An Aurora school resource officer makes rounds at Laredo Middle School in Aurora a few years ago. In the shadow of police racism protests in Aurora and across the country, the program is under scrutiny for whether it contributes to a disparate number of Black students being tabbed for crimes. SENTINEL FILE PHOTO

Omar Montgomery once saw a black student cited for trespassing inside of the school the student attended.

That’s one of many situations Montgomery sees as outrageous and is aware of when a school resource officer — the term for a cop stationed in a school — turns a schoolyard tiff or an argument between students into a ticket and possibly a criminal record for a juvenile.

Aurora educators also say police too regularly pull black students out of class, handcuff them, harass them and funnel them into the justice system for non-criminal matters.

“Whenever you hear that term ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ it reflects what families have experienced going to a school where your child is caught between learning algebra and the possibility of a criminal record,” Montgomery, president of Aurora’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People branch, told the Sentinel.

And after the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, Montgomery is far from alone in his call to seriously scrutinize the current arrangement of putting cops in schools. Historic calls for police reform have swept up local school systems that contract with law enforcement agencies to police students.

The fierce criticism hinges on a harsh national and local reality: black students frequently find themselves turned over to police officers in schools and then arrested, but at a disproportionately high rate than their peers of other races.

A Sentinel investigation found, in both Aurora Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District, teachers refer black students to police officers at much higher rates than non-black students for matters like unruly behavior, drug possession and fighting. Aurora Police Department school resource officers — regularly stationed at schools in agreements with school districts — also arrest and issue court summonses to black children at a higher rate than their peers of other races.

Even so, local leaders say the picture is fuzzier in Aurora than in nearby Denver.

And for the time being, Aurora school boards aren’t following Denver Public Schools, Minneapolis Public Schools and other districts across the country that recently severed contracts with police departments and ousted cops from their regular work in schools.

“Aurora is not Denver,” said Kyla Armstrong-Romero, president of the APS school board. “I’m not saying that Aurora is perfect. But I am saying that we’re different.”

Aurora Public Schools has made big gains in referring students to police more equitably. The district doesn’t pay anything in its contract with the Aurora Police Department.

Plus, both APS and Cherry Creek schools are already pouring additional dollars into counselors and social workers to help prevent and provide alternatives to interactions between cops and kids — a key demand of Black Lives Matter activists.

Although school board officials with the power to do so aren’t calling to immediately wrest cops from schoolchildren, they’re vowing to at least examine issues and consider new ways of doing business.

Cherry Creek’s school board voted unanimously June 29 to create a task force examining policing in schools.

The move directed Superintendent Scott Siegfried to assemble a “racially diverse” body of parents, teachers, students, police officers and other community members to mull the status quo and recommend policy changes to district brass. Part of that task force appears to involve the disclosure of district data, partially obtained by the Sentinel, concerning the racial disparities threading cop interactions with students.

In APS, Armstrong-Romero said that the school board is also asking the district for quarterly data on police involvement in schools.

It’s a move geared toward transparency.

But incremental policies don’t satisfy some Aurora educators who have seen cops aggressively police students and escalate tense situations.

“It’s far more likely for a cop to criminalize one of my students than to save them in a school shooting,” said Troy Valentine, a white teacher at Mrachek Middle School who wants to see police totally removed from Aurora schools.

An Aurora school resource officer makes rounds at Laredo Middle School in Aurora a few years ago. In the shadow of police racism protests in Aurora and across the country, the program is under scrutiny for whether it contributes to a disparate number of Black students being tabbed for crimes. SENTINEL FILE PHOTO

“Counselors, not cops” 

In a June 9 Facebook post listing its demands, Black Lives Matter 5280, the group’s local branch, called for, “immediate cutting of all ties with police in local schools” and “all other public institutions.”

It’s part of a national Black Lives Matter platform plank called “Counselors, not cops.”

Their argument is that, when cops regularly work in schools, black kids are criminalized and threatened for every-day infractions. Police officers shouldn’t be responding to student fights and outbursts. Instead, schools should hire more counselors, therapists and social workers to be proactive with students, activists say.

