Black students in Denver are much more likely to be ticketed or arrested at school

The Denver school board is set to vote Thursday on a resolution that would remove police from schools.

Sanaa Smith-Shabazz, 8, sits between her parents Ibn Shabazz, left, and Sidney Smith-Shabazz during a gathering at Civic Center Park in Denver on Thursday, June 4, 2020.
Sanaa Smith-Shabazz, 8, sits between her parents Ibn Shabazz, left, and Sidney Smith-Shabazz during a gathering at Civic Center Park in Denver on June 4. (Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post)

As Denver school board members make their case for removing police from schools, elected officials and advocates are pointing to strong data that shows Denver’s Black students are disproportionately funneled into the criminal justice system through tickets and arrests at school.

Removing police would lessen the likelihood that students of color end up with a criminal record, supporters say. Equally important, they say, is ensuring students of color feel safe at school given the long history of police brutality against Black men and women.

“What we are trying to address is to help our students not have to continue to internalize that they need to be closely monitored by law enforcement,” said school board Vice President Jennifer Bacon — and “that in an instant, their life may not matter.” 

Bacon and fellow board member Tay Anderson announced Friday their plans to propose a resolution that would end Denver Public Schools’ contract with the Denver Police Department to provide school resource officers to work on 18 middle and high school campuses. 

The full school board is set to vote Thursday, a quick turnaround that highlights the pressure to address this issue. Denver is verging on a third week of protests sparked by the police killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an unarmed black man. The call to remove police from schools is gaining traction nationwide. Locally, other Colorado districts are considering it, too.

“What we saw over the last couple of weeks was our community being very loud and clear and saying, ‘This is the time in which we need to talk about this,’” Bacon said.

A pattern of disproportionality

The data is clear that Black students have disproportionate contact with police at school.

In the 2018-19 school year, the most recent year for which state data is available, Denver Public Schools reported 657 law enforcement referrals, or instances in which an educator called the police or asked a school resource officer to step in. Nearly a third of those instances, 29%, involved Black students. But only 13% of Denver students are Black.

The same pattern exists for Denver students ticketed or arrested by police at school. One in four tickets or arrests in 2018-19 involved Black students, even though only about one in seven students are Black, according to Colorado Department of Criminal Justice data.

That disproportionality does not exist for white or Hispanic students. White students are far less likely than either Black or Hispanic students to be arrested or ticketed.

News articles from 1998, when Denver won a federal grant to hire police as school resource officers, show some school board members expressed concerns about it, at least initially. Bennie Milliner, the only Black member at the time, said he worried students of color might be singled out by police.

“There’s still that tension that exists and will continue to exist,” he said in 1998.

Twenty-two years later, the resolution now on the table says that “to fulfill its responsibility for undoing the systemic racism that Black children and children of color face,” the school board should direct the superintendent to remove all police from schools by June 4, 2021.

Originally, Anderson and Bacon said they wanted police out of schools by Dec. 31. But the final resolution, posted publicly Wednesday afternoon, calls for reducing the number of school resource officers by 25% by Dec. 31, which would eliminate at least four officers.

The resolution also directs the superintendent to “redefine school safety” in Denver Public Schools and clarify the role that law enforcement should play. It says the superintendent and community members should craft a district policy that ensures 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.”

The resolution has support from a majority of the seven school board members. But opponents argue that without school resource officers, who are specially trained to work with youth, the problems the board hopes to eradicate could get worse.

“You take the school resource officers out of DPS and the schools are still going to call [the police] and they’re going to have somebody responding to the school who then might not have that training,” said Stacey Collis, a retired school resource officer from suburban Lakewood and past president of the Colorado Association of School Resource Officers.

“They’re going to see even greater problems than they think they have with the SRO.”

More tickets at schools with SROs

But state data indicates the presence of a school resource officer might increase the likelihood that a student is ticketed or arrested. In Denver, 52% of the arrests and tickets issued in the four school years from 2015-16 to 2018-19 happened at the fewer than 20 schools with school resource officers, according to data crunched by the advocacy organization Padres & Jóvenes Unidos.

“There are many ways in which our public institutions regularly harm our children and youth, but there may be no better of an example of this ... than over-policing our students,” said Elsa Bañuelos, executive director of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos.

Denver Public Schools already has a progressive inter-governmental agreement with the Denver Police Department that says officers should focus on de-escalating incidents and differentiate between discipline problems and crimes. That disparities persist is evidence that the school resource officer program must end, supporters of the resolution say. 

Police are much more likely to issue a summons than arrest a student. In 2018-19, there were 679 tickets issued to Denver students and 65 arrests, according to state data. Most of the incidents involved marijuana, assault, and fighting or disorderly conduct. But even a ticket can lead to bigger legal issues if a student doesn’t pay their fine or misses a court date.

Denver Public Schools has its own force of more than 100 armed and unarmed campus security officers who don’t issue tickets or make arrests. The resolution would not remove them. 

Chief of Safety Mike Eaton, who oversees the security officers, said he doesn’t think the district should remove school resource officers, who he said work closely with campus security officers. Rather, he said the district should revise what school policing looks like, with particular attention paid to “how do we end systemic racism in that approach.” 

He noted that principals help select school resource officers for their schools, and they have chosen officers who reflect the student body. Eight of the current school resource officers are Hispanic, seven are Black, and two are white, he said. One position is vacant.

About 54% of Denver’s 92,000 students are Hispanic, 13% are Black, and 25% are white.

‘A red light in our minds’

Superintendent Susana Cordova said she has heard from school principals about the positive relationships school resource officers develop with students. 

“They use words like ‘trust,’ ‘connection,’ ‘role model,’” Cordova said Friday at a press conference. That input is important, she said, and the district must balance “the desperate need for safety resources” with students’ mental health needs.

Research on whether school resource officers make schools safer is limited — and mixed. But studies show most Black students do not feel safer in the presence of police. Studies have also found that adding police to schools can lead to declines in high school graduation rates.

Chalkbeat asked several principals at schools with school resource officers to comment for this story. Most did not respond. Amy Bringedahl, principal at Northfield High School, wrote in an email, “All I will say is that our SRO is a strong Black leader/role model in our school. He has relationships with many students and is often their ‘trusted adult’ in the building.”

Veda Miles, an incoming senior at Northfield High, said she and her classmates have a good relationship with the police officer assigned to their school. 

“It shows that not all cops are bad cops,” said Miles, 16. “The one we have is a good cop.”

Still, Miles, who is white, said she’s in favor of ending the school resource officer program. 

“I think it’ll help students of color feel more safe there knowing that the police who tend to mistreat them are not going to be involved with our schools,” said Miles, who helped organize a  student-led Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Denver Sunday.

Hola Maka, who will be a sophomore at Northfield this fall, agrees. Maka, 14, identifies as Pacific Islander. She also helped organize the protest, which drew a crowd of thousands.

“It can be intimidating to walk on campus and see a bunch of cop cars,” Maka said. “It can set off a red light in our minds. … I’d like for my school to be a second home for students. I don’t know if having lots of security and lots of police on campus would help create that same image.”

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