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Denver teachers lack confidence in safety plan, want mental health support and smaller classes

Police cars and ambulances are parked close together in front of Denver’s East High School.

The Denver school board asked for a long-term safety plan after two administrators were shot at East High School.

Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post

Reduce class sizes, hire more mental health workers, and make it clearer when schools can suspend or expel students.

Those are among the recommendations the Denver teachers union said it provided Wednesday to Denver Public Schools Superintendent Alex Marrero. The recommendations come two days after Marrero released a 48-page draft safety plan. The school board directed him to develop a long-term safety plan in the wake of a March shooting inside East High School.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association surveyed its members about school safety, according to an email from the union. The findings include:

  • 89% of respondents “expressed their lack of confidence in the district’s existing plan to address safety threats,” according to the union email.
  • 72% of respondents said smaller class sizes and caseloads would make them “feel safe in schools.” In addition, 70% of respondents said more mental health support in schools would make them feel safe. 
  • Only 42% of respondents said school resource officers — city police who are stationed inside schools — would make them feel safe. The school board voted in 2020 to remove police from schools but suspended that decision following the East shooting. For the past month, 13 high school campuses have had police officers.
  • Almost 50% of respondents “reported insufficient training on restorative practices and de-escalation techniques in schools,” the union email says. Restorative practices is a philosophy that focuses on repairing harm rather than punishing students. 

School staff who responded to a separate safety survey from the district rated as most important improving discipline policies and practices, followed closely by better mental health support. Just a third ranked police in schools among their top three. 

The union’s recommendations for the district’s long-term safety plan include:

Expanding mental health support for students in every school. 

The draft safety plan Marrero released on Monday says DPS has more than 400 school social workers and psychologists for its 205 schools, exceeding the district’s minimum expectations of one full-time mental health worker per school. 

But the union says that’s not enough. In response to the survey, many educators “stated that they believe the district provides less than half of the necessary support to address students’ mental health needs,” the union email says.

Reducing class sizes and caseloads.

Social workers, psychologists, counselors, speech pathologists, and other service providers who work for DPS have long expressed concerns that they have too many students on their caseloads.

Teachers feel the same about class sizes. “By reducing class sizes, educators can establish strong connections with students and foster a welcoming and supportive learning environment,” the union email says.

Reviewing the district’s discipline matrix.

The discipline matrix is a spreadsheet with rules for when schools can suspend or expel students. It was last revised in 2021 with an eye toward keeping more students in school.

DPS leaders have defended the matrix, even as some principals have spoken out about being unable to remove even students accused of violent crimes. The Denver principals union has also called for changes.

Providing staff with training on restorative practices and de-escalation techniques.

The union’s recommendations note that educators are “constantly being asked to be everything, everywhere, all at once without the time and resources to do so.”

Enforcing the part of the teachers union contract that deals with student discipline.

Article 18 of the contract says school principals should collaborate with teachers and parents on a school discipline plan, which should be reviewed annually.

But 70% of educators who responded to the union survey said they didn’t get any training about their school’s discipline plan. Only 5% said their school’s collaborative school committee, which includes teachers and parents, reviewed their plan for effectiveness.

Creating protocols for educators to address student safety needs.

The East High shooting happened when two deans were searching a student for weapons. The student, Austin Lyle, had a “safety plan” due to past behavior that required daily searches. Lyle later took his own life.

The union says educators want to play a bigger role in student behavior and support plans. About 45% said they are “rarely or never” involved in creating the plans, while more than 57% said they were unaware of the process altogether.

Allowing for school-based decisions on police.

Because opinions on police in schools vary, the union says it supports having each school decide whether they want an officer — which is what Marrero proposed. 

But the union says DPS shouldn’t pay for it. The 14 officers currently stationed on 13 DPS campuses are being funded by the city. In the past, DPS split the cost.

The union also says police “should not ticket students for infractions that do not relate to physical safety within the school building.” Before police were removed in 2020, data showed Black students were ticketed and arrested at disproportionately high rates.

Marrero is expected to release a second draft of the safety plan by May 26 and a final version by June 23. The school board gave him a deadline of June 30.

“As the district moves forward with developing a safety plan, we will continue to gather feedback from members through various channels,” the union email says. “We ask the superintendent to take our recommendations seriously, and work collaboratively with us to achieve the shared vision of safe and supportive learning environments.”

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

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