Shocking Violence in Denver Re-Opens the School Resource Officer Debate
By Tressa Pankovits
George Floyd’s reprehensible murder put in motion a long overdue reckoning over police violence in communities of color. More can and should be done to rectify eons of systemic abuse. However, not every measure taken thus far has been wise, including removing School Resource Officers who are charged with keeping the peace in and around school buildings.
Last week, a 17-year-old student shot two deans at Denver’s East High School. The student fired multiple rounds as the deans physically patted him down — precisely to discover whether or not he was armed. This raises several questions.
First, why was the student patted down in the first place? Denver Public Schools (DPS) Superintendent Alex Marrero revealed — likely in violation of the minor gunman’s Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) rights — that he was subject to a “safety agreement” that required him to be searched at the beginning of each school day. An investigation by a local ABC News station revealed that the search protocol is part of DPS’ “Discipline Matrix,” which measures student misconduct at different levels of severity. The document begins, “You make a difference in breaking historical patterns of inequity! Disrupt bias, fight disproportionality, and apply the Discipline Matrix in anti-racist and trauma-informed manner.”
Level six, the Matrix’s most serious, involves possession of a firearm on campus and is the only offense that mandates an “expulsion hearing.” Further down the ladder, offenses such as arson, and stealing or destroying property in excess of $5,000, warrant only an optional “expulsion review,” with no reporting to law enforcement. In level three, bullying through physical conduct — previously known as “beating someone up” — calls for no expulsion review or referral to either law enforcement or DPS’ internal public safety department. Whew.
A second question might be, why were deans searching the student? ABC News sources say such pat downs typically only happen after a student has committed a serious act of violence. Wouldn’t it be sensible, then, to use public safety professionals trained in such matters, including de-escalation?
The answer lies with the DPS’ Board. In a reaction that was in tune with the national outrage over Floyd’s brutal slaying, the Board unanimously voted in July 2020 to sever its relationship with the Denver Police Department. That meant booting all 18 specially trained, armed, school resource officers (SROs) off its middle and high school campuses. The decision was controversial from the start.
Principals in the schools that hosted officers voiced objections at Board meetings. They argued that most of the officers were people of color, who had worked in the schools for years and had established strong relationships with students.
Sadly, subsequent data showed the principals were right. From the beginning of the 2021 school year — the first with no SROs — until just the end of September 2021, a freedom of information act (FOIA) investigation discovered DPS recorded 62 assaults, 29 weapons violations, 11 sexual assaults, eight assaults on staff, eight narcotics violations, 65 “threats,” 102 student fights, and 73 unauthorized individuals on school grounds. The author of the report on that FOIA warned that “something needs to change before something awful happens.”
Wednesday’s shooting of the two deans, one who remained hospitalized as of this writing, isn’t the first awful thing to happen since the SROs were banished. In February, 16-year-old Luis Garcia was shot and killed while in his car at East High School. His classmates, their parents, and gun control advocates marched on the Colorado State Capitol, demanding increased safety. Paraphrasing what one student told reporters, “The scariest thing in school should be about my grades, but it’s getting kids getting shot.”
Again, sadly, that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Republicans in Congress and state capitols irrationally and steadfastly oppose even baby steps toward reasonable gun safety legislation.
That’s why the far left needs to employ common sense and join moderate Democrats in supporting properly trained and culturally sensitive SROs in our schools. The notion that we will rid America’s streets — and schools — of guns anytime soon is a pipe dream. Ridding schools of the security they badly require is foolish. And deadly.
The DPS Board finally seemed to realize that in the wake of this latest tragedy at East. Hours after the deans were rushed to the hospital, the 17-year-old shooter was discovered, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot from the gun he never should have been able to access — and apparently, without access to the mental health care he needed. With egg on its face — some might say, blood on its hands — the DPS board is now begging the police department to send the SROs back to their campuses.
Denver is not alone. As Progressive Policy Institute’s Will Marshall recently opined, similar episodes around the country have illuminated a growing rift between pragmatic centrists and progressive ideologues who pose a false choice between fighting crime and combatting police abuses and racism. It’s dangerous and it needs to stop.
The next place to be tested is Chicago, a.k.a., the “murder capital” of the nation, with 700 homicides in 2022. On April 4, Chicago will elect a new mayor. One choice is Brandon Johnson, who says public safety officers have “no place” in schools. The better choice is Paul Vallas, who fully supports properly trained SROs to deter active shootings, while expanding mental and emotional health supports for students and the community.
In 2022, Chicago experienced 41 shooting incidents involving children under the age of 19 within two blocks of a school. Some of the shootings claimed multiple victims. Ten kids died. Choose wisely, Chicago.
Tressa Pankovits is Co-Director of the Reinventing America’s Schools Project at Progressive Policy Institute