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Gun violence is rising. Two leaders say Denver schools and police need a new relationship.

A Black man in a police uniform looks out of a school door that he’s holding slightly ajar. On the right side of the image, there’s colorful paper with labels attached that read: Empathy, Accountability, Dynamic Community, and Equity.

The Denver school board voted in 2020 to remove police from schools. Recent youth gun violence has raised questions about how schools should work with police.

Joe Amon / The Denver Post

Nearly a year ago, two former Denver Public Schools administrators pitched an idea for how police and students could form healthy relationships instead of punitive ones. 

The proposal hasn’t been put into place. Nor have any others that address how Denver schools and city police should work together after a 2020 decision to remove police officers from schools — despite rising youth gun violence across the city. 

On Monday, that violence made its way nearly to the doorstep of East High School when a student was shot and critically injured just outside the school. On Wednesday, a gun was confiscated at the school, one of at least eight found on Denver campuses this school year.

“What’s holding it back is the politics,” said Vernon Jones, who came up with the idea. 

Jones previously served as assistant principal of Manual High School and executive director of a group of semi-autonomous Denver schools. He is now an executive partner at FaithBridge, an education advocacy organization. In his view, he said, one of the district’s main responsibilities is to make sure students are safe. 

“When you run up against politics that kind of threaten that — in my view, you have to boldly stand up and say, ‘Here’s my line in the sand,’” Jones said.

Jones calls his idea PEERS: Police Establishing Equitable Relationships with Students. It suggests steps like identifying primary police officers for each school who could respond to calls but also participate in community service projects, guest teach classes, mentor students, and meet monthly with school administrators about neighborhood safety issues.

Former East High Principal John Youngquist helped promote the PEERS idea to district leaders and top city police officials at a meeting last March. But more than 2½ years after the Denver school board voted to remove police officers from schools, the program hasn’t begun.

Denver Public Schools did not give an interview for this story, nor has Superintendent Alex Marrero issued a public statement on the recent shooting of a student. 

“Dr. Marrero is currently focusing on recovery of our school communities after recent incidents of city violence,” a district spokesperson said by email.

But in an interview last month, Marrero said gun violence is his top concern. He mentioned the PEERS program but said its development had been paused for a time.

There’s been turnover at both the police department and the district since PEERS was first pitched, with the previous Denver police chief Paul Pazen retiring in October and DPS security chief Mike Eaton leaving in November. New Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas has a reputation for working with community groups. He’s been in office about four months.

The PEERS program is “not the fix” to rising youth gun violence, Marrero said last month. Instead, he described it more as a shift in approach to help students see officers the same way they see teachers: as “someone who is here to help our students.”

The role police should play in schools is hotly debated. Police had served in certain Denver schools as school resource officers, or SROs, since the 1990s. The idea was that SROs would develop relationships with students but also be on campus to respond to incidents. Critics said their presence fed the school-to-prison pipeline, especially for Black students.

Shortly after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the Denver school board voted unanimously to remove SROs completely by June 2021, canceling a contract with the city police department.

Board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson helped lead the push to remove SROs. He said he stands by that decision, even amid mounting pressure to bring police back after the shooting near East Monday and another that happened the same day next to the downtown Emily Griffith campus, which is home to three schools and the district’s headquarters.

“The situations that have transpired this week at Emily Griffith and East were not in Denver Public Schools buildings,” where SROs would have been stationed, Anderson said. “These were on our streets. The school board can’t make a reactionary decision to reinstate police officers where an SRO wouldn’t have been impactful.”

On Wednesday, the first day East students were back in class after the shooting, a student brought a weapon to school, according to a letter sent to East families. Because there was increased security presence at the school in the aftermath of the shooting, the student and the weapon were removed from campus without incident, the letter said.

The number of guns and fake guns found in Denver schools and confiscated from students has skyrocketed since before the pandemic, according to district data.

Anderson said he’s familiar with the PEERS program and thinks “overall it’s a good idea.” He’s pushing district leaders to draft a new memorandum of understanding with the city police department. But he also believes removing SROs had the intended effect: Student referrals to law enforcement, which disproportionately affected Black students, are down districtwide.

“We are not teaching our kids to hate police,” Anderson said. “We need to teach kids how to interact with law enforcement agencies and to see the human side of law enforcement officers. But law enforcement officers need to see the human side of our kids.”

The Denver Police Department said in a statement that it is “engaged in the proposed PEERS program, which is in the early stages of development, and its ability to foster positive relationships between students and police.”

“DPD believes that having Denver Police officers in schools creates a safer situation for students and staff, and is hopeful a solution is in the near future to return officers to schools,” the department said in its statement.

The PEERS program doesn’t propose stationing officers inside schools all day, every day as was the case with SROs. Rather, its backers say it’s about building trust and familiarity so that when schools do have to call the police, the interactions go the best they can.

“This is getting away from an oppressive policing model,” Jones said, “to a more liberatory relationship-centered model among students and adults who happen to be police officers.”

Former East Principal Youngquist said school leaders, some of whom were opposed to removing SROs, need to know the district is working on a way forward.

“For me, leadership requires action,” he said. 

“Because we don’t have a strategy, I’m more concerned than ever,” Youngquist added. “Because we don’t have a way to do this work that is preventive or is collectively responsive to what’s going on, I’m concerned about the safety of students in schools.”

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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