SRO 101

10 questions about school resource officers in Colorado, answered

School Resource Officer Stacey Collis of the Lakewood Police Department has worked at Green Mountain High School for past 18 years. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Colorado lawmakers have responded to demands to make schools safer with a plan to spend $35 million on school security, including school resource officers. Proponents of this idea see it as basic common sense that having armed law enforcement on school grounds makes them safer – but opponents think they don’t make schools safer, especially for the students who end up arrested or ticketed for what would have been a school discipline matter a generation ago.

A decision by the bipartisan Joint Budget Committee to allocate the money to training for officers and other school employees – and make explicit that it cannot be used to hire additional officers – alleviates one of the concerns opponents had. They’ll be working to nudge more of this money toward approaches they support, like training in restorative justice.

As we wrote about this debate, we realized we had some questions. Like, what exactly is a school resource officer? Are they any different from regular police officers? To whom are they accountable? And why are they controversial?

To answer some of these questions, we talked to Stacey Collis, president of the Colorado Association of School Resource Officers and a longtime officer at Green Mountain High School in Jeffco Public Schools, and Corrine Rivera-Fowler, director of policy and civic engagement for Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, which opposes the expansion of school resource officers. Here’s what we learned.

Is a school resource officer a police officer?

Yes. They’re sworn officers who are employed by law enforcement agencies and go through the same certification process as other police officers. Collis does make a distinction between the way school resources officers approach the law-enforcement aspect of their job and the way cops on the street would. Campus officers usually have special training and choose to work in schools.

“Yes, we are law enforcement, and sometimes we have to react with tickets or arrests, but we try to deal with things at the lowest level that we can because students are in that learning curve,” he said. As a resource officer, Collis said he’s more likely to call a student’s parents or refer them to a restorative justice program than to make an arrest.

Rivera-Fowler said the fact that officers have discretion doesn’t make them any less an arm of law enforcement.

“They are cops,” she said. “They can choose to give you a warning or write you a ticket or handcuff you, just like any police officer.”

Some districts also employ campus security guards who are not police officers.

Are school resource officers armed?

Yes. Collis said some districts have occasionally had discussions about having unarmed resource officers – and some schools use unarmed security personnel – but he has a hard time imagining working without a gun.

“God forbid, if something does happen, they have that right there to deal with that situation, and hopefully deal with it effectively,” he said.

Do school resource officers work for the school district or the law enforcement agency?

School resource officers work for the law enforcement agency, and their chain of command runs through that agency. They are not under the authority of a building principal, and Collis describes himself “on equal footing” with school leadership.

“I don’t take orders from them, and they wouldn’t try to do that,” he said. “I don’t do school discipline. That’s not for me. I handle situations that may become criminal.”

That’s one of the problems, from Rivera-Fowler’s perspective. There are lots of gray areas between criminal and disciplinary matters, and by having resource officers, schools lose the ability to make their own decisions.

Intergovernmental agreements between police or sheriff’s departments and school districts lay out the responsibilities of each party, and in Denver, Padres & Jóvenes gets involved in negotiating this contract in an effort to more narrowly define the role of police officers in schools.

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district, also has its own Department of Safety patrol officers, in addition to 16 school resource officers from the Denver Police Department.

Who decides if a problem should be handled as a disciplinary matter or a criminal matter?

Charges are ultimately decided by prosecutors, but on the ground, the officer uses his or her judgment about which cases to treat as criminal.

Why does this matter?

This question is at the heart of the debate over school resource officers. Advocacy groups like Padres & Jóvenes Unidos say the vast majority of incidents at schools can and should be handled as disciplinary matters. Nearly any fight that turns physical can technically be charged as assault, as can possession of small amounts of drugs, trespassing, and so on, but going that route gets students involved with the criminal justice system – and for some students, particularly those of color, that can turn into a cycle that derails their life.

