Denver Public Schools superintendent brings back SROs after school shooting
Two years after the school board cut ties with Denver PD, officers will be posted following the East High School shooting
By Nicole C. Brambila and Julia Cardi Nico
DENVER — In light of yet another shooting at East High School, the topic of school resource officers from Denver police in schools again moved front and center.
In June 2020, the Denver School Board unanimously voted to cut ties with Denver Police, following the murder of George Floyd.
But Denver Superintendent Alex Marrero told the Denver Gazette's news partners Chalkbeat Colorado Wednesday he will have an armed officer at each of the district's comprehensive high schools — a step that he acknowledges likely violates school board policy.
In a letter Marrero sent to school board members Wednesday, several hours after a student allegedly shot two deans at the school, he wrote that he is "committing to having an armed officer at each comprehensive high school."
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The Board of Education agreed late Wednesday.
"The Board of Education supports the decision of Superintendent Marrero to work in partnership with local law enforcement to create safer learning spaces across Denver Public Schools for the remainder of this school year," according to a statement. "In addition we will continue to work collaboratively with our community partners including law enforcement and our local & state legislature to make our community safer."
After the February shooting death of East High student Luis Garcia, 16, — who was shot in the head while he sitting in his car on the school campus —students appeared before the Denver City Council to ask them to return SROs to Denver Public Schools. On March 4, they marched from the school to the state capitol to rally, remember Garcia and urge legislators to do something about the gun violence in schools.
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Denver Mayor Michael Hancock minced no words late Wednesday.
"Following the shootings at East High School today, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Alex Marrero and I jointly agree that the safety of students and the public require deployment of police officers assigned to the high school for the remainder of the school year," Hancock wrote in an email statement. "I encouraged and strongly support the Superintendent's decision to bring police officers back to DPS high schools, and I've directed Chief (Ron) Thomas to support this effort and deploy our officers accordingly in coordination with the school district."
Students the Denver Gazette talked to Wednesday re-iterated the call for cops in schools.
Jack R., senior: "I think the withdrawal a few years ago was a huge mistake. I knew it would lead to something like this and sure enough, it did."
He said he supports the presence of Denver police in the public schools because "it'll discourage possible criminals from doing what they're doing. It's just an open frenzy if you don't see any security here."
Alex, a junior who was standing with Jack, did not want to give last name: "I don't necessarily agree with it. I think it's more complex. Although our school had a relatively good history with SROs, many other schools did not. It's a district-wide decision that doesn't just affect our school, so I don't really know if I'm for them or not."
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It's been a topic among Denver mayoral candidates on the campaign trail.
Though the issue of bringing school resource officers back into Denver Public Schools did not come up during a March 9 forum itself, the idea is a bit of an elephant in the room. Several of Denver's mayoral candidates support bringing them back, but former State Sen. Mike Johnston said he wants the decision to be up to individual schools. Sen. Chris Hansen agreed, but also highlighted his positive experience with SROs at George Washington High School.
"My experience of that at GW, and through my son, was that there were some really positive attributes to it," he said. "Students felt like they had somebody they could go to and quietly say 'I think there's gonna be a fight after school, this kid's got a knife and we think this kid's got a gun.' You have a chance for that SRO to really help improve safety in schools."
Candidate Andy Rougeot tweeted Wednesday after the shooting: "If the Denver Public Schools Board of Education doesn't act on returning school resource officers to schools, then I will post a police officer outside every high school campus in a position as close to the school as legally allowed as mayor."
A check of other metro Denver area school districts showed widespread use of officers in schools.
Cherry Creek School District has armed SROs and district security coordinators at every high school, spokeswoman Lauren Snell wrote in an email to The Denver Gazette. SROs patrol and support elementary and middle schools.
Exterior doors in elementary and middle schools, too, remain locked at all times, Snell said, requiring anyone entering to be buzzed in and report to the office. The district is also in the process of installing secure vestibules in all elementary and middle schools where visitors can conduct business without being given access to the campus.
In addition to armed officers and additional security measures, Cherry Creek classrooms have a "RedBag" that contains life-saving first aid supplies as well as a communication tool that provides information with a QR code students can scan during a lockdown emergency.
Believed to be the first in the country, Cherry Creek officials have called the RedBag "a game changer" that addresses the physical and psychological safety needs of students and teachers.
The Aurora Joint School District has armed SROs at its five traditional high schools, which can have upwards of 2,000 students, said Corey Christiansen, a district spokesperson. The high schools also have what the district calls "campus safety officers." The smaller magnet high schools do not.
"It's really just about size," Christiansen said of the SRO placement.
In 2014, the Aurora district reworked its relationship with the police department to better identify the responsibility of law enforcement and staff.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S. in 2020, Aurora Superintendent D. Rico Munn talked about this work, memorialized in a Memorandum of Understanding with Aurora Police.
"Senior members of each team met together to discuss and understand which student behaviors should be addressed as educational matters and which were police matters," Munn wrote in 2020.
Some of the visible outcomes of the new approach resulted in removing police vehicles from high school entrances, Munn has said.
The Denver Gazette also reached out to officials at Adams 12 School District, Douglas County School District and JeffCo Public Schools, who did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment on their SRO policies.
It is unknown how many districts across Colorado use SROs to address security issues. The state does not keep data on this, said Jeremy Meyer, a Colorado Department of Education spokesperson.
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- Education & Schools