Denver Public Schools has lacked a safety chief for 6 months amid rising gun violence

A bunch of officials in suits and emergency personnel in uniform stand around outside a school in Denver.
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Alex Marrero, far left, stands outside East High School with former safety chief Mike Eaton, members of the Denver Police Department, and communications staff after a hoax call about an active shooter in September. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

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Denver Public Schools has lacked a safety chief for six months as the district grapples with rising youth gun violence and a shooting inside its largest high school.

The district attributed a delay in filling the position to several factors, including media coverage of the school board, whose infighting has been widely reported, and a desire to find a candidate who understands both safety and students’ social and emotional needs, according to a district document obtained by Chalkbeat.

The former chief of the DPS climate and safety department, Mike Eaton, left the district in November after more than a decade. The department has other vacancies as well. The interim safety chief, Robert Grossaint, is out on medical leave, according to a district spokesperson. And one of two deputy chiefs, Melissa Craven, left DPS last month.

The short staffing comes at a time when students, parents, and educators are particularly worried about school safety. Three shootings in and around East High School this school year have heightened those concerns, leading to student protests, the formation of a parent advocacy group, calls for the school board to resign, the reintroduction of school police officers, and the hastened development of a long-term safety plan for the entire district. 

Two East High students died in shootings this year. Sixteen-year-old Luis Garcia was killed while sitting in his car outside the school in February, a crime that remains unsolved. And Austin Lyle, 17, took his own life in March after shooting and wounding two East High deans.

But Trena Marsal, the district’s chief of operations, said in an interview that despite the vacancies in the DPS safety department, Denver’s public schools are safe. Other staff members have been stepping in to fill the empty roles, she said.

“I want to make sure people understand that our buildings are safe,” Marsal said. “We have highly trained experts in the field of safety that are in place and continue to be in place.”

The district’s safety chief is responsible for setting a long-term vision for safety in DPS, overseeing investigations, leading the response to emergencies, coordinating with law enforcement, and other duties, according to the job listing.

Safety chief role is ‘a key player’

The vacancy came up at a school board meeting last month when Superintendent Alex Marrero was giving a brief update on the long-term safety plan the board directed him to develop in the wake of the March shooting at East.

Board member Michelle Quattlebaum said to Marrero: “A pressing question for me is centered around: You’re doing all of this work, and you’re missing a key player.”

Marrero promised to explain why it’s been difficult to hire a new safety chief, but he declined to do it publicly. “It’s best for you all to receive it in memo form,” he said to the board.

When Chalkbeat filed an open records request for that memo or any documents that explain the hiring difficulty, the district provided a two-page document that appears to have been last updated in late March.

It says the chief job was posted on Sept. 28, and 121 people had applied as of March 20. Twelve candidates were “brought forward,” the unsigned document says.

But five candidates withdrew and seven were eliminated after interviews. One candidate who made it to the second round of interviews backed out “after a student death in his current district” outside of Colorado, the document says.

“While we’ve interviewed numerous people for the role, we’ve had trouble finding a candidate that has both the safety and security chops in addition to a student-centric mindset — and in particular a person who understands the needs of communities and students of color,” the document says.

It notes that the district hasn’t had a shortage of candidates, but rather “a shortage of qualified candidates (based on both experience and mindset).”

About three-quarters of DPS students are students of color. The district’s approach to safety and discipline leans toward keeping students in school rather than suspending or expelling them — a philosophy that has come under scrutiny since the March shooting at East.

The document also says the salary DPS was offering “was initially a concern for many candidates,” but that a salary increase “has gotten us much closer.” The job posting currently lists the salary range as between $123,711 and $143,466.

Board turmoil is a concern for some candidates

Media coverage of the school board has also complicated the hiring process, the document says. The board has been plagued by infighting and power struggles for a year. Many media outlets have covered the turmoil, and newspaper editorials have decried the dysfunction.

“Some candidates researched the district, in particular the Board of Education, and declined to pursue the opportunity,” the document says. “In two specific cases, desired candidates withdrew applications due to the Board media coverage.”

Bill Good, a spokesperson for the board, said Tuesday that the board had no comment.

But at the meeting last month, Quattlebaum implored her fellow members to “focus on what’s important.” At that same meeting, President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán had tried to get the board to discuss accusations of policy violations she’d levied against Vice President Auon’tai Anderson. But the other board members refused.

“Our community expects us to lead, not to be wrapped up in a title that we all hold,” Quattlebaum said. “And leading is staying focused on the task at hand.”

Marsal said the search for a new chief continues, and that DPS has hired two search firms to help find candidates. She said the district hopes to announce a hire in the next several weeks.

“We want someone aligned with DPS’s core values around students,” Marsal said. “We want a balanced leader — a leader that understands the needs of emergency management and safety, but also understands the needs of our students.

“We are a district. We’re here to educate kids. We have to make sure we’re creating safe learning spaces that are cognizant of all students.”

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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