Some Colorado school districts adjust to the absence of police in the halls

Students of color often disproportionately affected by law enforcement in schools

By: - October 7, 2021 5:00 am

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Police in Boulder and Denver are being removed from schools, but not in Jefferson County, which includes Columbine High School.

The conversation surrounding police officers, also known as school resource officers, in Colorado schools is heated, and doesn’t seem likely to be resolved soon. Some critics point to how Black students are more likely to be referred to law enforcement than white students are. Some advocates of police in schools say officers are a great resource and in addition to providing safety can be advocates and mentors for students. 

Boulder Valley Public Schools and Denver Public Schools recently removed or are in the process of removing all police officers from district schools. Jefferson County Public Schools, one of the largest districts in the state along with Denver, is not considering removing police officers from its schools. 

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Across the country, Black students are 2.2 times more likely to be subject to a school-related arrest or get a referral to law enforcement than white students, according to the 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection, last updated on Oct. 28, 2016.

Colorado is ranked 13th among the states for the number of Black student referrals to law enforcement per thousand enrolled, and 11th in the overall number of student referrals to law enforcement, according to a story produced as part of a collaboration between USA TODAY and The Center for Public Integrity. 

Colorado is ranked ninth in the country in disabled student referrals to the police.

The analysis found that student policing disproportionately impacts Black students and students with disabilities. Across the nation, Black students and students with disabilities were “referred to law enforcement at nearly twice their share of the overall student population,” according to the story.

How Colorado ranks among states

Black students referred to police per 1,000 enrolled: 13th

Disabled students referred to police per 1,000 enrolled: 9th

Overall students referred to police per 1,000 enrolled: 11th

According to a Center for Public Integrity analysis

The data

There were 7,050 “qualifying incidents” reported by law enforcement agencies in the 2017-2018 school year in Colorado public schools, according to a Colorado law enforcement and district attorney report of student contacts. Black students made up 12% of these incidents, despite representing only 5% of Colorado public school students enrolled at the beginning of that school year, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

The vast majority of the incidents — 1,652 — reported in Colorado public schools involved marijuana during the 2017-2018 school year, according to a Colorado Division of Criminal Justice dashboard

Law enforcement agencies reported 4,897 incidents during the 2019-2020 academic year in Colorado public schools, according to the 2019-2020 Colorado Department of Public Safety dashboard. Nine percent of incidents involved Black students — though they made up only 5% of the race and ethnicity distribution at the beginning of the school year, according to the law enforcement and district attorney reports of student contacts for the 2019-2020 academic year. Fifty-three percent of Colorado public school students enrolled in fall 2019 were white, which is the same proportion of incidents that involved white students in the 2019-2020 school year, and 34% were Hispanic, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Many schools instituted remote learning in March 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On average, 4.5 students are referred to law enforcement for every 1,000 students enrolled in the school, according to the information from the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection compiled by The Center for Public Integrity. 

Black students 1% in Jefferson schools

While Boulder and Denver counties have removed police officers from district schools, Jefferson County Public Schools is not considering it, according to John McDonald, the executive director of school safety for Jefferson County Public Schools.

“In Jeffco the conversation has been just great appreciation for what they offer and provide,” McDonald said. “Our principals and our school teams have very, very strong relationships with the SROs. The kids have incredibly strong, powerful relationships with the SROs.” 

Jefferson County Public Schools has seven law enforcement agencies that provide school resource officers to district schools — six municipal agencies in addition to the sheriff’s office, McDonald said. 

Jefferson County Public Schools has a total of 40 school resource officers in its schools. The officers primarily work in middle and high schools, but Arvada has an elementary school resource officer who covers multiple elementary schools, McDonald said. 

“It’s really a combined program between the school district and law enforcement to provide safety for our schools,” he said.

Of the over 7,000 incidents reported in Colorado public schools during the 2017-2018 academic year, 1,041 were from schools within Jefferson County School District. Despite making up only 1% of students at Jefferson schools, Black students accounted for 3% of summonses and 5% of students arrested that year. Twenty-five percent of summonses that year were for Hispanic students, who made up 24% of district students, and 31% of student arrests were for Hispanic students, according to the state’s dashboard. Sixty-eight percent of summonses were for white students, who made up 67% of the Jefferson County public school population, and 59% of arrests were of white students. 

