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School resource officers: Why they were removed from Denver Public Schools and what happens now

Denver East High School
Posted at 6:38 PM, Mar 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-23 20:38:53-04

DENVER — During a June 2020 Denver School Board meeting, dozens of parents asked board members to vote in support of removing school resource officers from all Denver Public Schools, an effort that is now being reversed for the rest of the year in the wake of Wednesday's shooting at East High School.

Three years ago, there were several parents who also asked board members to vote against the measure. However, the board voted unanimously to end its relationship with the Denver Police Department.

Board members cited equity issues as the reason behind the move.

“To ensure that our schools were no longer the epicenter or ground zero for the school-to-prison pipeline,” Denver School Board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson said during a news conference on June 5, 2020, a few days before the final decision.

Former school board member and current Colorado State Rep. Jennifer Bacon also expressed concerns over SROs during the same news conference.

“I’ve heard reports of students put in handcuffs and students as young as 10 being referred to law enforcement,” Bacon said.

Board members also specifically cited the treatment of Black students.

The year before all 18 of DPS SROs were removed, officers issued 657 law enforcement referrals. One third involved Black students who make up just 13% of the student body.

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“It's challenging the system. It's not designed for Black and brown kids to be successful,” said former Manual High School Assistant Principal Vernon Jones Jr.

But two and half years after SROs were removed from DPS, following multiple shootings in one year at East High School alone, some community members are questioning that decision.

“I think when the decision was first made, I know that a lot of administrators who were my former colleagues did not feel like their voices were heard, and that the needs of their schools were kind of ignored,” Jones said. “It's not you get a win, because you took something out. The win is did you put the right things back in.”

Jones said when SROs were removed, there were a lot of discussions about using SRO funding for mental health resources. But Jones said that did not materialize.

Jones said when it comes to school safety, individual schools should decide what’s best for them.

“I think that the people who know best what their schools need to be safe, to be supported — the principals, the teachers, the students and the families who go to those buildings every day,” Jones said.

Jones said SROs were well-liked at his former school and made a big difference.

“They weren't there to police. They weren't there to get tickets. We set that standard up front as a school to say, 'We need you as a partner for relationship building for you and our students,'” Jones said. “I think we can have healthy relationships with the Denver Police Department and all of our schools. That doesn't mean that DPD needs to be in every building. But it does mean that every school should have a healthy relationship with the law enforcement that represents the community that they're in.”

Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas said those relationships are so important that a SRO wouldn’t have conducted the pat down that led to the discovery of the suspect’s gun used during Wednesday’s shooting.

“I think that we don't want to have negative interactions with students and officers. So no, I don't think that it would have been appropriate for officers to have done that type of activity,” Thomas said during a media briefing shortly after the shooting.

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