Denver police commander: Student protests are unlike anything he’s seen

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Denver police at East High School supervise a protest led by South students.

Denver police commander Matt Murray says the student-led protests in Denver this week are unlike anything he’s seen in 25 years of law enforcement.

“Not like this, day after day,” he said.

Today is the fifth consecutive school day Denver students have walked out of class to protest police brutality and discrimination, prompted by two national incidents where grand juries declined to indict officers who killed unarmed black men. Students at George Washington High School held a protest on their campus early this afternoon, while students at GALS Academy held a walkout earlier in the day. Students at DSST Stapleton, STRIVE Prep: SMART, Denver Center for International Studies (Baker), Omar D. Blair, and KIPP Denver Collegiate High School also held protests.

The protesters were taking a page from students at East High School, who walked out of school last Wednesday. Since then, students at Lincoln, Montbello, George Washington, South, West, and North high schools and the Denver School of the Arts have also walked out of school. Students in other school districts across the state have also led protests.

Yesterday, Denver Public Schools officials and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock commended students for their engagement but encouraged them to remain in class. The district has provided teachers and schools resources for addressing the protests and the issues that prompted them in class.

Both the school system and the Denver mayor’s office are planning a series of conversations about race and social justice across the city.

Denver police will participate in those conversations, said commander Murray. Police chief Robert C. White was at East High School last week, and police met with the organizers of yesterday’s protest at South High School.

Murray said the protests seemed to be evolving. While earlier protesters had marched in the streets, now “they’re more typically obeying the law,” he said.

Murray said that protesting students at some schools have apprised the police department of their protests before they begin, while others have not.

“What we do is we respond to what they do. There’s no coordination—we’re not saying come break the law. We get the best intelligence we can and we react to what they do,” Murray said.

“I think as a responsible citizen, when you feel passionately about an issue, you should still look at both sides,” Murray said. “The protesters don’t want to be measured by the worst actions of their crowd, and we don’t want to be measured by the worst actions of ours.”

“I think there’s an irony I hope is not lost on the students that we’re protecting their rights and their safety while they protest us,” Murray said. “And the other thing I’d say is they don’t win a lot of people to their cause when they cuss at us … you can protest without being disrespectful.”

He said the department was preparing for more protests this week, though none were confirmed.

“No matter what they do, we’re going to be there. That’s what we do,” Murray said.

Update: This story was updated to include student protests at DSST Stapleton, STRIVE Prep: SMART, Denver Center for International Studies (Baker), Omar D. Blair, and KIPP Denver Collegiate High School.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?