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Tim Leon, director of safety and security for Mesa County Valley School District 51 , works with school resource officers to secure external school doors during a lockdown drill at Broadway Elementary School in Grand Junction March 28, 2019. The district has nine full-time security officers and contracts with local law enforcement for another 15 officers. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Police officers returned to Denver public schools Thursday, hours before the city’s school board voted to restore them permanently.

The move comes a day after an East High School student shot two school administrators before he died by suicide.

Police were expelled from Denver Public Schools in 2020, shortly after the murder of George Floyd, when school leaders were concerned officers in schools could lead to more students being arrested, especially students of color and kids with disabilities.

But people who support police in schools argue officers could prevent or thwart school shootings, especially at a time when young people have easy access to firearms, and while gun violence is increasing.

“I certainly understand the need to be responsive to the concerns of students and parents and certainly school staff,” Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas said during an interview Thursday. 

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“I’d much rather have a young person’s interaction with a law enforcement officer be in the hallways of a school and get them to understand we are members of this community and provide safety and protection to everyone, rather than have their first interaction with a police officer be at a traffic stop or on a street corner, where there may be some uncertainty about what the officer’s intentions are.”

The Denver Public Schools board voted unanimously to remove police from schools in 2020. On Thursday, the board again voted unanimously to accept Superintendent Alex Marrero’s order to return police to Denver Public Schools.

“I can no longer stand on the sidelines,” Marrero wrote in a letter on Wednesday, noting school board members have the authority to decide when police are in schools, and that his decision to deploy officers violates a section of school board rules. “I am willing to accept the consequences of my actions.”

The order returned 18 officers to 17 public schools for the remainder of the year. East High School will have two school resource officers instead of the standard one officer because it’s the largest public high school in Denver, Thomas said. 

In a memo directed to Marrero, the seven-member school board Thursday requested he work with Denver’s mayor and elected officials to “externally fund” at least two armed police officers and at least two mental health workers, including therapists and psychologists, at all high schools in the district for the remainder of the school year. 

The board also requested in its memo that every armed officer inside the school “is appropriately trained in the use of firearms, de-escalation techniques, policing in a school environment, knowledgeable of the school community they intend to serve, and skilled in community policing.” 

This intersection of in-school policing and the rise of gun violence in educational settings is filled with conflict that was on full display this week. Some people who strongly supported eliminating police presence in Denver Public Schools in 2020 changed their positions after the shooting.

At a gun violence prevention summit led by East High schoolers on March 9, Marrero said there had been more than 30 cases of gun violence in and around Denver Public Schools this academic year, including the Feb. 13 shooting of 16-year-old Luis Garcia, an East High School student, as he sat in a car near the school. Garcia died March 1.

But local students didn’t want police in their schools, Marrero said at the summit.

“It is a sad and tragic day for East High School, Denver Public Schools, and our entire Denver community,” Marrero wrote in the Wednesday letter to school board members. “Today was my fourth visit to Denver Health’s Intensive Care Unit due to victims of gun violence. These events should not have happened on my watch or on this board’s watch.”

Concerns for safety

As Denver Public Schools leaders prepared to transition police out of schools almost three years ago, they held community events to share information and hear from parents and students at the 18 campuses impacted by the decision. 

During the first meeting, there were mixed feelings about the decision, according to the school district’s website. 

Officials “heard overwhelmingly” about concerns for safety and calls for reallocation of resources toward “anti-racist policies and services for students that were preventive rather than punitive.” 

And students were adamant about shifting toward resources for social emotional learning needs and mental health support, including adding more therapists to schools. 

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On Thursday morning, East High School students marched to the Capitol for the second time this month to demand gun violence prevention legislation. Their varying opinions about reintroducing police at local schools underscores the need to holistically address gun violence at schools through programs, policies and many other solutions.

“Everything that’s being done feels so surface level,” said Violet Baker, a senior at East High School, who marched to the Capitol on Thursday morning and said she had to huddle in a corner for about two hours as law enforcement worked to secure the school after the shooting. “It just feels like a bunch of fancy pencil pushing.”

Lola Brennan, an 18-year-old senior at East, said the district should focus on adding physical security, such as doors and locks, rather than armed officers. “There are four floors and 2,000 students,” she said. “What are those armed officers really going to do?”

Victor Cruz, a 17-year-old senior at DSST: Byers Middle & High School, said he would find comfort in the presence of police officers in school. “It might make the schools a little tense, but just feeling a little bit safer at school would help.”

Alicia Economos, who has three children, including two who attend Denver Public Schools, said resource officers should not have been removed in the first place, especially at a time when students have such easy access to weapons, including firearms.

“School deans and administrators shouldn’t be the adults responsible for ‘pat-downs.’ This is bad policy and is unfair to ask of school leadership teams,”  she wrote in an email. 

“I am proud of my oldest daughter who wants to be a teacher, but I am worried for future generations,” she wrote. “I am so saddened by yesterday.”

Assistant House Majority Leader Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat, was a member of the Denver Public Schools board in 2020 and voted to phase out school resource officers.

At the Capitol on Thursday, she said she wasn’t ready to talk about restoring school resource officers yet.

