More than twice as many Denver students were handcuffed than district originally reported

After a family went public this spring with the story of their 7-year-old son being handcuffed at school, the Denver district reported that school safety officers had handcuffed students 58 times in the past two years. The alarming statistic prompted the school board to ban the use of handcuffs on elementary school students and discourage it with older students.

It turns out that number was actually 155 students. Nearly half of the students were black.

Denver Public Schools released new data Friday that shows the number of students handcuffed in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years was about two and a half times as high as it originally reported.

The district’s explanation for the incorrect number? A database review revealed “that a previous search of these records was incomplete,” spokesman Will Jones wrote in a statement.

“We’ve spent the past three weeks doing a complete and thorough review of all safety incidents,” Jones said. “As an example of the breadth of the review, we searched for reports that had a misspelled or shortened version of the word ‘handcuff’ in the narrative of the report.

“We then read the entire narrative of each of those reports to see if handcuffs were used, and to compile other information around the circumstances — what school, age, and race of student.”

The data shows black students were disproportionately handcuffed. While only 13% of Denver students are black, 45% of the students who were handcuffed in the past two years were black.

Just 21% of the handcuffed students were white, while 27% were Hispanic.

Other data shows that black students in Denver are disproportionately suspended from school, overidentified as needing special education, and under-enrolled in rigorous classes — disparities the school board has pledged to address.

Earlier this year, Chalkbeat asked in a public records request for a breakdown of handcuffed students by age and race, but Denver Public Schools said it did not track that information. Jones said the safety department did “a more thorough review of the instances” to come up with the new data. The second review came in response to a new public records request from another media organization. The new finding was first reported by 9 News.

The district did not provide information on why the 155 students were handcuffed. District policy says school safety officers may use handcuffs when a student is openly displaying a deadly weapon, or when a trained officer has made a referral to law enforcement. But the district also previously confirmed to Chalkbeat that handcuffs are not solely used in response to criminal activity.

“Sometimes students are in significant crisis and act in a manner that is a danger to themselves or others,” district officials said.

The youngest two of the 155 students handcuffed were 7 years old. The oldest was 19 years old.

Students were handcuffed in at least 42 of the district’s more than 200 schools. At least 12 of the 42 schools serve elementary-aged students — and 54 of the 155 students handcuffed were 11 years old or younger, meaning they were likely in elementary school.

The handcuff ban prohibits Denver school safety officers from using handcuffs on elementary students unless a student is openly displaying a deadly weapon. Handcuffs are still allowed in middle and high schools, but the resolution directs officers to use them less often.

The resolution also increases training for school safety officers on topics such as non-violent crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques. It requires the district to review every incident of handcuffing a student, and to publicly report disaggregated data on handcuff use.

“We felt it was important to acknowledge the shortcomings and incorrect information of the initial records search and to provide the correct information,” Jones said.