Role of police redefined in Denver schools

Brandon Garcia found himself getting in trouble a lot as a freshman at Denver’s North High School. He could easily be persuaded to ditch school or get into fights.

Denver Police Chief Robert White talks about a new intergovernmental agreement outlining the role of school resource officers at Denver schools.

It wasn’t a surprise when he found himself in the principal’s office five years ago facing a lengthy suspension and possible criminal charge. He pondered never returning to school.

“I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be at school – that they didn’t want me there,” he said.

But his basketball coach intervened, asking if there was another way to handle Garcia’s lapses in judgment. There was, and it was called restorative justice. His suspension was shortened, and he did community service projects around the school and even came face to face with the guy he fought to get to the root of the disagreement.

Brandon Garcia

Today, Garcia sees this as a pivotal moment. He graduated from high school, he works as a sales rep for Cricket and he’s scheduled to start classes at the Community College of Denver this summer. He wants to go into real estate or finance.

It’s stories like this that Denver Public Schools and the Denver Police Department are hoping to replicate through a revised intergovernmental agreement signed Tuesday at North High School that clearly articulates the role of school resource officers, often referred to as “SROs.”

The document, touted by its backers as the nation’s most comprehensive policy governing school safety and discipline, replaces one crafted and signed in 2004. While many SROs in Denver are already doing what the agreement calls for, backers say it formalizes the relationship between police and schools for years to come regardless of changes in leadership and represents a significant shift away from the zero tolerance discipline policies of a decade ago.

The revised agreement “simply now holds everyone accountable to the future,” said Steven Teske, a juvenile court judge from Georgia and expert on school discipline policies. “The superintendent and police chief are not going to be here forever.”

Key changes to intergovernmental agreement

The revised document calls for school resource officers to:

  • Differentiate between disciplinary and criminal issues and respond appropriately;
  • De-escalate school-based incidents whenever possible;
  • Understand that DPS has adopted a discipline policy that emphasizes the use of restorative justice approaches to address behaviors and is designed to minimize the use of law enforcement interventions.

The document also has new protections for parents and students. They include:

  • Notification of parents as soon as possible when students are ticketed or arrested;
  • Notification of principals within a reasonable time when a student is ticketed or arrested;
  • Questioning of students in a manner that has the least impact on a student’s education;
  • Notification of SROs when students have disabilities or individualized education plans so that accommodations can be made if necessary.

The document also requires police stationed at Denver schools to meet with community members at least once a semester and to participate in meetings with school administrators when requested.

Finally, the new agreement requires training of SROs and school administrators on how best to deal with youth discipline problems – strategies that are also outlined in Senate Bill 12-046, the Smart School Discipline bill. Those training issues include child and adolescent development and psychology, age-appropriate responses, cultural competence, restorative justice techniques, special accommodations for disabled students and the creation of safe environments for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

The tweaks to the agreement, the $1.5 million annual cost of which is shared by the city and school district, came after many years of discussions between district leaders and youth affiliated with Padres & Jovenes Unidos, a community organization that works for educational excellence, racial justice for youth, immigrant rights and quality healthcare. One of the organization’s key goals is to end the school-to-jail track.

Padres student leader Tori Ortiz said she watched friends’ lives unravel when they were ticketed by police for incidents that could have been handled differently.

“Day after day students were criminalized and targeted as suspects … for a minor offense that should have been handled by counselors and principals,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz said she watched as her peers were pushed out of school and “robbed of their potential in a split second.”

“Ticketing students is the wrong approach to solve an issue,” Ortiz said, adding that a suspension simply amounted to a week of video games, cartoons, sleeping in or taking a “stroll in the streets” for students.

National expert lauds Denver’s approach

Teske, the juvenile court judge who was invited to attend Tuesday’s signing, said Denver stands out from other cities because district and police leaders are willing to work with students.

“What happened here – grassroots efforts led by students and parents – combined with the mindful leadership of the school superintendent and chief of police, that is unique,” Teske said.

Student leaders with Padres & Jovenes Unidos attend a news conference Tuesday on the new intergovernmental agreement outlining the role of resource officers in Denver schools.

Teske said when he took the bench in 1999 his court was inundated with 1,400 mostly misdemeanor cases stemming from fights or disorderly conduct from the public school system. After the community tackled the issue and embraced restorative justice, the number of referrals plummeted to 49.

“Something drastic needed to be done,” Teske said. “We decided to no longer arrest kids on minor offenses. As of today, referrals have plummeted by 83 percent and graduation rates have increased 24 percent.”

“Kids are neurologically wired to do stupid things,” Teske said. “When young people are under neurological construction, it is important we place them in  safe and positive places and not push them out of the safe and positive places.”

Teske said under the new system, school resource officers become role models for kids, building positive relationships that may also help them solve more serious crimes on the street.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said expulsions have dipped since the district started changing its discipline policies.

“The goals of (the agreement) are very simple and at the same time very profound,” Boasberg said. “We want to make sure our schools continue to be safe places to learn, safe places for our community to grow. We want to  make sure we keep our kids in school.”

Superintendent Tom Boasberg and Denver Police Chief Robert White shake hands after signing a revised intergovernmental agreement Tuesday.

District officials said expulsions in the district last year dropped 60 percent from the past two years. However, students who face harsh penalties for breaking school rules are disproportionately African-American students, according to a report presented to the Denver school board in September.

There were 185 expulsions in 2009-2010 compared to 63 last year. The number of out-of-school suspensions has declined from 9,558 to 7,525 in 2009-2010 to last year.

“We are on pace this year to have our suspensions be one half of what they were three years ago,” said Boasberg, adding that dropout rates in the district have dropped 50 percent over the past six years as well.

Denver police Chief Robert White encouraged the youth affiliated with Padres to continue working with all students so they understood the district’s goals and approaches toward restorative justice.

“(The agreement) makes the lines very clear,” White said. “We have no desire to be disciplinarians. That is a parent’s job and a school’s job. Our job is deal with serious violations of the law.”

White added, “We should do everything we can to keep young people from getting a criminal record.”

“This is going to help us.”

Location of Denver’s 17 school resource officers

  • Abraham Lincoln High School
  • Bruce Randolph 6-12 School
  • CEC Middle College
  • Contemporary Learning Academy
  • East High School
  • George Washington High School
  • John F Kennedy High School
  • Kepner Middle School
  • Lake International School
  • Manual High School
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., Early College
  • Montbello High School Campus
  • North High School
  • Skinner Middle School
  • South High School
  • Thomas Jefferson High School
  • West High School Campus

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.