Jefferson County had the largest number of student arrests that year — 30 —followed by School District 27J in Brighton, which had 25 student arrests, according to data from the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education compiled by Racial Equity Data Hub. 

The ratio worsened for Black students in Jefferson in the 2019-2020 academic year, when they made up 7% of students arrested yet remained only 1% of the student population.

All police officers in the district are armed. 

While they are a critical component of school safety, making sure that if we have a threat, they are immediately addressing that, it’s much more than that ... They are also advocates for kids in crisis outside of school.

– John McDonald, executive director of school safety for Jefferson County Public Schools

Any felony, violent crime, or threat to schools are automatically referred to a school police officer. “A lot of times what happens is there’s a consultation between law enforcement and the school district to see if restorative justice practices can be utilized or implemented so that the SRO doesn’t have to get involved,” McDonald said. “That’s really been an evolution over the last several years.” 

In response to a request for a phone interview regarding law enforcement and school police officers in Lakewood High School and other Jefferson County schools, Lakewood Police Department Public Information Officer John Romero told Newsline that they “will not be able to do an interview.”

The majority of reported incidents in Jefferson County public schools involved marijuana in 2017-2018, 2018-2019, and 2019-2020. 

School resource officers are a resource, McDonald said. He said the officers are in the classrooms, engaging with students, and teachers will bring them in as guest speakers.

“SROs will talk about everything from cyberbullying to online predators and the impact that can have on kids,” McDonald said. 

“While they are a critical component of school safety, making sure that if we have a threat, they are immediately addressing that, it’s much more than that,” McDonald said. “They are also advocates for kids in crisis outside of school.” 

“In Jeffco, we are incredibly fortunate because those seven law enforcement agencies that provide the SROs, they pay for them,” McDonald said. “They do it at their cost, it’s a gift to the school district. There’s a true benefit, not only for us, but for law enforcement and for the students.” 

McDonald said that in most districts in the United States either pay 50% or 100% of the cost. 

“In Jeffco that cost is picked up by the agencies because they know the benefit of providing that support,” McDonald said. 

“The program was in place before the Columbine tragedy in 1999, but in the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy, it has expanded significantly,” McDonald said. “We’re really fortunate that the SROs are in all of our high schools and most middle schools in Jeffco.” In 1999, at Columbine High School, two students killed 13 people and injured 24. Columbine High School is part of Jefferson County Public Schools. 

Denver Public Schools

Last year, the Denver Public Schools Board of Education voted to terminate its contract with the Denver Police Department and remove school police officers from district schools. 

In the resolution, school board member Tay Anderson and Board of Education President Carrie Olson wrote that between the 2014-2015 and 2018-2019 school years, Denver Public School students were “ticketed or arrested at school by police officers at least 4,540 times, with the vast majority being Black or Latinx students between the ages of 10 and 15, thereby introducing them to the criminal justice system and often inflicting institutional trauma.” Anderson was recently investigated by an independent law firm hired by Denver Public Schools regarding sexual assault claims against him, which have since been unsubstantiated. 

“Part of the reasoning for this decision is the belief that the close proximity of law enforcement to students on campuses directly contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline,” the school resource officer transition page on the Denver Public Schools website says. “Studies show that Black and Brown students arrested for minor school infractions are more likely to end up in the adult criminal system, entrenching the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Last month, Chalkbeat Colorado reported on the district’s request to authorize its own patrol unit to ticket students for up to 15 different municipal code violations, saying that some advocates see it “as a bait-and-switch.” 

Katherine Dunn, the program director of the Advancement Project National Office, a racial justice organization, wrote a letter to the Denver Public Schools Board of Education expressing her concerns with the implementation of the resolution that removed officers from schools. She criticized the district’s decision to expand the Denver Public Schools safety patrol unit, saying that expanding the unit and increasing the unit’s authority to ticket students “does not reflect a deep examination of DPS Safety and the school community, nor a shift towards the affirmative supports students need to be safe in their schools.”

When asked about critics who say that expanding the safety patrol unit and giving them the authority to ticket students is just replacing the school resource officer program with a different name, Michael Eaton, the chief of the Department of Safety for Denver Public Schools, said that is “not accurate at all.” 

