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A fight on a school bus, a knife in a backpack, suicide tips from Safe2Tell: The post-Columbine world of school safety runs 24/7

“We save lives on a daily basis,” said Ellen Kelty, Denver Public Schools director of student equity and opportunity

Clyde Casados, a patrol officer with the Denver Public Schools Department of Safety, is dispatched to several schools and homes during a typical work day on the swing shift. On April 4, 2019, Casados peers through a window in a classroom door to check on a student. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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“Fight in progress,” the dispatcher’s voice crackled into the patrol car.

Officer Clyde Casados slowed to a stop on a quiet neighborhood street in northeast Denver and checked his laptop screen for more detail: students were brawling on a school bus near Xenia Street and East 23rd Avenue.

It was 4:33 p.m. on a Thursday, about two hours into his swing shift for the Denver Public Schools Department of Safety, where Casados is one of 18 armed patrol officers. This was his fourth call of the day.

Casados’ first call was a “disobedient child,” a 45-minute, successful effort to reason with an elementary student who refused to listen to teachers. Next he went to a middle school to handle a report of a knife in a backpack and a girl’s alleged threat to stab a fellow student. Then he walked into the principal’s office in another middle school to investigate a possible sexual assault, or perhaps a case of consensual sex involving a sixth-grade girl and a classmate.

And this was just an average afternoon.

In a school district dispatch center at the upper edge of Denver, surrounded by a lot filled with school buses and patrol cars, the calls keep coming, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. They pour in from Safe2Tell, an anonymous tip line that students can text, email or call that was created after the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton. And they come from school staff who need help with discipline or threats of violence.

Clyde Casados, a patrol officer with the Denver Public Schools Department of Safety, talks to a dispatcher during his swing shift on April 4, 2019, in Denver, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The patrol division and dispatch center, which opened in 2004, is set up like a typical police station, with one giant computer screen showing the live location of every DPS Ford Explorer on patrol. While most school districts in Colorado contract with local law enforcement agencies to provide security, a few of the largest districts — including Denver and Jefferson County — have their own safety departments. Denver Public Schools officers are police academy-trained and certified in mental health crisis response.

The department was created in 1980 and has grown to 140 employees, including patrol officers, dispatchers, investigators and emergency preparedness professionals. The district, with 220 schools and 93,000 students, also has safety resource officers who are employed by Denver Police Department.

In the 24-hour period in which The Colorado Sun shadowed Officer Casados, the department received 161 calls.

Unlawful sexual contact. A Safe2Tell tip about a student at John F. Kennedy High, and one at Abraham Lincoln High, and one at Merrill Middle. A home visit to ask a student’s parents about a Safe2Tell report that their child was suicidal. A fire alarm at George Washington High. A student accusing a staff member of child abuse at an elementary school. A middle school student caught sending sexually explicit texts.

In one case investigated by Casados, administrators at Morey Middle were alerted to a student’s use of alarming words, including suicide, in his Gaggle email account. It turned out the boy was venting about an old girlfriend and typed that he was considering suicide. The email program was designed for schools and flags certain words.

Many of the calls routed through DPS dispatch are labeled “child in crisis,” a term that recently replaced the outdated one of “out-of-control child.” Typically, it’s a student having a mental breakdown, throwing items around a classroom or lashing out at a teacher.

On a less-severe “disobedient child” call to McGlone Academy in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood, Officer Casados peered through the window on a classroom door to first take in the scene. The kids were in the middle of a math lesson on rhombuses and squares as Casados strode in, causing a minor disruption as the kids whispered and raised their eyebrows. The officer squatted close enough to the disruptive student for a private conversation, then brought the child into the hallway for a longer, calm chat. Forty-five minutes later, the student was willing to cooperate with teachers.

About a minute after climbing back into his patrol car, Casados got the call that a student at Marrama Elementary was caught with a knife in her backpack. Another student said the girl had confided in her that she planned to stab someone, but the story was based on rumor and confusion. It seemed more a case of elementary school drama than a legitimate threat. And it had happened earlier in the week. There was no need for Casados to switch on his siren as he would for an “unsecured weapon” call, but he had to go make a report.