It’s an argument with grounds in national studies — and local realities.

In a sweeping analysis of nationwide data, the school-centered news service Education Week found that black students made up about one-third of all arrests in the 2013-2014 school year despite making up just 15.5 percent of the national student body.

APS has made year-over-year declines in turning over students to police. In the 2015-2016 school year, black students made up about 18 percent of the total population but made up 36 percent of all teacher referrals. The black student body remained near that size in the 2019-2020 school year but accounted for 23 percent of all teacher referrals. But overall, the school system also dropped its annual teacher referral figure from 575 in 2011-2012 to just 186 in 2018-2019. DATA SOURCE: Aurora Public Schools

A similar disparity existed for teacher referrals to law enforcement, when a school employee calls the police on a student for a possibly criminal infraction. Black students accounted for more than 25 percent of all that referrals that year.

Meanwhile, white students accounted for proportionally less arrests and referrals than their black peers, despite making up just over half of the student population that year. Hispanic students were policed somewhat equitably.

Local advocates say studies like these document a double-standard many black students and teachers say they know well: Teachers and cops will readily opt to let white students off the hook but tend to criminalize black behavior.

“It’s the police presence in schools that creates problems that we don’t really have,” said Michael Diaz-Rivera, a former educator in APS and a Black Lives Matter 5280 organizer, now teaching in Denver.   

He said all students should have credentialed school staff armed with trainings — and not guns — to handle student issues and keep the peace.

Diaz-Rivera took a year off from teaching in nearby Denver Public Schools to work with RISE Colorado, an Aurora nonprofit centered on equity in public schools. He recalled an incident that rocked the Hinkley High School community during the 2018-2019 school year. Campus security officers and a school monitor tackled a black student, Tremayne Davis, when he ran away from an unannounced search of his classroom led by a drug-sniffing dog. The search yielded marijuana edibles in Davis’ backpack, but he wasn’t immediately charged with a crime, the Sentinel reported.

Davis has special needs. Diaz-Rivera noted that Davis’ teacher, Carlos Valdez, said Davis was simply sitting in class before the search.

It’s the regular police and security presence in schools that concerns Diaz-Rivera and black students, he says.

APS contracts with the Aurora Police Department but doesn’t pay anything to have police in its schools. Some school districts do.

Spokesperson Corey Christansen said 10 APD officers are shared between the district’s four high schools and Vista PEAK Preparatory.

That district also invested about $781,000 for the 2019-2020 school year for 11 armed security personnel employed directly by the district. Those officers can’t arrest students but can detain them, like other school personnel. They also receive some of the same certifications as bonafide police officers.

Depending on the neighborhood, a Cherry Creek student might regularly see an APD cruiser parked in front of the school as well. Or, a kid might see a cop in a school hallway bearing the badge of the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office or the police departments for Greenwood Village and Cherry Hills Village.

Officers in both APS and Cherry Creek work mostly at high schools but also respond to situations at specific middle schools, too.

Together, policing schools costs Cherry Creek $770,000 annually, according to spokesperson Abbe Smith. Cherry Creek also paid out more than $4 million during the 2019-2020 school year in salaries for its security director, security staff working in schools and other coordinators, Smith said.

Sgt. Paul Poole, a longtime APD SRO now supervising the department’s schools program, told the Sentinel he wanted to get past “rhetoric” that quickly condemns police work in schools.

He described an SRO’s mission to deter and stop serious violence —  a school shooting, at worst — and use discretion when deciding to send kids in the criminal justice system for issues like a bag of marijuana in a locker or a student mental health crisis manifesting in a major disturbance.

An SRO might respond to a circumstance where a student’s violation of a school rule might also be a violation of the law, Poole said. For instance, if a student habitually is profane with a teacher and school staff have already done a lot to address the issue in internal discipline, the teacher can exercise their right to press charges.

That student could be in violation of a city harassment ordinance, Poole said. The SRO would arrive on-scene, assess the situation and possibly issue a ticket.

