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Denver plans to limit role of law enforcement in schools

As communities across the country beef up police presence in schools, Denver may become a national counterpoint today, when officials plan to sign an agreement to limit the role of law enforcement at the city’s schools – a move that could mean fewer students will face arrest or citation for disciplinary infractions.

Denver’s effort comes in a metropolitan area that is often at the forefront of debates over school violence since the mass shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. More recently, the massacre last July at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., again pushed security concerns into the spotlight. Both of those shootings were just outside Denver.

In places often farther from such attacks, impassioned calls have been made for doubling up on officers or creating school police forces as the nation grapples with how to respond to the Dec. 14 rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

In Denver, the approach will be decidedly different. Leaders from the city’s police department and public school system are to sign an eight-page contract that will bring detail to often-murky questions about the role of police in schools. The agreement emphasizes differences between student offenses that should be handled by educators and those that need police action, urges de-escalation of campus conflict when possible and supports “restorative justice” practices that focus on making amends for misconduct rather than punishing for it.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the move marks a “step forward” for the system of 84,000 students. “We believe that an effective restorative justice approach makes schools safer, helps keep our kids in school and on track to graduation, and makes kids learn from their mistakes and make them right,” he said.

In day-to-day school life, Boasberg said, he expects less reliance on police ticketing and out-of-school suspension.

“It’s not, ‘You did something wrong, go home for five days and watch television,’ ” he said. “It’s, ‘What did you do wrong? Who did you harm? How are you going to make them whole, and what are you learning from this?’ ”

Still, safety remains the priority, officials said. Denver will suspend and expel students when misconduct is severe, and the police will make arrests and issue citations.

But Boasberg and others expect the agreement to continue a downward trend in such actions. Expulsions have dropped by two-thirds over two years, and out-of-school suspensions this school year “are on pace to be half of what they were three years ago,” he said. Yet, he said, “our schools feel safer.”

The agreement puts into writing changes that have been under way in Denver for several years and have been driven in part by a grass-roots group, Padres y Jovenes Unidos (Parents and Youth United), which first took up discipline issues a decade ago when tickets were common for talking back or tussling in a hallway. Denver adopted a new discipline code several years ago, and last year a new state law addressed issues such as training of police officers and zero-tolerance practices.

Community leaders and students participated in negotiations that led to today’s agreement. “It’s a great achievement,” said Ricardo Martinez, co-director of the organization. “This is the first time we’ve had the community voice, the students, to help craft this kind of document. We didn’t get everything we wanted, but the main changes we wanted are there.”

Martinez said more work lies ahead, especially in resolving racial disparities in discipline. “The numbers have gone down, but the disparities still exist,” he said.

Denver police officials spoke positively about the agreement but said it reflects a continuing effort. The city has 15 police officers, called school resource officers, in its 170 schools. That number has remained steady even as the citywide force has not been able to hire because of economic strain, the police said.

“I like to think we were already doing it right, but we’ve memorialized what we were doing in writing,” said David Quinones, the Denver Police Department’s deputy chief of operations. The goal of the police has not been to arrest students, he said, but to create a safe campus and be good role models. “Now it’s more defined,” he added.

The security concerns that follow tragedies nationally are shared in Denver. Changes in police practices followed Columbine, Quinones said, and after Sandy Hook, patrol officers are required to build relationships with all schools in their precincts. As happened elsewhere, he said, “Connecticut really opened our eyes.”

Civil rights organizations said Denver stands out not only for its approach toward police and restorative justice, but for its strong community collaboration and for staying the course after Sandy Hook.

“It’s pretty incredible that in the midst of school districts rushing to expand the role of police in schools that Denver public schools is pursuing a different course,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, which works on discipline issues nationally and was involved in the Denver effort.

Several hundred students have taken part in the effort over the past decade, organizers said.

“Our main goal is to end the school-to-jail track,” said David Valenzuela, 17, a student leader. “What I’m hoping to see is that students are going to have a much better relationship with SROs and won’t be ticketed for minor things.”

The new agreement includes community meetings every semester and consideration of schooling when the police choose times for student questioning. Educators are to handle routine discipline issues without calling on the police and work to defuse problems, too.

Boasberg said he continues to believe police presence at schools is important. “I think it’s really important not to have an either-or approach,” he said.

Steven Teske, a juvenile-court judge in Clayton County, Ga., who led a similar effort in his area in 2003 with the police, community leaders, school officials and others, said the results have been positive.

Teske said schools are safer when the police are focused on big offenses and have better relationships with students, and thus get stronger tips. Serious weapons offenses have decreased more than 70 percent in the past decade in his county, he said.

“Our police are not running off here and there” chasing minor transgressions, Teske said.

He said students “just want police who care about them, who will think before they act, who understand adolescent development . . . and that there are other alternatives to putting on the handcuffs.”

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