The debate on School Resource Officers (SROs) in Denver was swift and unequivocal: SROs will be completely phased out of all Denver schools by June 2021.
Approximately half of U.S. public schools have SROs. All wonder how to pivot in a world where we can no longer disregard the depths of police brutality and the negative impacts that broadly taint SROs.
Legitimate questions about whether schools are places where police should walk the halls are being confronted by schools as evidence is mixed, at best, on whether SROs make schools safer, matched with disturbing evidence of racial bias – SROs disproportionately focused on students of color – the use of excessive force, and increased rates of suspensions/expulsions that “funnel kids into the criminal justice system.”
Tennyson Center for Children operates a residential program for Colorado’s most neglected, abused, and traumatized children who, for a variety of reasons, cannot currently live in a family-like situation; and a day treatment school for children whose trauma requires support that many public schools simply can’t provide.
We have a rich history of helping children return to safe homes and reintegrate back into public schools, and celebrate every child who passed through Tennyson’s doors and successfully graduated from high school – something that is rare for children who have navigated child welfare in the United States. Only 37.8% of Colorado children in foster care graduated in 2018.
Tennyson averaged 45-50 police contacts per month when I joined in December 2016. Excessive, but sadly not uncommon for residential programs with day treatment education where children wrestle with the impact of trauma.
Trauma often manifests itself in behaviors that exceed staff’s capacity despite the considerable de-escalation skills residential facilities like Tennyson exhibit.
Nevertheless, the level of police involvement was unhealthy for all. A negative dynamic with law enforcement is deeply embedded as many children who come to Tennyson were removed from their homes by police officers.
Some spent time in the juvenile justice system. Distrust of the police runs deep for child welfare involved children and families. Layer on this the disproportional representation of children of color in Colorado’s child welfare system as well as nationally, and one can see how efforts to change relations with police are needed as part of children’s healing journeys.
To address this challenge, we embarked on a new partnership with neighbors, city and state child welfare officials and Denver Police Department District 1 to radically reduce police contacts and rewrite unhealthy dynamics between children and police.
Before coronavirus ravaged society, Tennyson had reduced police contacts to under three per month at an annual cost savings of close to $90,000 for Colorado taxpayers.
This was done through changes in our school, through revised de-escalation work and through two keys changes with police that yielded important results.
First, we set aside Thursday nights for basketball with District 1 police officers. Officers would come to Tennyson, change out of their uniforms and play basketball with children. Laughter filled the gym, and children and officers learned each other’s names.
The impact was profound. We witnessed police officers and children challenge and reconsider their negative attitudes toward each other. Officers’ hearts opened as they learned through sport the depths of children’s trauma while simultaneously seeing their strengths.
This engagement changed their perception of Tennyson kids from “problem children” to “children who have overcome so much.”
Likewise, kids started to smile with officers and considered some “cool.” When police came to campus for meetings many kids, would run up and say hello, and newer kids whose distrust of police was significant were ushered into new relationships through the guidance of children who had been at Tennyson longer.
The second change we made to reduce police contacts was hiring an SRO.
We partnered with District 1’s Lt. Daryl Miller who, for two years, built the SRO job description to address concerns outlined above while uniquely tailoring it to Tennyson’s needs and population.
Lt. Miller hand-selected the perfect SRO fit for us: she is compassionate, extremely well trained in safety and emotional regulation and a former foster kid herself.
The SRO job description explicitly stated that they could never put hands on a child, and our SRO never did. Children were drawn to her and her ability to non-violently support staff as they de-escalated students cannot be understated.
If police were needed, she was able to guide her colleagues into Tennyson with full knowledge of the situation and engage in a much healthier, more trauma-informed way.
Our SRO’s personal healing journey as a former foster child inspired her service and actions in ways you cannot teach, and in ways that connected with the children at Tennyson
One boy at Tennyson bonded strongly with our SRO as his instincts to protect matched what he saw our SRO model in practice. Before Tennyson, he would help his siblings into the bathtub, pull the shower curtain closed and “tuck them in” with blankets and pillows. He would then lock the bathroom door and sit in front of the bathtub.
Unfortunately, the door was forced open a number of times, and he would do all in his power to keep intruders away from his siblings, succeeding extraordinarily but at great cost to his own wellbeing.
He was 5 years old when he was playing this role.
Our SRO and he bonded profoundly, and this boy’s dream is to become a police officer one day.
All because our SRO walked the halls with compassion, care and lived experience. We will miss her dearly and worry that positive examples of change and impact may be lost as we reconsider and reframe relations with police and our broader community.
Edward D. Breslin (Ned) is the president and CEO of the Tennyson Center for Children.
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