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School Resource Officers and the Complexity of Safety in the Denver Public Schools

Updated: Jun 27

School Resource Officers and the Complexity of Safety in DPS

By John Youngquist (June 14, 2023)

Schools and school districts are deceivingly complex organizations. There are more moving parts than you can see and sometimes the consequences of a decision are not realized until years after it has been made.

Three years ago the Denver Public Schools Board of Education decided to expel School Resource Officers from our schools. It was a time of heightened attention to the experience of Black children in the schools. The need to improve the opportunities for Black students to thrive in our schools was a significant priority then and it must remain so now.

At that time, every single principal that had an SRO in their building advised against the board’s decision. Their reasoning was simple: they understood the broad range of services that an SRO provided and they saw that the board had no plan for further investment in the safety of our students. Principals knew that without replacing SROs with other resources, we would be creating a consequential gap in the effort to keep our schools safe.

With their decision made, the board monitored the progress of their decision through one simple metric: they watched the number of tickets that police officers wrote to students for violations of the law.

There is no argument that the number of tickets written district-wide in the years preceding the pandemic was too high. With 744 tickets written in 2018-19, about 3% of the high school population had been charged with a crime. Districtwide, the number of tickets went down significantly from 2020 to 2022. How that shift was correlated with the pandemic, was caused by the SRO decision, or both, will not be known without a study. But we do know that our schools have since become less safe.

A few years earlier, in the Fall of 2017, I returned to East High School as the principal. At that moment, the student population had ballooned to almost 2,700 students and the behavior we were seeing from many of our students presented difficulty. We needed a safer school.

Surprisingly to some, school culture and student behavior do not take long to change. Both are based on trust and action and people will begin to trust when they see action that is caring, equity-driven, and that creates the right results.

One of the many data points we looked at was the number of tickets our two SROs were writing on our students at East. We found that in 2017-18, 33 tickets had been written (just over 1%). We also reviewed district-wide data and noticed that some other schools had much higher levels of ticketing. At the time, we saw that as their problem to solve.

At East, our leadership team decided to go to the roots of our problems. We acknowledged our deficits and owned the problem. We provided training for our staff, hired dedicated restorative practice coordinators, expanded mental health supports, partnered with Denver Health to create a school-based clinic, and worked with our two SROs to focus on serving the diversity of our community well. We created a complex response to a complex problem and SROs were an important part of the solution.

In the next two years the number of tickets written decreased to thirteen in 2018-19 and ten in 2019-20. Other behavioral indicators also improved, while academic and post-secondary results increased for every demographic of our student body. We saw these as indicators of initial success from which to grow.

Creating communities that are safe and where all students succeed is complicated and complex work. There is not a simple answer. When we remove a resource from the context, it needs to be replaced with creative and innovative actions if we want to see our goals achieved.

While our currently dysfunctional Board of Education does not seem capable of creating a complex solution to our school safety problem, I am optimistic. The simple and necessary step to direct SROs back into our schools was the right decision. Now, the board must affirm that decision and begin to work with the experienced professionals around them.

Their work is to create a fittingly complex and effective plan for safety so that the focus of the district can return to its ultimate responsibility, the teaching and learning of our children.

Youngquist grew up as a student in the Denver Public Schools and has two children in DPS. He has served in leadership roles in the Cherry Creek, Aurora, Summit County, and Denver school districts. Currently, he is the President of PrincipalEd Consulting, coaching principals and partnering with school districts on strategic action and change. He is also the part-time Chief Operating Officer of the Denver Youth Program, a nonprofit working to reduce youth violence in our community.

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