At the same time, school resource officers have been criticized for taking a light touch at the expense of victims. In Fox 31’s recent investigation of the Cherry Creek school district’s handling of sexual assault complaints, reporters obtained a previously confidential incident report in which a school resource officer wrote: “I issued (redacted) a written warning for sexual assault and explained to him about his behavior and how it could get him into future trouble. I explained that if a girl or woman says stop or no, it means exactly that. I advised him that (redacted) did not want him charged as they used to be friends, but if she had, it would have been serious.”

Collis said he’s seen fights that involve weapons and serious bodily injury, and sometimes criminal charges are appropriate. He stressed that juvenile offenders almost always get community service or are ordered to treatment, like anger management or substance abuse treatment. Charges can be expunged if they follow the rules.

But a failure to show up in court can turn into an arrest warrant, which is one reason advocacy groups argue for handling more problems within the school.

“Any time you expose a young person to the criminal justice, you’re exposing them to various harms that impact their future,” Rivera-Fowler said. “Students don’t understand the weight of that ticket and that order to appear in court. They may not even inform their parents, or their parents may be busy and forget. They do get a warrant out for their arrest.”

For students who are undocumented or in mixed-status families, that harm can extend all the way to deportation. And charges, once filed, can take on a life of their own.

In 2016, a 14-year-old student at Denver’s Northfield High was dragged from the bathroom, handcuffed, and ultimately charged with resisting arrest because she wore a headband that the principal said violated the dress code and didn’t immediately take it off. The officer and the principal in question were fired, but charges against the student weren’t dropped until months later, after audio emerged of the officer saying the student did not resist arrest.

Why do schools need their own police officers?

Groups like Padres & Jóvenes would argue that they don’t. Rivera-Fowler said having police in schools introduces tension and anxiety that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Even the most law-abiding citizen gets nervous when a police car is driving behind them, she said, and students in hallways are no different.

Collis sees high schools as the equivalent of small cities.

“That small city is going to have the law enforcement issues that any small city does,” he said. “You’re dealing with traffic, you’re dealing with drugs, you’re dealing with fights, you’re dealing with sex assaults. You’re dealing with everything. And just like an officer in a small town needs to understand, you live there. There are things you have to bend on, and you need to know the right approach.”

Collis argues there’s a benefit to having an officer on site who knows the students.

“If you do have a serious situation and you call an officer, will they know how to deal with that?” he asks. “Will they deal with it appropriately or will they deal with it like they would on the street, without the insight that comes from knowing the kids?”

How are school resource officers trained?

The agency that certifies police officers in Colorado requires that every department have at least one officer that goes through a special 40-hour training to work in schools, and Collis said most of the state’s more than 200 school resource officers have gone through that training. Many also have additional training focused on issues like suicide risk assessment, understanding mental health issues, and single-officer response to violent incidents.

Padres & Jóvenes would like to see officers have training in restorative justice practices.

What do school resource officers do all day?

How the officer fills his or her time varies from school to school, but Collis said it’s a busy job. In addition to his law enforcement duties, he teaches classes on things like distracted driving and healthy relationships. Or he might bring an officer with expertise in accident investigation to talk to a math class. And all day long, there’s a string of students, teachers, and administrators who want to talk, he said. A student might want to vent about a classmate she wants to fight, or a teacher might want to touch base about a student who seems troubled. 

Are there racial disparities in how school resource officers handle infractions?

An analysis of police referrals during the 2015-16 school year by Padres & Jóvenes Unidos didn’t break out who was getting ticketed or arrested by race and ethnicity, but it did find that schools and districts with a high percentage of students of color had much higher rates of tickets and arrests than majority-white schools. Statewide, 1,245 students were arrested that school year and 5,482 received tickets.

“There is always more enforcement happening in schools of color,” Rivera-Fowler said. “We have seen that since the expansion of school resource officers.”

Can school resource officers stop school shootings?