Cops working in schools are bonafide, trained peace officers and armed with handguns to stop violent crimes.

“Much like a carpenter with a hammer and nails, law enforcement also has tools that we rely on to do our job,” he said. “You don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.”

Even so, he described an APD SRO as a highly-trained individual focused on fostering student development. He said SROs make it a priority to be there to listen when needed. They also sometimes teach civics courses and give lectures on Miranda rights, constitutional protections and how to exercise one’s rights when approached by law enforcement, he said.

Poole emphasized that SROs have the time and agency to use discretion when interacting with students.   

He argued that posting a cop regularly to a school environment fosters positive relationships between officers and students that can actually keep a kid out of the criminal justice system.

In response to a Sentinel inquiry on SROs, Mark Boyle, a spokesperson for the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, said Sheriff Tyler Brown “isn’t ready to talk about this yet, but may be soon.”

An Aurora school resource officer makes rounds at Laredo Middle School in Aurora a few years ago. In the shadow of police racism protests in Aurora and across the country, the program is under scrutiny for whether it contributes to a disparate number of Black students being tabbed for crimes. SENTINEL FILE PHOTO

Local Inequities

Poole said he didn’t believe APD’s policing habits in schools mirrored the national disparities disadvantaging black students. He said APD and area school leaders are fiercely focused on equitable and sensible policing.

However, an investigation by the Sentinel found disproportionate policing results still plague Aurora students.

During the 2019-2020 school year, black students in the near 56,000-student Cherry Creek School District accounted for 11.4 percent of the total student population but 25 percent of all referrals and 38 percent of all school-based arrests.

Of the 331 students of all races referred to police by teachers that year, only 13 were arrested, according to the data set.

The inequity hurting black students generally dates back at least to the 2015-2016 school years, when Cherry Creek began tracking the issue.

In those five years, student arrests hovered between 10 and 25 students per year, but teacher referrals increased from 266 to 331.

Smith attributed the rise to a scandal involving a Prairie Middle School teacher, Brian Vasquez, who was convicted of sexually assaulting students. School administrators were initially charged with failing to report the abuse to law enforcement. She said, after the case, teacher referrals soared but have since started to flatten out.

The Sentinel provided Cherry Creek’s policing data to school board member Angela Garland.

“I’m not surprised of any of that data,” she said.

In APS, officials say they track teacher referrals, but not whether the referral resulted in a ticket or arrest.

The data shows year-over-year declines in referring students to police in the 40,000-student district covering most of Aurora.

In the 2015-2016 school year, black students made up about 18 percent of the total population but made up 36 percent of all teacher referrals. The black student body remained near that size in the 2019-2020 school year but accounted for 23 percent of all teacher referrals.

And overall, the school system also dropped its annual teacher referral figure from 575 in 2011-2012 to just 156 last year.

Speaking generally about trends in student policing, Poole said SROs show up to scenes because school staff called them. He said a serious look at inequities in school policing would have to include scrutinizing when teachers call the police — and on whom.

“SROs are not lurking around corners waiting for kids to commit crimes,” Poole said.

Poole’s department also provided the Sentinel with basic data.

APD school resource officers arrested or issued summonses 2,733 times from 2015 through 2019. Black students accounted for 37.5 percent of all those incidences. It’s a higher figure than the black share of the student body in both districts by a long shot, and city-wide, black residents only made up about 15 percent of the population in 2017.

The Sentinel also submitted a data request to the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office. Analysts said that request was pending as of press date.

Data provided to the Sentinel didn’t include the nature of the crimes that students commit or when SROs intervene in school disturbances. But a statewide dataset does provide some insight into what students get into trouble for, who gets busted and what happens to those kids who take a ticket or charge from a cop in their school.

The Colorado Division of Criminal Justice requires police agencies and district attorneys to submit student policing data annually. Not all agencies did so for the 2018-2019 school year, including APD.

Officer Faith Goodrich, a spokesperson for APD, did not say why the department didn’t submit the required data. She said analysts were working on it after a Sentinel inquiry.

