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State’s school safety failures is all of our mess | NOONAN | Opinion | #schoolsaftey

Paula Noonan

The shooting tragedy at East High School this spring connects failure dots from state policy, to Denver’s policing, to Denver Public School vulnerabilities, to the purposes of public education, to how education is delivered and governed. It’s become a microcosm of what ails us and what needs to be fixed before the next school year.

State policy failures relate to Second Amendment rights. While the legislature has added restrictions on firearms during the last five years, it’s obviously not gone far enough to control gun access by juveniles. This problem is compounded by the ease of making “ghost guns,” or guns available from blueprints on websites and produced by 3D printers. Children with access to both the internet and a 3D printer can make as many guns without a serial number as they want. Now a judge has ruled there should be no age limit on gun purchases. That’s stunningly horrible for school safety and safe society.

Colorado’s residents expect their children to receive a free, safe, quality public education. The policy of Denver Public Schools is that all children will receive a free, safe, quality public education. All means troubled children and individuals in various levels of intervention in the judicial system. The youth who shot two administrators at East High School was expelled from the Cherry Creek school district for bringing a weapon to Overland High School. His expulsion involved one year when he was not allowed to attend public school. He completed that year’s expulsion and enrolled at East High School because he lived in East’s enrollment area.

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The student’s gun violation at Overland High School brought on his daily pat-down at East High. The two administrators doing his pat-down on the day they were shot were not school safety officials and were not his usual pat-down administrators. DPS policy will now require pat-downs to be conducted by safety officials. These are not SROs (School Resource Officers/police) but are employees at schools responsible for student safety.

DPS stopped using SROs in schools because students of color were statistically at much higher risk of police intervention than other children. Many children of color learned to fear police in their schools. That was not how the initial agreement between Denver Police and DPS was designed. Denver police assigned as SROs should have received training on how to interact with youth and were supposed to develop positive relationships with students.

Initially, the requirements of the agreement between DPS and Denver police were mostly fulfilled, but gradually, as police funneled in and out of the SRO program, police training decreased and job expectations blurred. Denver police leadership didn’t do enough to clarify and enforce expectations and requirements, and DPS administrators turned too often to SROs to enforce discipline. That was a recipe cooked to reinforce students’ fearful impressions of SRO presence and ultimately led to the DPS board’s decision to give SROs the boot.

Both entities must rethink how SROs will engage with students. In the past the Denver Police Chief had control over SROs. Now the DPS superintendent will exercise that control. In the executive session of the DPS school board, revealed in the court-mandated release of its videotaping, extensive discussion considered the roles and responsibilities of SROs in schools. Police authorities and school administrators must draw a strict line for SROs to distinguish between disruptive, annoying student behavior and behavior that endangers the well-being of the student and others.

There’s an inherent tension between the moral imperative to educate all students and the moral imperative to keep all students safe. DPS board members did attempt in their executive session to figure out ways to fulfill both mandates, but there will never be policy that perfectly solves the tension between the two obligations.

That unfortunate fact should make us examine who screams the loudest with the least amount of transparency and accountability in relation to school safety policy. The former principal of McAuliffe International school, a member of the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone (NDIZ) school group, called out the DPS superintendent and school board over the East High shooting. He was subsequently fired for violating district policy. He received support from many parents to return to McAuliffe while some parents of students of color objected to his treatment of their children.

Ulcca Hanson, school board candidate, is on the unelected board of NDIZ schools that relish their independence from DPS policy. These schools don’t want the DPS superintendent or DPS board sticking their noses into their business. The NDIZ board is most immediately responsible for oversight of McAuliffe International.

That board met in April in executive session after the East High shooting, according to a tweet by DPS board member Auon’tai Anderson. No one will know the content of that meeting because there’s no record and no video. Apparently that board’s decision was to duck and cover up in relation to problems at McAuliffe. Should that board resign for not performing proper oversight of McAuliffe, one of only 12 schools under its authority?

While some McAuliffe parents have shouted their criticisms at the DPS board, and the DPS board has been subjected to unrelenting snark, perhaps it would be more appropriate for McAuliffe parents to voice their criticisms directly to Hanson and other NDIZ board members. They apparently allowed McAuliffe’s “incarceration room” in which at least two students who were “out of control” were locked up until they “calmed down.” There’s nothing safe about that.

Thus, the failure dots connect. This school safety mess is our state’s mess, our legislature’s mess, the governor’s mess, the Denver mayor’s mess, the Denver Police Chief’s mess, Denver police’s mess, DPS’s mess, DPS’s parents’ mess, the DPS school board’s mess, and the NDIZ innovation board’s mess. Our children are the butt of the messes. Surely we adults must do better.

Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.

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