Denver Public Schools taps former city official to help draft district safety plan

Murphy Robinson speaks in this file photo.
Denver Public Schools announced it will contract with Murphy Robinson, a former city public safety official, to help put together a district safety plan. (AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Pos)

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Denver Public Schools announced Thursday it has tapped the city’s former top public safety official to help draft a new safety plan, a process that has taken on greater urgency after a shooting at East High School exposed divisions on how to protect students

The district has agreed to pay Murphy Robinson and his company, Robinson Corporations Security Group, up to $150,000 to work with district officials who face a school board-imposed deadline of June 30 to deliver the plan, said Trena Marsal, the district’s chief of operations.

Robinson left his role as executive director of the Denver Department of Public Safety in January 2022 after a two-year tenure that at times was tumultuous.

Denver Superintendent Alex Marrero has expressed a desire to involve experts in developing the safety plan, and bringing on Robinson appears to be part of that thinking.

Robinson will assist in “evaluating current building infrastructure, systems, policies and training, as well as the safety culture that exists within the organization,” the district said.

“We have heard our community,” Marsal said. “We have heard our parents, our students, our teachers, our staff. We are responsible for ensuring a safe and welcoming environment for our students.”

Marsal said that while the district feels its buildings are safe, it wants to make sure good practices are in place to make school communities feel comfortable and reduce “fears that are out there.” 

The district has an agreement in principle with Robinson and hopes to finalize a contract by week’s end, Marsal said. 

She said the district did not seek competitive bids for the consulting because of the tight timeline, urgent nature, and need for someone with Robinson’s experience. District policy does not require a bidding process in such circumstances, she said. 

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The district has been under pressure since the March 22 shooting of two deans at East to be more transparent and involve the community in developing the safety plan. 

Marrero has promised that educators, students, and community members will have the chance to weigh in on two draft versions of the plan before a final version is released June 26, a few days ahead of the school board’s deadline. 

The announcement of the agreement with Robinson and his company came hours before a school board meeting in which safety is expected to be a topic.

Upon news of Robinson’s departure as Denver’s safety chief, city officials lauded him for his work in setting up a centrally located COVID testing center and launching an inmate voting program in Denver’s jail, among other accomplishments, The Denver Post reported.

He also was criticized for how Denver police responded to 2020 protests after the murder of George Floyd and for his response to efforts to reform public safety in Denver afterward.

Marsal said that she was not aware of that criticism but that Denver Public Schools has “complete confidence” Robinson is the right person for the role based on his experience and relationships with various law enforcement and other agencies.

As head of public safety, Robinson oversaw the city’s police, fire, and sheriff’s departments. Previously, he worked as executive director of the Department of General Services and chief operating officer for the mayor’s office. 

In 2020, while voting to remove police from schools, the Denver school board also directed the then-superintendent to “redefine school safety” in DPS, clarify the role law enforcement should play, and create a monthly school discipline report that would show the number of students ticketed and arrested, and the number of times police were called to schools.

Some of that work, however, was stymied by the pandemic and turnover in the superintendent role, district officials have said. The pace has picked up after the East shooting, leading the board to give Marrero the deadline for the safety plan. 

In recent years, Denver Public Schools’ approach to school safety has become less punitive, minimizing expulsions and emphasizing positive student/staff relationships.

The debate over the new safety plan will put that philosophy to the test, with some saying the pendulum has swung too far toward tolerance, others fearful of a return to policies that harm marginalized students, and still others searching for a middle ground.

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