RICO MUNN: A model of defunded police and Aurora Public Schools

Junior Ruben Peña cracks up with Aurora Police Officer Carolyn Renaud during the lunch break at March 17 at Aurora West College Prep in this file photo.
(Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel)

In the aftermath of the most recent tragic and horrific killing of unarmed black people by the police, there have been worldwide mass demonstrations asking for, among other things, police reform measures. The calls for reform have included cries to “defund the police.”

This particular reform measure is often misunderstood.

According to Professor Christy Floyd of Georgetown Law School, defunding efforts are neither “scary” nor “radical.” The defunding efforts speak to the policy effort to shift the scope of police responsibilities (and related funding) so that there will be more investment in proactive measures like mental health support, community mediation and violence interruption programs like restorative justice.

Aurora Public Schools (APS) has been committed to this work for several years and it has led to safer schools and improved educational outcomes for students. Although there is still important work ahead of us, we have a strong foundation that has helped us focus on student needs and the use of more equitable approaches for conflict and behavior resolution.

In 2014, I signed a Memorandum of Understanding which forms the basis of our current relationship with the Aurora Police Department (APD) and the School Resource Officers (SROs) assigned to APS schools. While SROs have been in APS for many years, this MOU was accompanied by a series of reforms and measures which fundamentally shifted APS’ relationship with APD and the SROs’ relationships with our students. This work done by APS over the last several years can be a model for other districts to follow.

Beginning in 2014, APS worked to create positive shifts in its law enforcement relationship. The work started with meetings between senior staff of APS and APD. Senior members of each team met together to discuss and understand which student behaviors should be addressed as educational matters and which were police matters.

The discussion led to enhanced training by personnel from each entity and new directives from leadership to draw clearer lines between the work of police and the work of school personnel. Moreover, this intentional decriminalization of school had visible outcomes such as the removal of police vehicles from permanent stations at the entrances of our high schools.

To address the need to redirect student behavior, APS worked with community partners like The Denver Foundation, the Rose Foundation and Gary Community Investments to: significantly increase our investment in restorative justice programs; develop a relationship with the Communities In Schools organization; and, to build home-grown structures like Parents In Action. For APS, however, our biggest partner has been the overall Aurora community.

In 2018, we identified our comprehensive approach to health and safety; an effort we call CARES (Communication, Awareness, Relationships, Engagement and Security). In CARES, we have articulated our holistic approach to providing a healthy and safe learning environment. In November 2018, our community authorized a mill levy override, which included $10 million annually dedicated to providing mental health staff to every APS school and mental health training to APS staff. The investment represented by this mill levy allows APS to implement a proactive approach to student needs, which further supports our work to minimize the scope of police responsibilities.

Across the country, school districts spend millions of dollars every year for SROs in schools. On one level this investment of school district resources may be understandable if it represents a relationship where the police are being asked to perform a broad scope of responsibilities that in some way supports the core mission of the district. In APS, however, our relationship with APD has been designed purposefully to ask APD to only perform police duties, as needed, in what are public buildings. As a natural consequence, while other districts pay millions of dollars annually for SROs in their schools, APS pays nothing for SRO services. APD pays for its personnel to do the job they have been hired to do, police work.

Since APS is not burdened with the cost of paying for police, we are able to invest in the other components of our CARES framework in a meaningful and deep way. As a result of this work, APS has seen a dramatic decline in major incidents of school discipline; a significant increase in students, parents and staff reporting feelings of safety and support; and, an overall increase in academic performance. In short, by making sure that resources and responsibilities shifted away from the police (I would add in a cooperative way with APD), we have “defunded” the police and made our schools safer and better learning environments because of it.

The presence and use of SROs is and should be the subject of robust debate. I know we do not have all the answers and in some cases we might not even know the right questions. But to the extent the debate about SROs seeks to address the appropriate allocation of resources and responsibilities, APS has developed a defunded framework which strikes a strong balance in support of educational outcomes.

D. Rico Munn is superintendent of Aurora Public Schools.