Still, in more than 500 public schools that year, black students made up more than double their share of the state student body in the record of cop-involved incidents.

That year, marijuana possession, disorderly conduct, fighting and assault were the most frequently-occurring offenses. (Marijuana possession is still illegal in Colorado under the age of 21.)

Less than 0.5 percent of all incidents involved a firearm.

The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office also reported that marijuana and possession or use of other drugs were the top crimes students were accused of that year, followed by assaults.

That data speaks to the heart of local criticisms about police working in schools.Cops become involved in routine matters like schoolyard fights and petty drug possession. By officially intervening with students — who are disproportionately black — they inflict criminal records.

Even so, the bulk of charges against students in Arapahoe County — not involving APD, which did not submit data — were dismissed, or students were found not guilty. What’s left behind is not a conviction, but a “yes” response to the question, “were you ever arrested?”

Montgomery thinks cops should be cleaved from discipline matters like arguments and fights. He noted that, when he grew up, students fought routinely. He said teachers wouldn’t call the cops then and shouldn’t pick up the phone now.

“It is only criminal because you called an SRO and not a school counselor, or maybe a school social worker,” Montgomery said. “These things are not criminal offenses.”

For Valentine, the presence of police officers escalates situations that aren’t disruptive in the first place. He said one of his colleagues, an eighth grade teacher at Mrachek, saw an APD officer walk into class one day, briskly handcuff a peaceful student at their desk and walk them out of the classroom. Valentine said the incident quickly washed through the student body.

“Why would they choose to do that instead of calling the student out of the classroom?

“All I can think of is intimidation,” he said.

Valentine said an APD officer is regularly present at Mrachek. That presence alarms black and brown-skinned students in particular, he said.

It’s a sentiment with grounds in some studies. A Tulane University survey last month of youth in New Orleans found black students generally felt less safe with police present in their schools than white students. Another study of almost 6,500 students by the University of Louisville found students had worse relationships with teachers in schools with school security personnel regularly present.

It’s also a feeling that many educators and school boosters have accepted as a general rule.

Echoing others, Valentine said that interactions between families and police outside of school shape students’ reactions when they see a cop walk into their classroom.

“I know Elijah McClain has brothers, cousins, family members,” he said. “And you never know if you are getting that student this year.”

Protesters and police, including Chief Vanessa Wilson, center, kneel together for eight minutes and 46 seconds during a peaceful protest against police brutality, following the death of George Floyd, Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Aurora, Colo. Floyd died in police custody on Memorial Day in Minneapolis.(Philip B. Poston/The Aurora Sentinel via AP)

What is Progress?

Years ago, Janiece Mackey had one run-in with police that traumatized her.

Mackey, a black woman who is now a lecturer and Ph.D candidate at the University of Denver, said a Denver police officer arrested her for no reason.

“Thanks, I had to make a pickup today,” she remembers the cop saying.

She said she sat in a jail cell for eight hours, was sexually harassed, and police never charged her with a crime, she said.

Now, Mackey has no shortage of stories from area students — and her own daughter — about police interactions with students that turned sour. Mackey co-founded and now heads Young Aspiring Americans for Social and Political Activism, or YAASPA. She works regularly with black and brown-skinned students to help them move through the education system and empower themselves.

As part of that work, she’s heard a slew of concerns from students and a general call for police to be more attuned to student mental health issues.

The emphasis on mental health is central for Black Lives Matter and its “Counselors, not cops” demand for more investment in social workers, therapists and counselors instead of police and security.

But leaders in both APS and Cherry Creek schools have already prioritized investing in student mental health supports to help address routine anxieties plaguing area students, but also prevent school violence. That could mean helping a student address anger at school and prevent fighting.

But a social worker might also save a student from a tragic suicide — Cherry Creek school communities endured a rash of student suicides in recent years — and horrific instances of school shootings that regularly terrify U.S. families.

School leaders say they’ve already tilted the scales toward mental health supports, not funding security and police.

