Denver's decision to move police out of schools alarms those whose job is creating safer schools, said Susan Payne, a school safety expert who in 1995 became Colorado Springs’ first school resource officer after an incident at Sierra High School.
Higher rates of students of color having contact with sworn police working in Colorado’s largest public school district led the board of Denver Public Schools last week to unanimously vote to phase out school resource officers, known as SROs, law enforcement trained to deal with with youth offenders.
“SROs are critical to reducing the school-to-prison pipeline,” Payne said. “SROs focus on prevention by intervening at the earliest point and being part of the solution for students who might be on a path to violence.”
Concern over police working in schools has been exacerbated by the May 25 killing of a black Minnesota man, George Floyd, by a white police officerand the public outcry, protests and calls for change that have followed.
Schools in El Paso County seem unlikely to follow Denver Public Schools’ lead, officials said.
“While that is the decision of school boards, I don’t foresee anything like that at all here, said Lt. James Sokolik, spokesman for the Colorado Springs Police Department, which has 21 officers covering every high school within the city limits. “We have a good relationship with our school districts.”
Three additional resource officers will be assigned to Colorado Springs School District 11 middle schools, under a mill levy override voters passed in 2017.
“We have a really strong partnership with our SROs,” said Shawn Gullixson, president of the D-11 board of education, which has not discussed removing police from school buildings. Neither have Harrison School District 2 in southeast Colorado Springs or School District 49 in Falcon.
SROs in D-49 include law enforcement and former military who have learned how to specialize in addressing youth behavior, said David Watson, director of safety and security.
“A safe learning environment in D-49 is a top priority, and we will continue to grow our security capabilities in a responsible manner, consistent with trends and best practices,” he said.
Denver Public Schools will phase out all sworn police officers in schools by June 4, 2021, redefine school safety, clarify the role that law enforcement should play and enact a policy ensuring students will no longer be ticketed, arrested, or referred to law enforcement “unless there are no other available alternatives for addressing imminent threats of serious harm.”
Of the Pikes Peak region’s 1,143 contacts between law enforcement and students in the 2018-2019 academic year, 422 white students received a summons, compared with 453 Hispanic students, 133 black students and 98 students of other race or ethnicity.
A total of 36 local students — more white students than minorities — were arrested that school year, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education.
Statewide, of the 6,688 students who had contact with law enforcement in 2018-2019, 52% were white, 37% Hispanic, 10% black and 1% other.
Inequities involving racial backgrounds should be addressed through more robust training, said Payne, who is a trainer for the National Association of School Resource Officers. Efforts to build relationships, shift cultures in schools and develop equitable strategies for handling students offenders have been ongoing for years, she said.
Sokolik said people sometimes misunderstand what school resource officers do. Law enforcement is just one part of the job, he said.
“There’s a lot more restorative justice put on our kids than criminal justice,” he said. “They (resource officers) find ways to take care of the issues while keeping them out of the juvenile justice system.”
Resource officers work to keep the school environment safe, can co-teach classes on subjects such as internet safety, and become mentors and role models, Sokolik said.
The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office has 11 assigned school resource officers who cover 60 unincorporated schools.
“At this time there is no indication that the schools want to discontinue the SRO program,” department spokeswoman Sgt. Deborah Mynatt said in an email.
In addition to helping prevent and responding to school-based crimes, resource officers develop positive relationships with students and often assist with personal issues such as substance abuse, domestic violence, bullying and other life stressors, she said.
“The relationship built with students enable the SROs to identify at-risk students and to help them in a variety of ways,” Mynatt said.
School resource officers are vital to schools, said Payne, who founded the Safe2Tell tip line and now works as director of safety and security for Cheyenne Mountain School District 12.
“They spend a lot of time training to become part of the school team and understand school violence, early indicators and root causes,” she said.
Resource officers also work as liaisons between police departments and schools. Without that, having officers respond to school incidents who aren’t familiar with or instructed on how to deal with students can defeat the purpose of those who oppose SROs in schools, Payne said.
“SROs become experts in the subject matter of adolescents and are well equipped to know how to handle situations at schools,” she said. “They work with suicide prevention and violence prevention, and have saved so many lives. Now with the pandemic, their role is even more important to reopening safely."