“I want to talk about it properly, because there’s no two-second answer,” she said as East High School students and parents milled around the hallways, stopping lawmakers and asking them to take action to prevent gun violence.

“Even though we may have political conversations for decades, today is the day to receive people, to allow people to emote, to allow people to grieve,” she said in a speech on the House floor. 

How SROs gained — and lost — traction

School resource officers, typically police officers or sheriff’s deputies assigned to school buildings, first emerged in the 1950s, shortly after school integration, often in direct response to youth-led civil rights movements, according to Princeton University’s Journal of Public and International Affairs. 

Federal funding that flowed in the wake of school shootings, including Columbine High School shooting in the Denver suburbs in 1999, sent even more police officers into school buildings. In 2018, about 58% of public schools had police on campus, compared with 1% in 1975.

Opponents of increased policing in schools often stress that a school resource officer is a police officer first, and they’re therefore allowed to legally use force and arrest young people and disproportionately place kids in the criminal justice system, according to a review of studies about the use of school resource officers.

Proponents typically argue that school police officers can control and prevent crime among students and that they can prevent or thwart school shootings. However, there’s little to no evidence that the officers’ presence have made schools safer, according to the review.

The review showed that while some studies suggest the presence of school police prevents student crime, a greater number indicate there’s either no impact on student crime rates, or that the addition of school police is associated with increased student misconduct. 

Efforts are being made to address these harms, according to the review. The National Association of School Resource Officers advocates for training for all school resource officers, including education in de-escalation techniques and other tactics to avoid arrest unless school safety is being threatened, according to the review.

School resource programs are also costly, the review says. If funding school resource officer programs means evidence-based school crime reduction programs go unimplemented, there will be missed opportunities to pursue strategies that are effective at reducing gun violence in schools.

Denver officers reassigned from schools will return

The 18 officers who were assigned to Denver Public Schools were moved back into the department’s patrol division or given other assignments in 2020, Chief Thomas said. Those officers will be reassigned to schools, he said. 

“If we believe that there is a need to bolster the number of officers we have on the street, then there would be an overtime cost associated with that,” he said.

Officers will not be permitted to conduct random searches of students in school, Thomas said.

There is lots of speculation about whether an officer could have stopped the shooting on Wednesday, he said. If an officer were present, they likely would have been closer to the shooting, he said, and they may have even conducted the pat-down of 17-year-old Austin Lyle, who was subject of a “safety plan” that required him to be searched before school each day. 

A man holds hands with a student following their reunion after a school shooting at East High School Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in Denver. Two school administrators were shot at the high school Wednesday morning after a handgun was found on a student subjected to daily searches, authorities said. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Police say East High School deans Jerald Mason and Eric Sinclair found a gun in Lyle’s possession and that the teen used the gun to shoot the administrators.

“There may have been a different result,” Thomas said. “It’s speculative to say we would have prevented that from happening.”

Mason was treated for his injuries and released from the hospital Wednesday afternoon. Sinclair remained hospitalized in serious condition. Lyle’s body was found in a wooded area near Bailey Wednesday night, not far from where police found his car.

Lyle had been a student in the Cherry Creek School District but was expelled and transferred to Denver Public Schools. Some Denver Public Schools students and parents have questioned why he was allowed to enroll in Denver’s schools.

“I applaud DPS for recognizing it’s important for every student to have an opportunity for education — and allowing a student to return to a school environment — and then creating a safety plan for any challenge that was there,” Thomas said. “We need to continue to support student development, mental health and social emotional learning for students. I think there’s a lot that can be done well beyond just putting an officer in a school.”

A public-health equity problem

At the March 9 gun violence prevention summit, a panel of experts including Thomas said, young people often access guns that are stored improperly in cars or residences. 

The police chief said he gives free locks to gun owners to reduce gun violence among young people. But that’s only a small part of his work. Thomas said he studies what he calls “the science of hope” because he’s particularly worried about students who underestimate their future.

“They don’t feel they have an opportunity for a successful future and so they don’t think they’re throwing anything away when they commit violence,” he said. “We need to create a pathway so they see a successful future for themselves.”

Jonathan McMillan, director of the Colorado Office of Gun Violence Prevention, described gun violence as a public-health equity problem that is partly solved by addressing gaps in economic, educational and criminal justice systems, among others.

“If all your social determinants of health are taken care of, then you’re going to have a reduction in the risk factors that lead to any person being involved in violence of some sort,” he said. 

“My big dream would be that we could have a place of health equity, and an equitable society where there is no more hopelessness. Hopelessness leads to recklessness, and that recklessness can either be community violence, self harm or suicide,” he said. “So we really have to be that trusted, caring adult, who makes sure that our young people feel hopeful, happy, and healthy. If our system is not going to do it, we have to do it.”

Colorado Sun staff writers Jesse Paul, Olivia Prentzel and Elliott Wenzler contributed to this story.

A student, right, hugs a man after a school shooting at East High School Wednesday in Denver. (David Zalubowski, AP Photo)

Tatiana FlowersEquity and general assignment reporter

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment reporter for the Colorado Sun. She has covered crime and courts plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel and Morocco. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, intense exercise, working as a local DJ, and live music...