For the 2019-2020 school year, Cherry Creek employed 137 mental health staff, compared to 121 two years earlier. The district also poured about $700,000 more into mental health staff this school year than the year before.

Officials put more than $10 million in the district general fund to mental health personnel compared to $3.5 million for security officers, according to a district budget document.

As a result: Cherry Creek schools now have three mental health employees in high schools, two in middle schools and one in elementary schools.

APS officials have also dumped funds into mental health supports.

Superintendent Rico Munn noted that the hefty investment, coupled with the zero dollars spent on APD SROs, is evidence that the school system is already moving in the right direction.

Thanks in part to a 2018 tax increase voters approved for teacher raises and student supports, APS hired almost 140 new mental health staff in the last year.  District leaders put more than $9.2 million into a district mental health counseling office, compared to about $600,000 the year before.

Students now have a health professional of some kind in every APS school, Munn said, as well as engaged teachers and anonymous hotlines where they can seek out help.

Meanwhile, APS also moved to protect students with treatment and positive outlets, not punish them for outbursts.

For example, a teacher might break up a schoolyard fight this year and have the agency not to call the police, whereas, in earlier years, they would have picked up the phone.

Munn said the proof is in the data. Instances of internal disciplining — themselves the source of an inequity hurting black students — and referrals to police are still falling down.

However, Munn said some issues are too obviously criminal to let students off the hook — such as a staff-led search of a locker yielding baggies of drugs.

Valentine watched the investment in mental health supports and said it’s true that APS has outpaced nearby Denver Public Schools. He taught in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood.

“In working in (Denver Public Schools) and APS, I can tell you it is night and day when it comes to mental health supports. But it is still not enough,” Valentine said.

Along with the heavy investment in mental supports, school boosters say APD police officers are uniquely trained to successfully work in Aurora schools.

That’s in large part why Armstrong-Romero said, as president of the school board, she’s not calling to remove police officers from schools.

Poole said SROs have to be outstanding cops and model citizens to be considered for the job. From there, SROs receive social work and psychology training, he said, and learn how to handle sexual abuse cases and combat youth extremism. Poole said some of his SROs have degrees in education, too.

“That piece is very critical — the fact that they do receive specialized training,” Armstrong-Romero said.

Munn said he’s been satisfied with APD’s conduct in his school system, despite raucous scandals outside of schools giving the department an infamous reputation throughout the U.S.

APD’s school cop program won top honors from the National Association of School Resource Officers in 2007. Poole said the department was also picked by the U.S. departments of state and homeland security to teach representatives of other countries to develop their own SRO programs.

That’s evidence of a stellar reputation outside of Aurora, he said.

Community members work in break out groups at a community forum, to discuss the death of Elijah McClain and issues of police racism , Dec. 10 at Restoration Christian Fellowship. The effort has led to city council agreeing to create a task force charged with how best to create some kind of independent review of Aurora police, as well as how to handle other controversies.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Task forces, town halls 

It’s unclear if, in gathering more information about policing and SROs, area school boards and task forces will leash police work in schools.

Along with the school districts grappling with the issue, there’s also new ties between Aurora governments to scrutinize policing. Last month, the Aurora City Council appointed community leaders to the city’s Community Police Task Force. The 13 new members include school district liaisons: school board member Kevin Cox represents APS, and teacher Jessica Price represents Cherry Creek schools.

Like Cherry Creek’s task force, the body will review the status quo of policing and aim to rebuild community relationships between APD and residents who are outraged and terrified. The group will also mull the creation of a citizen-led board reviewing police activities.

Montgomery urged both districts to hold town halls about policing in schools so community members can honestly express their opinions. He wants APS to develop a task force as well.

And he wants the ball rolling fast to establish new practices before the 2020-2021 school year begins in August. School districts have already been planning for months about how to reopen schools during an expected surge in novel coronavirus cases.

Garland, the Cherry Creek school board member, said last week the school system was feeling the nationwide momentum to grapple with racism threading public institutions.

“I think we are experiencing a reawakening and a reckoning of what we have to deal with,” she said.