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

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”