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Denver Public Schools releases final version of district safety plan | #schoolsaftey

DENVER, CO – APRIL 17: Superintendent Dr. Alex Marrero speaks during a Denver Public Schools board meeting at DPS headquarters in Denver on Monday, April 17, 2023. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Superintendent Alex Marrero was at a conference last year surrounded by leaders from some of the nation’s largest urban public school systems when he asked a question: Is Denver the only district facing a rise in gun violence?

There was a big sigh from superintendents and others in the room, Marrero recalled, and he realized Denver Public Schools was not alone — other districts across the country also were struggling with the same problem that dominated the end of Denver’s 2022-23 academic year, following two shootings at the city’s largest high school.

“I had to jump into that pool and then they joined in,” Marrero said in an interview with The Denver Post. “It was a, ‘Who’s going to jump into the shark-invested pool and break the silence?’

“I just want to be transparent because I want a solution, because if I don’t tell it as it is and paint the right picture then we’re just hiding the problem, and the problem is so prevalent that you really can’t hide it,” he added. “It’s in everybody’s face.”

On Friday, Marrero released the final version of his new districtwide safety plan, which he hopes will help Colorado’s largest school system — and eventually others across the United States — begin tackling rising teen gun violence.

But, he warned, the plan is not a solution; it’s a roadmap for how DPS will tackle school safety going forward. Addressing youth gun violence will take much more than just placing armed police back into Denver’s schools — which his plan will do — or using weapons detection systems, Marrero said.

“(It’s) a starting point and a clear, clear depiction of how we plan to function for the community here so there’s no more guessing or wonderings,” he said. “But bigger than that, I hope that this is a… launchpad for collaborative work across the nation.”

The district’s Board of Education directed Marrero to draft the safety plan after a student shot two administrators at East High School in March. The shooting came just weeks after another student was fatally shot outside of the school and amid a rise in gun violence among Denver teens.

Last year, 17 teenagers were killed in Denver — nearly double the number who died five years ago. Another 70 teens were injured in shootings. Most of those killed or injured were shot by other teens, according to Denver Police Department data.

Nationwide, gun violence has surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of death for children, The New York Times reported late last year.

And since the 2019-20 academic year, more guns have appeared on DPS campuses and the number has remained steady in the years since. DPS discovered 15 guns during the 2019-20 year, up from the two guns found the year before. Last academic year, 16 firearms were found in schools, according to the most recent data from the district.

“It really comes down to access to firearms,” Marrero said, adding, “If it’s around our entire society, eventually it’s going to make its way into our schools.”

Much of what is in Marrero’s final plan are systems that already were in place at DPS, such as mental health resources and the district’s crisis recovery team

The most significant change in the new safety plan will be the return of armed police to district campuses.

The school board voted in 2020 to remove school resource officers, or SROs, districtwide. But earlier this month, the current board reversed its policy banning SROs to allow their return on a more permanent basis. The decision, which drew much debate among members and the community, came after the board temporarily allowed police to return to schools following the March shooting at East.

School board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson, who led the effort in 2020 to remove police and opposed their return, criticized Marrero’s plan for its reliance on police officers and weapons-detection systems.

“The militarization of our schools is not the answer to the complex issues we face,” he said in a statement. “It is a short-term, surface-level solution that only serves to perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Under the final plan, DPS will return SROs to secondary, comprehensive district-run schools. The district also will work with local law enforcement to hold youth violence meetings and monitor trends of violence affecting communities.

Marrero said the move to bring back SROs was a matter of “being responsive to the community.”

“There’s also a lesson to be learned,” he said. “It’s been clear there should have been a plan and a process upon their removal. And their reintroduction, there needs to be a plan as well.”

Fifteen SROs were stationed at DPS schools at the end of the academic year, and the district expects a similar number will be deployed in the fall, although the exact number is still being determined, district spokesman Bill Good said.

DPS will work with the Denver Police Department to make sure that the SROs placed in schools are a good fit and are properly trained, Marrero said.

Beyond SROs, the district is also conducting audits and assessments to show where there are gaps in DPS’ safety measures, including its buildings.

The district also will expand its mental health resources and training, such as screening students more frequently and offering suicide prevention lessons annually to middle and high schoolers, according to the 56-page report.

One notable thing the district is not doing with its safety plan is revising its discipline matrix, which features policies that have been criticized by some in the community as being too lenient.

DPS officials previously have said they have a “moral obligation” to teach children, and earlier this week, Marrero wrote an opinion piece in The Post in which he reiterated the district’s stance amid calls by some to put students with disciplinary issues in alternative or virtual schools.

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