote by the end of the month. Marrero also is expected to release the final version of his new districtwide safety plan by the end of June.

The crux of the issue is how DPS should respond to growing youth gun violence in Denver and whether having police on campus would have prevented two high-profile shootings at East, the city’s largest high school, earlier this year.

The Denver Post interviewed four members about how the school board has reached the point where some directors are reconsidering their stance on SROs. Two directors — Michelle Quattlebaum and Carrie Olson — declined to comment. Another board member, Scott Esserman, did not respond to a request for comment.

Marrero declined an interview request, with a district spokesman saying that the superintendent is not speaking about his safety plan until after the final version is released later this month.

“The challenge of getting a consensus by the board appears to me as one of the more intense that I’ve seen,” said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, adding, “This one certainly has been fought out in public.”

At a school board meeting last week, Gaytán cut the microphones of two directors — Quattlebaum and Auon’tai Anderson — as they pushed back on statements made by Marrero and Denver police Chief Ron Thomas that supported the return of SROs.

“If it took 10 years of research to remove SROs from schools, why does it only take three months to discount that work?” Quattlebaum asked Thomas during the Monday meeting, which was held exactly three years after the 2020 news conference calling for the removal of police from Denver schools.

Rising Youth Gun Violence

The first significant calls to reinstate SROs came from parents and students came after a Feb. 13 shooting outside of East.

Luis Garcia, a junior, was sitting in his car outside of the high school when he was shot in the head. The 16-year-old died at Denver Health Medical Center more than two weeks later.

At the time, East parents and students called for tighter security on campus and teens spoke out about not feeling safe. Students also began protesting, walking out school to urge Colorado lawmakers to take action on gun control.

In response to the February shooting, Marrero and school board members stressed that the incident had not occurred on campus, but rather, near the school.

The shooting, they said, was part of a broader trend of rising gun violence among teens in Denver and they urged city officials to address gun violence in the community and to prioritize safety around schools.

“My call to action is to prevent it from getting into our schools,” Marrero told The Post in February.

Last year, 17 teenagers were killed in Denver — nearly double the number who died five years ago. Another 70 teens were injured in shootings. Most of those killed or injured were shot by other teens, according to Denver Police Department data.

Youth gun violence is on the rise for multiple reasons, including easy access to firearms, children not feeling safe and the mental health toll of the coronavirus pandemic, said Franci Crepeau-Hobson, professor of school psychology at the University of Colorado Denver.

And what’s happening on Denver’s streets is seeping into the city’s schools. The number of firearms found on DPS campuses began increasing during the 2019-20 academic year and has remained steady in the years since despite the pandemic.

The district found 15 firearms during the 2019-20 school year, which was an increase from two guns the year before. There were 16 guns discovered in Denver schools during the 2022-23 academic year, according to the latest data provided by the district.

While the number of actual firearms has remained steady, the district has seen a larger increase in fake guns appearing on campuses. DPS found 42 facsimile firearms last school year, a 50 percent increase from the 28 found the year before, according to the data.

“You have kids who make bad decisions and are sitting in a classroom with loaded guns,” DPS board member Charmaine Lindsay said.

Lindsay, who was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in 2022, said she had not supported the decision to remove SROs three years ago. The board, she said, should have moved sooner to reinstate them.

Earlier this year, the school board acknowledged the rise in gun violence and adopted a policy that said the district would collaborate with local law enforcement and community organizations to “mitigate” threats.

“We were proactively doing the right thing and focusing on the right thing,” board member Scott Baldermann said.

But, he said, the policy, which was made under the board’s new governing model, was a long-term solution, one that the district would undertake over multiple years.

Then, less than a month after Garcia was shot, another shooting occurred at East — this time inside the high school.

“Too Many Incidents Were Happening”

An East student shot and injured two administrators while undergoing a daily search for weapons on March 22. The 17-year-old student fled the school and died by suicide later that day.

That same day, Marrero sent board members a letter saying that he planned to place armed officers in the district’s comprehensive high schools even though doing so “likely violates” the board’s 2020 policy prohibiting SROs.