The Department of Safety increased the number of patrol officers by five officers — from 17 to 22. It increased the number of patrol officers because it was expecting more calls to safety with students coming back from being in a remote learning environment, and due to the increased crime in the city of Denver, Eaton said.

Eaton said that they were approved through the city and county of Denver to issue criminal violations for low-level municipal offenses. If a student has marijuana or brings a knife to school, for example, rather than calling the police and having them come in and take a report and have the discretion over whether or not to issue a ticket, that was delegated to the Department of Safety at Denver Public Schools. 

“This allows us to make decisions and have the discretion as district employees on whether or not a ticket is issued versus the student being referred to the discipline process,” Eaton said. “That’s why we increased our team and I’m glad we did because we have seen a 26% increase in calls for service to us this year compared to Fall 2019, which was the last year we were in session with comparable data, since we were in COVID in Fall 2020 and in remote learning.”

“The city and county of Denver has seen over a 7% increase in violent crime, as well as over a 20% increase in assaults,” Eaton said. “We have seen a 39% increase in marijuana incidents in schools, we have seen over a 20% increase in assaults, we’ve seen over a 21% increase in fights occurring in schools, and so our school leaders are just being tasked with a lot of behavioral and low level criminal issues that are coming up, that they are asking for support from the department of safety.”

Even with the increase in marijuana incidents, offending students were referred to the discipline process, and “not one kid was ticketed,” Eaton said, adding that all the assaults this year, with the exception of one, were also referred to the discipline process.

“So no, we are not trying to ticket more kids,” Eaton said. “We are not violating the SRO agreement. We are actually being intentional about reducing the school-to-prison pipeline by utilizing our discipline process more. And we are actively and intentionally looking at ways to address the disproportionately our students of color are put in the criminal justice system.”

Safety patrol officers are part of the internal Department of Safety and are school district employees. “They are not sworn police officers, but they are armed and they have been trained in emergency response to support (Denver Police Department) if a critical incident were to occur,” Eaton said. They are all mobile, meaning they are not assigned to any specific school. They drive Denver Public School patrol cars. 

School resource officers are sworn, armed police officers, employed by Denver Police, and assigned to district schools. Denver Public Schools had 18 school resource officers prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and 17 officers when the district ended the partnership in May.

A view of the west facade outside East High School in Denver on July 28, 2020. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

Eaton, who has been the chief for 10 years, said when he first started at the department in 2011 he had several tasks, including improving the relationship between Denver Public Schools and Denver police. The district worked with the police, and they determined that it was important for police to be proactive when working with students, rather than just being reactive, Eaton said. The officers would mentor students who needed help with homework or college applications, and they had officers who would go into elementary schools and read to students. 

“We’ve had SROs in positions for years, and we also had a significant reduction in complaints about SROs because we made changes and the police department was willing to make changes when we needed to make changes,” Eaton said.  “I will tell you that when it was announced that our board of education decided to end our SRO partnership agreement, not one school leader in a school that had an SRO agreed with it … They all communicated the value they saw and experienced with their SRO.”

He continued: “And so it’s been a challenge trying to one, create processes and support to school leaders that lost that resource. It’s also tasked our internal Department of Safety with supporting schools and handling low level criminal offenses that occur by students, as well as created some tension with line officers that don’t feel like DPS wants them because of the changes.”

I will tell you that when it was announced that our board of education decided to end our SRO partnership agreement, not one school leader in a school that had an SRO agreed with it.

– Michael Eaton, chief of the Department of Safety for Denver Public Schools

This does not mean, however, that he’s concerned about Denver schools’ ability to get emergency police response when needed, Eaton said. 

During the 2019-2020 academic year, 13% of students in Denver Public Schools were Black, 53% were Hispanic, and 26% were white, according to the state dashboard. There were 389 incidents reported for Denver Public School students that year. Three hundred and thirty-four of these incidents resulted in a summons, and 55 resulted in the student being arrested — the proportion of arrests that involved Black students was almost twice their proportion of the student body, while the proportion of arrests that involved white students was less than half their proportion of the student body. Hispanic students were arrested at a rate that was somewhat less than their proportion of the student body.

Eaton doesn’t think the increase in marijuana incidents and assaults relates to the removal of school resource officers. “I think basically these things are easily attainable by our students and I think that we have students that are faced with a lot of challenges, specifically when it comes to social media and peer pressure, and those types of things, that it’s really affecting their well-being and mental health.” 

