If the Denver Public Schools Board of Education hadn’t voted to eliminate police officers from schools in 2020, would the shooting of two school administrators inside East High School last week have been avoided?
Would Luis Garcia, who was shot in front of East High on Feb. 13 while sitting in his car, still be alive?
Would 200 weapons, including 13 guns, still have been seized in DPS schools during the last school year? That number was five times the amount of weapons found in 2018-2019 before police officers were removed from schools, according to an open records act request by Denver Gazette partner Chalkbeat Colorado.
On Thursday, the board reversed its 2020 decision and voted to restore armed police officers to schools, temporarily. They finally came to their senses after urgent pleas by students, police, parents, the mayor and the decision by the superintendent to restore officers to high schools even if it violated the board’s policy.
So why did the board leave the children in its charge so vulnerable to the burgeoning wave of violence affecting our schools?
On its website, the DPS Board explained that “part of the reasoning for this decision is the belief that the close proximity of law enforcement to students on campuses directly contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline.” They made their decision in direct response not to events in Colorado, but to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minnesota.
Clearly, Floyd’s death was one of the most horrific police abuse situations we’ve ever seen. But I also was taught that avoiding prejudice means you don’t pre-judge a person by his race, gender, class or even occupation. Isn’t extrapolating the idea that all cops are bad from one incident of a bad cop the very definition of prejudice?
In fact, School Resource Officers, the official name for cops in schools, are the polar opposite of the cops who killed George Floyd. They are trained to be more like counselors and educators, working with students to deescalate conflicts and build relationships. If only all cops were as well-trained and community-minded as SROs.
I asked Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, if last week’s violence could have been avoided had an SRO been in East.
“Do I think it could have had an impact on it, absolutely,” said Canady.
“One of the things that always troubles me is when I see school administrators having to be the person who is physically searching someone for weapons,” Canady said. “The bottom line is that searching for a weapon is really a law enforcement function. We’re trained to do that, we have safety protocols, and we know how to handle the weapon if we do find one. It’s not fair to administrators.”
Canady went on to point out that, when an incident occurs, kids who already have a relationship with an officer at the school are going to have a much more positive experience than they will have with a beat officer responding to a 911 call.
“If a school has a carefully selected, specifically trained SRO who is engaged with the school staff, engaged in relationships within that school community, and they’re faced with having to make a decision on an arrest,” Canady told me, “I have no doubt that in most instances, that’s going to end differently than if you don’t have the SRO and you have to rely on calling 911 and having a patrol officer respond.”
Most SROs receive special training on special needs students, special education law, implicit bias, school search and seizure, behavioral threat assessment and adolescent brain development “because adolescents are going to respond to you differently than adults,” Canady points out.
Mike Eaton, former DPS Dept. of Safety Chief who was at DPS when the school board pulled SROs from the district, told our news partner 9News that 80 percent of SROs in Denver were officers of color.
I asked Canady about studies that have shown mixed results on the benefits of having police officers at schools in preventing violence and mass shooting.
A study by the University of Albany, SUNY and the nonprofit RAND Corporation, for example, found that between 2014 and 2018, SROs “do effectively reduce some forms of violence in schools, but do not prevent school shootings or gun-related incidents.”
“I think you said the very word, mixed results,” Canady said of the research on police in schools. “This is a very complicated issue. I think that sometimes there are those who have their own slant against school policing. We get some data driven out of those groups that are just really looking at the overall policing situation, and not really taking the time and the effort to really hone in on what an SRO really is, what they are really supposed to be doing, and who is and who is not an SRO.”
Eaton said that distinction between SROs and regular law enforcement is an important one. Concerning statistics cited by the Board of Education that showed the majority of students being ticketed or arrested were minority students, he told our news partner 9News that “We found that the data that was used was total contacts by all police officers, but when you aggregated data out for just SROs, it was significantly less. You were less likely to get a ticket or arrested if an SRO is the one that was dealing with whatever criminal issue that occurred.”
What’s ironic is Colorado actually spurred the movement to add SROs in schools.
Soon after the mass shooting at Columbine High School, the Department of Education and the Secret Service undertook a study of past school shootings to identify factors that might help prevent future targeted school attacks, according to a Justice Department report. The key recommendation from that study was that all schools should establish behavior threat assessment teams. The report recommended that school administrators, law enforcement officers (especially SROs), teachers, and counselors participate in these teams to address concerning behavior by members of the school community. That recommendation led to a wave of schools adding SROs across the country.
The Board on Thursday said it wanted to rebuild its threat assessment teams. As part of that effort, let’s hope and pray they make their temporary decision to restore SROs permanent. We can’t let our partisan arguments eclipse our fundamental obligations to our kids. We must keep them safe.
If DPS does this right, SROs working with teachers, parents, students and counselors could be a potent force in restoring trust between communities of color and police departments. One of the best ways to improve that relationship would be if some of those kids positively influenced by SROs were to actually become cops themselves.
“SROs should be the best recruiters that their department has to offer,” Canady told me. “With that good role model, then hopefully some students are going to say, 'Hey I want to do that.”