“However, I can no longer stand on the sidelines,” Marrero wrote in the letter. “I am willing to accept the consequences of my actions.”

A day later, the board met behind closed doors for five hours. When the members emerged, they voted unanimously to temporarily suspend the policy barring SROs and directed Marrero to craft a districtwide safety plan.

After the second East shooting, the calls for police in schools grew as parents and others in the community criticized DPS for what they called the district’s lack of response to school safety. Much of the scrutiny has focused on the district’s discipline policies and the decision to remove SROs.

It became a topic during mayoral debates. Garcia’s family has said it intends to sue DPS and has accused district and city leaders of negligence because they removed armed police from schools. And a group made up of parents and other community members coalesced, calling for school board members to resign.

The Resign DPS Board movement has accumulated about 5,000 signatures of support and stems from the perspective of concerned parents, said Heather Lamm, who is spearheading the group. She is the daughter of late Gov. Dick Lamm and a former spokeswoman for the DSST charter school network.

Lamm, who graduated from DPS and now has two kids in the district and one who just graduated from East, said she and other parents are disenchanted with the school board’s lack of action following a spate of violence and school safety issues.

She said the group is not for or against SRO’s and that members have mixed feelings about police in schools.

“We started feeling very, very frustrated at what we perceive to be a really dysfunctional board that should not be in charge of making life or death decisions with kids’ safety,” she said.

Board members, including Baldermann and Anderson, said the March shooting was the catalyst for the board to revisit its stance on SROs. If it hadn’t happened, they said, it’s unlikely the board would consider reversing the 2020 prohibition.

“If East never would have happened, this board never would have taken up the conversation,” Anderson said.

The shooting made board members realize they needed to respond more quickly to gun violence than the safety policy passed earlier this year would allow them to do, Baldermann said.

“Too many incidents were happening in short windows of time,” he said.

Anderson said he has heard board colleagues say that they need to act because “people have to see something.”

“The board cares,” he added. “I believe my colleagues and I care about people, but I do believe that we are misguided in this conversation that we are having.”

Instead, Anderson said, the board needs to focus on the root causes of gun violence and prioritize mental health resources in the district’s budget.

Both Baldermann and Anderson were on the board in 2020 when it decided to phase out SROs. Now they find themselves on opposite ends of the SRO debate.

Anderson wants to keep the SRO policy in place, but make a tweak to add community resource officers who can respond when needed but not be stationed inside schools. He called the plan a middle ground.

But Baldermann has proposed a larger overhaul of the 2020 policy, which would give the district’s superintendent the flexibility to station SROs in schools. It would also place limits on what SROs could not do, such as disciplining students.

The board’s decision three years ago “was the right one at the time,” Baldermann said. But, he said, “a lot has changed.”

District leadership has changed both on the board and in the superintendent’s office. The board has a new governance model that it uses to give the superintendent guidance rather than directives like the 2020 ban on SROs.

But, mostly, the number of weapons being found on campuses has been “eye-opening,” Baldermann said, adding that he thinks police in schools will deter students from bringing guns to campus.

“We’re Talking About Policing Black Children”

Other school board members, including Anderson, have argued that officers would not have prevented the shootings at East.

He and Quattlebaum have said having police in schools harms students of color and contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline because Black and Latino pupils historically have been arrested and ticketed at a disproportionately high rate compared to their white peers.

“We’re talking about policing Black children,” Quattlebaum told her colleagues during a June 1 board meeting. “That is what we are talking about without saying it. How do we make sure that white students are safe when they are in school with Black students?

“That’s really the conversation that we are having, but we are trying not to have,” she said.

Research is not clear on whether SROs prevent shootings, but it does show that students of color are more likely to be punished with expulsions and arrests.

Most studies haven’t done a good job at separating designated SROs from other school security or regular police officers, who don’t have the same training but might still appear in a school setting, said Crepeau-Hobson, the professor at CU Denver.