“Within the first five weeks of school, we took four loaded guns off of students that brought guns to school,” Eaton said.

If you or someone you know is in a crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. In Colorado, you can contact Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255.

Safe2Tell Colorado is an anonymous reporting system that is coordinated out of the attorney general’s office. It was established after the Columbine shooting and allows people to submit tips or information regarding a student in crisis or a threat to schools. Eaton said that due to the size of Denver Public Schools, all Safe2Tell tips in Denver public schools go to the Department of Safety, whereas in other districts the tips may go to the superintendent’s office or a discipline team. 

The 2020 resolution directed the number of school resource officers in Denver public schools to be reduced 25% by Dec. 31, 2020, and for Denver Public Schools Board of Education to end its contact with the Denver Police Department and remove all police officers from district schools by June 4, 2021, to “fulfill its responsibility for undoing the systemic racism that Black children and children of color face,” according to the resolution document. It also directed the superintendent to reallocate the funds that were previously used for school resource officers towards “accomplishing the objectives set forth in this Resolution, such as increasing the number of District or school-based social workers, psychologists, restorative justice practitioners, or other mental or behavioral health professionals within DPS.” 

As of May 28, police officers have been removed from all district schools. 

Denver Public Schools will continue to interact with the Denver Police Department after the removal of school resource officers, according to its website. The district will save $626,000 annually by eliminating the school resource officer contract. 

Boulder Valley School District

Last November, the Boulder Valley School District Board of Education voted 6-1 to end the school resource officer program within the Boulder Valley School District. 

“By giving us time, you allow us to sit down with our law enforcement agencies and think through what is the best way to go about doing this,” BVSD Superintendent Rob Anderson said in a Nov. 11 press release. “What are the agreements that we’d want to make. How do we ensure that if we don’t have our own School Resource Officers in buildings, when police officers respond to our schools, they know what to expect from us.” 

“The decision on the SROs was a hard decision for me, because my experience with SROs in Boulder Valley Schools has been just a positive experience, but I was open to the fact that as a white woman in Boulder that my experience might not be the same as some of what our students were experiencing,” said Kathy Gebhardt, vice president of the Boulder Valley School District Board of Education. “We looked at the data, and we talked with students, and I looked at the research, and all of those things influenced my change of heart when it came to looking at whether we needed to have SROs in our schools or not.” 

The target date for ending the program is January 2022. The replacement plan “focuses on students and restorative justice, and focuses on trying to keep students in school for more minor infractions that might have led to being out of school,” Gebhardt said. 

The district and the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office have always had a good working relationship, Gebhardt said, and she expects that to continue. 

When asked about people who object to the decision to remove police officers from district schools, usually based on concerns about potential violence or school intruders, Gebhardt said she understands that concern, but she said the district will have the support of the police and sheriff departments for the more serious infractions. 

“I don’t think people need to think that we’re going to not take action when necessary, but I think our more student-focused, restorative justice practice will hopefully lead to fewer incidents and to better outcomes,” Gebhardt said. 

I think our more student-focused, restorative justice practice will hopefully lead to fewer incidents and to better outcomes.

– Kathy Gebhardt, vice president of Boulder Valley School District Board of Education

On Sept. 30, 2020, the Equity Council at the Boulder Valley School District gave a presentation on the role of school resource officers. According to the presentation, Black students made up 1% of the district population but accounted for 5.3% of summonses issued by school resource officers between 2017 and 2020. Hispanic and Latino students made up almost 19% of the district, but accounted for almost 28% of school resource officer summonses. 

Colorado law requires that school districts hold accountability committees, whose job, among other tasks, is to make recommendations regarding the district’s budget and policies. (Gov. Polis signed House Bill 21-1161 in March that authorized a temporary pause on the requirement that districts convene accountability committees due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) 

Both Boulder Valley School District Accountability Committee and Equity Council recommended that the Board of Education end its school resource officer program and remove school resource officers from district schools. Among its justifications for voting to recommend the termination of the school resource officer program on Oct. 6, the District Accountability Committee wrote that data suggests that school resource officer programs have disproportionate impacts on students of color. 