School resource officers have confronted shooters in schools, as in the 2013 Arapahoe High School shooting and in the March shooting in a Maryland high school. It’s certainly possible that their response prevented more deaths, but in both cases, the shooters managed to kill fellow students before turning their guns on themselves.

Padres & Jóvenes argues that real school safety comes from investing in social workers and counselors and promoting restorative justice. If the legislature is going to put more money into school safety, they want it used to better identify troubled students and get them help early.

Hiring more school resource officers “does nothing to prevent a shooting or make a school safer, from our point of view and from the history of school shootings,” Rivera-Fowler said. “We’re wondering why we aren’t using these funds to ensure our students are actually safer and making sure our students are getting the mental health supports that they need.”

Collis sees school resource officers as one piece of a bigger picture that includes better building security but also cultural changes within school communities, so that parents are more involved and students are more likely to speak up when something is wrong.

Still walking

Colorado teachers plan more walkouts, and Jeffco canceled classes one day next week

Colorado teachers march around the state Capitol Monday, April 16, to call for more school funding and to protect their retirement benefits. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Teachers from Colorado’s two largest school districts are planning back-to-back walkouts next week to call for more funding for education – and they could be joined by other districts.

Jeffco Public Schools canceled classes for April 26, next Thursday, after many teachers there said they plan to go to the Capitol, while the union representing Denver classroom teachers said they plan to walk out midday April 27, next Friday, to rally at the Capitol early in the afternoon.

In a press release, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association said Denver teachers would be leading a statewide walkout. Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director, said he’s not sure yet how many other districts will be represented.

The announcements come after hundreds of teachers marched at the Capitol during a day of action Monday to protect their retirement benefits and call for more school funding. Enough teachers left the suburban Englewood district that classes were canceled there.

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school funding and teacher pay, though there is considerable variation around the state. A recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries, and nearly half the state’s districts are now on four-day weeks. The 2018-19 budget takes a big step toward restoring money cut during the Great Recession, but the state is still holding back $672 million from what it would have spent on K-12 education if it complied with constitutional requirements to increase per-pupil spending at least by inflation each year.

The wave of teacher activism reflects a national movement that has seen strikes, walkouts, and marches in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky. Unlike other states, lawmakers here can’t raise taxes to send more money to schools or approve teacher raises on their own. Voters would need to approve more money, and local school boards would need to increase salaries.

Teachers interviewed at Monday’s march said they recognize the fiscal constraints in Colorado, but they’re also inspired by the actions of their colleagues in more conservative states.

Many teachers also said they fear that reductions in retirement benefits could lead to an exodus of younger teachers, further squeezing a profession that struggles to recruit new workers and suffers from high turnover.

A House committee made changes to a pension overhaul this week that removed the provisions teachers found most objectionable, like raising the retirement age and making teachers pay more out of their paychecks, but the final form of the bill still needs to be hashed out between Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate.

Jason Glass, superintendent of the 85,000-student Jefferson County district, sent an email to parents Tuesday that said classes would be canceled next week due to a “labor shortage.” Teachers who miss school are required to use their allowed leave time.

Glass called the level of education funding in Colorado “problematic.”

“Public education staff, parents, and other supporters have become increasingly vocal in their advocacy for increased funding for our K-12 public schools and the stabilization” of the state pension plan, he wrote. “There is a belief among these groups that years of low funding is having a significant impact on our ability to attract quality candidates into the teaching profession, and is impeding the ability to effectively deliver the high level of educational experience our students deserve.”

Glass apologized for the “inconvenience” to families and reminded parents that April 26 is also “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.”

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district with 92,000 students, announced late Tuesday that there would be early dismissal April 27, with more details to come.

“Officials across the country and specifically lawmakers in the statehouse must finally recognize that a quality education cannot be provided on the cheap.” Denver union president Henry Roman said in a press release about the walkout. “If we want Colorado’s current economic prosperity to continue, we need to realize the importance of strong schools.”

Advocates are trying to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for education on the November ballot. Voters have twice rejected similar measures in recent years.


