In Aurora, a bigger conversation about police in schools

Russell Patton, hand raised high, waits to be called on during Ines Barcenas’ sixth grade math class in March 2018 at East Middle School in Aurora.
A student waits to be called on during sixth grade math class in March 2018 at East Middle School in Aurora. (Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

As school districts around the country grapple with the role of officers in schools, Aurora Public Schools is renegotiating an agreement with a police department that has been the subject of intense public scrutiny.

District officials say they aren’t expecting much to change in the agreement, but some students and parents say it’s time to reconsider whether police belong in schools at all.

“You have the gun and all of that, the taser,” said Ashley Agyepong, a 16-year-old Aurora student, at a recent youth forum. “You see what’s happening on the TV and you never think of it, but then it hits you. Reality sets in. It can happen here.”

As protests roiled the country after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, demonstrators in Colorado renewed calls for justice for Elijah McClain, a young man who died after Aurora police restrained him and paramedics injected him with ketamine, a sedative. 

Throughout the summer, police clashed with protesters, in one case breaking up a vigil by violinists for McClain, and new incidents of police overreach raised questions about the department’s culture.

In one incident in August, police approached a Black family in their vehicle in a parking lot after the plates were incorrectly flagged as stolen and ordered the mother and children to lie on the ground at gunpoint. Some were handcuffed. The youngest child was 6.

Neighboring Denver adopted a plan early in June to remove school resource officers, who are armed and sworn police officers, from its high schools, but the push hasn’t gained much traction in suburban communities. 

Board members in Aurora made clear they would not “be followers,” and expressed less concern about their situation, which they said is different than Denver’s.

In an open letter to the community in June, Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn argued that the phrase “defund the police” should not be seen as radical or scary. He claimed that Aurora had already done this, because it increased resources for student mental health and training for teachers and does not pay the officers stationed at its high schools. The police department pays school officers’ salaries.

Munn said police in schools should be “the subject of robust debate” but did not take a position.

Now, the debate is resurfacing. While most Aurora students are learning remotely for now, eventually they’ll be back in schools and issues of racial justice and equity remain on their minds.

Aurora students held a virtual town hall last month where they expressed an interest in removing school resource officers.

Parents have asked questions, including Evette Mitchell, the parent of a student who last year was tackled in a school hallway by campus security officers, prompting calls in the district to rethink school security.

“Parents out here in Aurora are scared of the police,” said Mitchell, a mother of two Aurora students. “Schools are not listening to us.”

Some board members who have voiced support for the police officers in schools now have questions.

“I’d like to hear more specific examples from students,” said board President Kayla Armstrong-Romero. “There are changes that need to be made, but I think there’s a unique opportunity in Aurora.”

The Aurora school district serves almost 40,000 students, a majority of whom are students of color. It is considered one of the most diverse districts in the state. Aurora has two school resource officers at each of five comprehensive high schools, in addition to 13 district-employed campus safety officers.

Munn has touted Aurora’s relationship with its police department as a success and model for other districts. He said he’s seen a dramatic decline since 2014 in major disciplinary incidents; a significant increase in students, parents and staff reporting feelings of safety and support; and an overall increase in academic performance.

“Aurora Public Schools has been committed to this work for several years and it has led to safer schools and improved educational outcomes for students,” Munn wrote.

But a Chalkbeat analysis of data shows that while Aurora schools have made strides in reducing the total number of students referred to law enforcement and ticketed or arrested, Aurora Black students are far more likely to face any kind of discipline, including tickets and arrests.

District numbers show that in 2011-12 it recorded 575 referrals to law enforcement. The number declined to 186 referrals in 2018-19, but last school year increased to 220,  even though students switched to virtual learning in mid-March.

In 2018-19, Black students made up about 29% of all referrals to law enforcement, even though they were about 18% of the student body. 

That inequity declined from previous years, but remains a large gap. 