“At present, the district has not developed a system of accountability or oversight for the SRO program to ensure it supports district policy, equity and socio-emotional development goals or that it positively impacts students’ sense of safety,” the District Accountability Committee wrote in an Oct. 13 memo to the board of education. “The SRO role is defined as, ‘first and foremost’ a police officer, suggesting their orientation to students may be fundamentally from a law enforcement perspective while the majority of issues driving SRO contacts are related to substance abuse and/or mental health issues.”

Other districts

In Spring 2020, the Board of Education for Poudre School District, in Larimer County, directed the district to complete a review of the school resource officer program, as a result of community members expressing “concerns about the presence of SROs in PSD schools,” according to the school resource officer program website. The board took this review into consideration, but in May, voted to continue the school resource officer program. 

The police officers in schools within Poudre School District are employed by the Fort Collins Police Services, the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, and Timnath Police Department. 

Adams 12 Five Star School District’s safety and security team works “collaboratively with staff and local law enforcement to provide a safe learning environment for nearly 39,000 students in every classroom, every day,” according to its safety and security department website

All district middle and high schools are staffed with a school resource officer, according to the first responder partnerships’ website, which was last updated in 2018. The officers are commissioned police officers and will “support and respond” to neighboring elementary schools “as necessary.” The police first responder partners are the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, Broomfield Police Department, Federal Heights Police Department, Northglenn Police Department, Thornton Police Department and Westminster Police Department, according to the website. The district also has first responder partners with local fire departments. 

According to a Feb. 2, 2018, frequently asked question document, a school resource officer’s body-worn cameras will generally be deactivated when the officer is on school property, with some exceptions, including if the police officer is responding to an imminent threat or controlling a person who is resisting arrest. 

Colorado Springs School District 11 has 10 uniformed security patrol officers, who are on duty 24/7 in shifts. The patrol officers are “police academy trained or equivalent and are armed,” according to the district’s website. The district also has campus security officers assigned to middle and high schools, who, among other tasks, help principals enforce the student conduct and discipline code and monitor the schools for “unwanted visitors and signs of danger or criminal activity.”

There are uniformed police officers from the Colorado Springs Police Department stationed at district high schools, who “primarily provide drug abuse prevention education,” but also “perform community-policing and criminal investigation functions in cooperation with school security and administration staff,” according to the website. The security section of the district’s website says there are security cameras at all middle and high schools, and the “long-range plans include adding cameras at all elementary schools.” 

There are four school resource officers that work in 27J School District middle and high schools, according to the school resource officer section on the Brighton city website

Not just Colorado

Black and Hispanic students being disproportionately impacted by law enforcement in schools is a phenomenon seen in states across the country, not just Colorado. During the 2015-2016 school year, 15% of the over 50 million students enrolled in public schools across the country were Black, yet 31% of students referred to law enforcement or arrested were Black, according to the 2015-2016 Civil Rights Data Collection at the U.S. Department of Education.

The Advancement Project National Office and the Alliance for Educational Justice formed the National Campaign for Police Free Schools, which works to remove law enforcement from schools. 

The Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act, introduced by Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, would prohibit the use of federal funds for maintaining police in schools, incentivize districts to “bring an end to the criminalization of young people,” and establish a $5 billion grant program to hire social workers, counselors, school psychologists and nurses. The federal government has spent over a billion dollars in the increased presence of police in public schools, but according to a June 17 press release from Murphy, evidence does not demonstrate that this funding has improved student outcomes or school safety. 

Besides being twice more likely to be subject to a school-related arrest or get a referral to law enforcement than white students, Black students are 1.9 as likely to be expelled from school without education services as white students are, according to the 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection.

Non-law enforcement discipline 

In the 2017-2018 school year, Black students were expelled more than double their proportion of student enrollment in the United States. 

Thirty-eight percent of students in the 2017-2018 school year who were expelled with educational services — meaning the student is removed from his or her school but continues to receive educational services — were Black, despite Black students accounting for 15% of total student enrollment in the United States, according to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ overview of exclusionary discipline practices in public schools for the 2017-18 school year. 

Twenty-two percent of public school students expelled with educational services in the 2017-2018 school year were Hispanic or Latino. Thirty-three percent of students expelled without educational services — meaning the student no longer receives educational services from his or her current school — were Black, and 18% were Hispanic or Latino, according to the overview.

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