Clyde Casados, a patrol officer with the Denver Public Schools Department of Safety, talks to a student last week. The department received 161 calls in 24 hours, including this one to an elementary school. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Many of Casados calls are about weapons — not guns necessarily, but knives of any size, pepper spray, stun guns. Casados, who was a campus safety officer in Denver schools before he became a patrol officer about two years ago, estimated that on any given day, at any given school, there are one or two weapons on campus. “Easily, hundreds of times, I’ve pulled knives,” he said.

Just before spring break, three students were caught firing a gun just after school let out and only three blocks away. Officers couldn’t prove it, but believe the gun was in a backpack all day at school.

The swing shift, which starts at 2 p.m. and stretches through the evening, is typically the busiest. School altercations, like the fight on the school bus, spike after the bell rings. Casados ended up getting called off the fight when dispatchers realized another officer could get there faster.

After schools close for the day, officers respond to students’ homes if they receive tips deemed urgent via Safe2Tell. An anonymous note that a student is planning to die by suicide warrants a home visit, no matter the time of day. A tip that a student is planning to harm others at school also prompts a visit to their home, most likely from a Denver Public Schools officer joined by a Denver Police officer.

Casados makes about three home visits each week, on average. His busiest time for home visits about suicide was during the first and second seasons of “13 Reasons Why,” a 2017 and 2018 Netflix drama about a teenage girl who takes her own life, but first records cassette tapes for classmates to explain why.

Of the about 100 home visits Casados made while the show was at its most popular, six were serious enough to place students on mental health holds, he said.

As many as 20 percent of Safe2Tell calls are fake, Casados estimated, pranks played on students to embarrass or harass them. The worst prank calls come in the middle of the night, and target the same kid five to six times in one week. A student is using drugs with their parents. The student just came out as gay and now plans to hurt others or himself. A student was dumped by her boyfriend and plans to kill herself. Problem is, no matter how many calls come in one week that seem false, officers still have to check.

As dismayed as those parents are to see another Denver Public Schools officer at their door, Casados still has to knock. It’s not the only place he feels unpopular.

Some principals have asked Casados to pull his patrol car around back rather than park by the front entrance because it might give parents the impression the school is unsafe. After one principal said during the Colorado Sun’s ridealong that the community didn’t have a good rapport with police, Casados said the relationship between school principals and the district’s own police force is at times tenuous. “You called me here,” he often thinks when he feels unwelcome after he’s dispatched to help a school with a discipline issue or threat.

It’s a long process to change perceptions, which is why DPS Sergeant Kip Sixbery asks his officers to stop by schools just to visit so they’re not “showing up on everybody’s worst day.” But lately, officers don’t have as much time to visit.

In recent months, Denver Public Schools has experienced “ unprecedented growth” with Safe2Tell, receiving more than double the tips they were getting a year and a half ago, said Commander Melissa Craven, the district’s director of emergency management.

DPS joined Safe2Tell nine years ago and every tip goes directly to the district’s safety department. “Within five minutes of a tip being received, we are acting upon it,” she said. During the school day, a safety team will assess the tip and, if needed, a counselor will pull a kid out of class to talk. At night, on-call staff determine whether to send officers to a home or wait until school hours.

“The positive is that students are concerned and are more in tune with what is happening with their friends and they are more willing to make that outcry,” Craven said. “We have multiple sets of eyes on every one of them.”

Clyde Casados, left, a patrol officer with the Denver Public Schools Department of Safety, meets with fellow officer Karina Alavrez to discuss a report they will file at one of several schools Casados visited during a shift last week. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A bullying tip that comes in at midnight is likely to get attention the next morning at school. A suicide tip, however, gets immediate response and followup with school mental health staff the next day — as long as dispatchers have enough information. Some tips are as vague as “Mary in seventh grade” is planning to kill herself, which sends the department searching for anyone who fits the description.

“We save lives on a daily basis,” said Ellen Kelty, the district’s director of student equity and opportunity. “We help kids at their worst get support. That’s a powerful thing to be able to do.”

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