On Tuesday, representatives from the Denver police department and public school system signed an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) significantly altering the roles of police officers in local schools.
The new contract redefines student offenses, separating behaviors suited for in-school discipline from behaviors requiring police actions. The new model also urges de-escalation of conflicts on campus, as well as a greater focus on restorative justice policies.
“Denver Public Schools and the Denver Police Department have moved into a new phase,” Judith Browne Dianis, The Advancement Project co-director, said. “This is a historic collaboration between the school district, the police department and an organization that represents parents of young people of color who are most impacted by these policies.”
Dianis said the IGA will limit the presence of police officers in Denver’s schools and provide due process protection for both parents and students. The IGA also mandates additional training for officers assigned to schools, as well as requiring community input for oversight of campus policing.
“This effort and this agreement comes in the midst of a national debate about placing more armed guards in school,” Dianis said. “This agreement, the Denver IGA, stands out as an example for the rest of the country.”
Dianis continued: “While the safety of our children is our highest priority, we must not allow isolated acts of violence to result in reactionary policies, though well-intentioned, [that] actually could undermine school safety and the educational outcomes of our children.”
Padres and Jovenes Unidos co-director Ricardo Martinez said efforts to implement the IGA have been underway since 2005.
“We’re not advocating for officers to leave the school,” he said. “Just to limit their activity and not become disciplinarians in school.”
He recalled one local high school that had so many police personnel present that the building looked like it was “under siege” on a daily basis.
“Every afternoon, it would have four or five squad cars out there with bullhorns, chasing students down the street,” he said. “[Students] walk into school, they have heavy police presence, and then walking out of school, whether they were at lunch or it’s after school at 2 o’clock. Just packing that many police officers around did not make them feel safer.”
He criticized the school system’s use of zero-tolerance policies, stating that such procedures resulted in unnecessary suspensions and needless student arrests. Police took on new roles in public schools, he continued, with officers becoming disciplinarians in addition to security providers.
“The schools bought into it, too,” he said. “We were seeing too many cases of students being sent to a court for stuff that should be handled in the schools.”
Judge Steven Teske, a juvenile court judge in Clayton County, Georgia, called the Denver IGA a “historically significant document.”
“When you are not locking up all these students for minor offenses,” he said, “you will find that the students then develop a positive outlook on your police on campus.”
(Teske is an occasional contributor to the JJIE.)
When relations between students and officers are more amiable, he believes teens are more likely to share information with police that could potentially prevent school violence from occurring.
One of the benefits of the IGA, he said, is that the agreement holds accountable every stakeholder involved — schools, police and community members alike.
Since Denver police and school systems began reducing officer presence and implemented “positive student engagement” models regarding school policing, Teske said he observed great reductions in school disciplinary activity.
“Out-of-school suspensions are down 44 percent, expulsions down 56.8 percent [and] … law enforcement referrals are down 63.4 percent,” he said. “With this type of work, you’re going to find that the school climate is going to improve, and it has improved, [and] you’re going to find that the school campuses are going to be safer.”