It’s difficult to say whether SROs would have prevented a shooting because there’s no way to prove something that didn’t happen, she said.

What research does show is that there is an association between schools having police officers on campus and disproportionate rates of harsh discipline among students of color, Crepeau-Hobson said.

Studies also have shown that SROs do make a difference in some areas of safety. Research published earlier this year found that SROs reduced violence, such as fights, but did not prevent gun-related incidents. At the same time, the study’s findings suggested that having an SRO did increase the number of reported firearm offenses, which researchers noted are rare.

The same study also found that “SROs intensify the use of suspension, expulsion, police referral and arrest of students” and that those actions mostly affect Black students, boys and students with disabilities.

Movimiento Poder has worked for more than a decade to decrease expulsions, suspensions, ticketing and arrests of students by changing DPS’s discipline policy and other efforts, said Jim Freeman, who leads the Social Movement Support Lab and consultant for the organization.

The district’s decision to remove SROs “didn’t come out of nowhere,” he said. “This wasn’t a knee-jerk response to what was happening in Minneapolis.”

At DPS, the number of tickets and arrests of students has been declining for almost a decade, including after the district voted to remove SROs in 2020, according to a report released by Movimiento Poder last month.

During the 2021-22 academic year, there were 151 tickets and arrests of DPS students. That’s almost an 80 percent decrease from the 744 tickets and arrests recorded in 2018-19, according to the report. (Part of the period examined in the report occurred during the pandemic, when students were in remote learning.)

“We know for a fact, based on community and historical insight, that this was a huge issue — that our students were being sent to the school-to-prison pipeline and the deportation pipeline,” said Elizabeth Burciaga, a lead organizer with Movimiento Poder.

The school-to-prison pipeline occurs when students become involved with the criminal justice system as a result of policies that use law enforcement to address behavioral issues and discipline.

Board members who are supportive of putting police back into schools agreed that students of color have historically been disciplined at higher rates. But they said they are trusting Marrero and Chief Thomas — both of whom came into their jobs in the past two years — to ensure the inequities don’t return with the officers.

“We should put some guidelines around what we don’t want to see,” Lindsay said. “We don’t want to criminalize high school behavior.”

Reversing Policy

DPS is not alone in reconsidering its prohibition on SROs. At least 50 U.S. school districts either ended their police programs or cut their budgets between May 2020 and June 2022. Of the districts that removed police, at least eight have since reversed course, according to Education Week.

Districts that are bringing SROs back or are in conversations to do so include those in Alexandria, Virginia, and Fremont, California, said Mo Canady, a former police lieutenant and SRO in Alabama who now serves as executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

“We’ve seen some districts reverse their decision on the SRO issue because they started experiencing unusual levels of violence when school starts back,” he said, acknowledging that the pandemic was hard on many students and impacted their mental health and behavior.

Canady’s organization has established a list of best practices for SROs.

Among them, Canady said there needs to be a memorandum of understanding between school districts and law enforcement agencies about what SROs will and won’t do. For example, the agreements need to prohibit SRO involvement in classroom management or behavior issues that educators and administrators can handle.

There needs to be rigorous, evolving and continued training on topics like adolescent mental health, implicit bias, behavioral threat assessment and ways to reduce school-based arrest, Canady said.

Officers must focus on relationship-building with students, Canady said, and the officers must be carefully selected.

Denver’s police department prefers to have full-time SROs in all of the city’s comprehensive high schools, Thomas, the police chief, told the school board during Monday’s meeting.

SROs would be from the school community, he said, and the department would review and share data on SROs’ contacts with students, use alternatives to citations and have “absolutely no engagement” in school discipline matters.

Marrero told the board that both he and Thomas “are committed to not going backwards.”

“We must continue to decrease the over-policing of our students, particularly those students of color,” the superintendent said.

But not all board members are convinced.

“I can’t just go off on a leap of hope and say I’m trusting our superintendent to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline with police,” Anderson said, adding, “I don’t believe that we can turn back the clock now. We don’t have enough data to say this failed.”

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