Numbers show that Aurora’s inequities are smaller than Denver’s, but are still about three times average state numbers. 

In Aurora, Hispanic students are underrepresented in the proportion of students disciplined. Of all racial categories, Black students are the only students significantly overrepresented in discipline and referrals to law enforcement.

And as far as feeling safe, state teacher surveys show that more Aurora teachers feel good about their buildings than in previous years, but it’s a smaller percentage than teachers statewide. 

For instance, when asked this year whether their school is a safe place for students to learn, 79% of Aurora teachers agreed. Statewide, 90% of teachers agreed.

The district also has reported that its own surveys of students and families show improvements in culture, though the district in 2018 identified a safe and respectful climate as a challenge based on student responses.

Interaction with police matters because research shows that after students enter the criminal justice system, they are less likely to succeed in school. Black students in particular are also more likely to face harsher sentences in courts when compared with peers of other races. Some advocates for reforming school security also say discipline systems matter because schools should be places that encourage students to learn from their mistakes, rather than finding ways to punish them.

Districtwide, Aurora students have made enough academic improvements to be removed from the state’s watchlist, but Aurora Central High School, one school with a high concentration of students living in poverty and students of color, has struggled to improve significantly.

Vinnie Cervantes, an organizing director for the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response, an organization looking for alternative ways to address safety issues, said that police in schools present challenges in all districts.

“Aurora just doesn’t get the attention that other places have,” Cervantes said. “We need more focus on places outside of Denver.

His organization is working with the Aurora City Council to create alternative ways to respond to some emergency calls. 

In Denver, Cervantes said, several organizations worked with the community for more than 10 years to push for changes. With those resources, advocates are able to uplift stories of students and families that are impacted, but that hasn’t reached Aurora yet.

Mitchell said as a parent she believes families have been silent on policing issues because they feel like they aren’t listened to.

“They take their time and they push for things that they want to improve in Denver, but Aurora is not like that,” Mitchell said. “Here, they’re like OK, the police ain’t going to listen to you anyway. That’s the problem. Our voices need to be heard.”

Many of the students who participated in the virtual town hall organized by the nonprofit YAASPA last month said that police officers aren’t establishing a lot of relationships with students and might not be worth having in schools if they incite fear in students.

“If we’re not even interacting with them, there’s no relationship to establish,” said Jason Hoang, a junior in Aurora schools. “Students feel in danger.”

Aurora board member Kevin Cox has said his thinking on school policing has evolved.

“I’m not satisfied any more,” Cox said, but added he wants to give Aurora’s new police chief, hired in August, a chance.

Julie Bañuelos, an activist and former teacher, said that some Aurora teachers of color worry that police in schools destroy the bonds teachers build with students.

“It behoves the Aurora board to think of the ramifications and the impact on the psyche of students by having police there in the buildings and instead really invest in whole child systems,” Bañuelos said.

Aurora leaders said they already made investments in mental health, with money from a 2018 tax increase. 

With grant money, the district has also trained teachers to confront their own racial bias and roll out restorative justice models. Most of those efforts have not been districtwide.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teachers union, said that the association has an interest in the issue.

“It is a conversation that needs to happen,” Wilcox said. “Trying to deal with all of the issues around remote learning has taken away our ability to address this concern. We are trying to have that conversation.”

Munn said that ideally, the district first must agree on a set of principles to guide the work and the agreement with police.

But, he said, it’s too early to figure out what support students will need when they return to school buildings.

Wilcox wants to ensure teachers and the community are involved.

Board member Armstrong-Romero said that in Aurora the conversation should also include broader racial justice issues, such as hiring and training practices in the police departments, and the lack of diversity among teachers.

“It’s a bigger conversation,” she said. “There are so many issues we need to address as a society.”

Correction: The story has been updated to reflect that Denver Alliance for Street Health Response is working with Aurora City Council, not the Police Department on alternative responses to emergency calls.

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