With school finance act, Colorado lawmakers try to pass the hot potato of teacher pay to local districts

State Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, calls for more money for education during a rally with teachers and fellow Democratic members of the House Education Committee at the Capitol Monday, April 16. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

A school finance act that puts more money into K-12 education than Colorado has spent at any point since the Great Recession passed a key House committee Monday with easy bipartisan support.

Democratic lawmakers on the House Education Committee urged local school boards to turn this money into teacher raises – and Colorado voters to provide even more funds next year.

The hearing on the school finance act occurred as hundreds of teachers descended on the Capitol as part of a day of action to ask for more school funding and protections for retirement benefits. Before the hearing started, Democratic committee members met with teachers in the foyer of the Capitol and joined them in chants of “not enough” and “no more B.S.,” a reference to the state’s budget stabilization or “negative” factor. That’s the difference between what Colorado spends on schools and what it’s constitutionally required to allocate, based on inflation and numbers of students.

A group of education advocates hopes to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for schools on the November ballot. Colorado voters have twice before rejected tax increases for education, most recently in 2013.

“We need to support our teachers, and we need to support our schools, and we need you to ensure not only that we pass the bills that we are bringing this session, but that we unite this November to ensure our kids are put first in Colorado,” said state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, the Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee.

The school finance act, which provides more detail on the education funding already set aside in the 2018-19 budget, calls for a little more than $7 billion in total program spending in 2018-19, a 6.95 percent increase from this year. The state portion is $4.5 billion, a 10 percent increase from this year; local districts would provide $2.5 billion, a 1.4 percent increase.

In addition to mandated budget increases, the bill adds $150 million more for education. That leaves the negative factor at $672 million, the smallest it has been since this budget maneuver was created during the Great Recession.

Average per-pupil spending for 2018-19 will be around $8,137, a $475 increase from this year.

During the hearing, state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, asked Matt Cook of the Colorado Association of School Boards why teacher raises seem to come last when districts get more money, and state Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, asked if the legislature needs to have more oversight of how districts spend state money. Colorado does not have a statewide teacher salary schedule, and districts have a lot of discretion on how they set their budgets.

“The people on the ground are hurting,” Garnett said. “They can’t meet their basic needs. And I want to help them, but it’s really your members who hold the key to their solution.”

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school spending and teacher pay, and a recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries.

Cook said school boards are acutely aware of how low pay hurts their ability to hire and keep teachers. The availability of more money from the state will be a factor in union negotiations currently underway in districts around the state, he said.

But districts have to balance teacher pay with a wide range of needs, including services for students learning English and students with disabilities that are not funded by the state at their full cost, he said.

“We recognize that a qualified, highly motivated teacher in the classroom is a major part of a child’s education,” Cook said. “We’re doing the best we can. Nobody wants to not pay teachers.”

School district representatives told the committee that a promising state budget forecast is already turning into more services for students. An official from the Adams 12 Five Star district said the district had increased interventions for students with dyslexia in anticipation of more state money, and a superintendent from the rural Hanover district said $30 million in extra funding for rural schools – first allocated last year and now extended for a second year – allowed him to hire a second science teacher and a school counselor.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, the Republican co-sponsor of the school finance act and a former district superintendent, said he could just as easily ask lawmakers why the entire $1.3 billion budget surplus isn’t going to schools.

“I won’t ask you to answer that because you already know the answer,” he said. “That’s the same situation that a school district finds itself in.”

The school finance act also:

  • Sends an extra $30 million to rural schools,
  • Creates 1,000 new spots for children with certain risk factors in publicly funded preschool and kindergarten,
  • Allocates money for English language learners based on the actual number of students at various levels of need, rather than dividing it based on a formula,
  • Calls for any general fund surplus at the end of this budget year to go into education next year,
  • Requires that the negative factor for 2019-20 not be any larger than it is in 2018-19.

The school finance act still needs to pass the full House before it goes to the Republican-controlled Senate.