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What we know about the decision to reintroduce armed officers to DPS schools (Local Tips & Reviews)

Last week’s East High shooting set off a new debate around school safety in Denver.

Some angry parents surrounded Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas as they picked up their children and demanded metal detectors and a return of police in schools. Students rallied at the State Capitol for the second time in March calling for gun reform; teachers joined in the day after.

In response, Superintendent Alex Marrero announced that armed officers would return to some high school campuses through the end of the school year — consequences be damned. But soon after, the school board voiced its support for him. And the next day, the DPS board held an hours-long closed meeting and took a vote.

What the school board’s vote did:

The board decided to suspend the 2020 school board policy to remove the officers, made in the wake of the George Floyd protests and citing data showing the disproportionate policing of Black and Brown students.

Two armed officers, provided and funded by the city, will be at DPS high schools until June 30. Those officers, per the board’s guidance, should be trained in firearms use, de-escalation, be able to police in schools and be knowledgeable of the school community where they will be posted.

Marrero is tasked with ensuring that the officers are not used for disciplinary issues, and he also has to provide monthly data on ticketing and arrests of students by those officers. The temporary policy also requires that two mental health professionals also be present at schools.

Marrero also has until June 30 to devise a long-term safety operational plan through engagement with community members.

While the school board voted unanimously, there’s been a dispute over Mayor Michael Hancock’s role in the decision.

At a March 27 press conference, school board vice president Auon’tai Anderson said Hancock forced the school board’s hand. Anderson co-sponsored the 2020 proposal to take armed officers out of schools, but he did vote in support of last week’s move.

“Prior to the meeting, the Superintendent approached me and the Board President and let me know, let us know, that this was a decision that would happen without the board’s approval, and he let me know that the mayor of Denver had an executive order, ready to be drafted and declare a public health emergency just like he did [COVID-19] vaccinations to deploy school resource officers back to schools,” Anderson said.

He added DPS “cannot be a school district where the mayor of Denver is signing executive orders to overhaul our duly elected school board.”

Hancock spokesperson Michael Strott said there was “no truth to Director Anderson’s claim.”

School Board President Xóchitl Gaytán, who Anderson said was told the same information, wouldn’t speak to the accuracy of Anderson’s account.

“During the closed Executive Session, Dr. Marrero shared many details and hypothetical situations with the Board as part of our ongoing dialog regarding student safety for the remainder of the year,” Gaytán said in a statement. “The Board of Education does not disclose discussions that occur in Executive Session due to the deliberative process privilege afforded by Colorado’s Open meetings law.”

Denverite has not been able to independently confirm Anderson’s claim and several school board members we reached out to did not respond to our requests for comment or an interview.

Though officially armed officers are only returning to high school campuses, the board’s decision could open the door to officers being at middle schools as well.

Anderson said he had not heard any interest in bringing school resource officers into elementary schools. But there are some middle schools located on the same campus as high schools, and Anderson said the board has not yet figured out the outcome for those schools.

Here is the latest list of schools that will see armed officers when students return from spring break, according to a DPS spokesperson:

  • North High School
  • South High School
  • West High School
  • East High School
  • Montbello High School
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College
  • George Washington High School
  • Thomas Jefferson High School
  • Abraham Lincoln High School
  • John F. Kennedy High School
  • Manual High School

The decision is temporary for now, but it sets the stage for a growing fight over the long term role of officers in schools.

The board made the decision to bring officers back through the end of this school year, but we don’t yet know what the future will look like after that.

Police Thomas said that an armed officer would not have prevented the shooting at East High last week because police would not be the ones doing the kind of pat down that was required of the 17-year-old shooter.

After the shooting, many East High parents and students called for the return of officers in schools and the introduction of metal detectors, during a year when the school has seen several lockdowns and a student killed by gun violence. But in the week since then, opinions have varied.

Some community members are cautioning against drastic decisions, citing racial disparities in policing, and examples of past shootings where an armed police presence did little to help.

Others think resource officers are the answer, and others still are calling for the school board to resign.

For now, the decision remains in the current school board’s hands. While Anderson vocally led the charge to remove officers in 2020, he said he wants to step back and listen to the community in this moment.

“I don’t think I’m ready to make a decision on whether I am going to be against the permanent placement of the school resource officers,” he said. “I want to listen to community, but I also want to listen to those that are going to be directly impacted. Our families of color… I believe that they deserve to have a larger voice than what’s being put out there right now.”

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