Boulder Valley Institution District may junk its school resource officer program. What replaces it is an enigma.

Colorado News

Boulder Valley School District may remove school resource officers from its buildings and redesign its relationship with local police, pending a decision by the Board of Education on Tuesday.

The consideration of a different kind of police presence in Boulder Valley schools falls amid a national conversation on what role law enforcement should play in education — a conversation that has affected other Colorado districts, including Denver Public Schools. That district’s board in June unanimously voted to remove resource officers from schools by the start of the 2021-22 school year.

The BVSD Equity Council, specially convened to introduce a diversity of community voices into district conversations related to equity, met virtually for seven weeks to learn about the current SRO program and school safety from school principals, students, parents and a representative from the Broomfield Police Department, among others.

The council, composed of 40 community members with a range of backgrounds, reached consensus on six recommendations largely framed around replacing the district’s current SRO program with something else. The specifics of that new concept have yet to be pinned down, but council members are asking the board to retool how its schools interact with police. The process of reconfiguring the role of police on campuses, they say, must incorporate broader community voice.

Their recommendations align with recommendations presented by BVSD’s District Accountability Committee, whose members meet monthly during the school year to weigh in on district issues and get updates.

A significant part of the problem: disproportionate rates of discipline in the district, with Black and brown students more likely to be cited for infractions.

School police presence in schools is problematic “because it makes certain subsets of the student population uncomfortable, and no one should be uncomfortable in their school,” said equity council member Amabel Akwa-Asare, a parent of a third grader at Community Montessori Elementary School in Boulder.

Council participants also raised questions about inconsistencies in the program. BVSD hires SROs from multiple police departments and does not have a uniform approach to recruiting and training those staffers. 

Fairview High School in Boulder, shown on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, is one school that could be impacted by a recommendation to end Boulder Valley School District’s current school resource officer program and redesign the way law enforcement interacts with schools. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Additionally, the council also wants the district to prioritize restorative justice practices — which, rather than punishing students, helps them learn and communicate about incidents that require discipline. Members are just as eager to see BVSD approach students in a way that acknowledges and addresses the trauma they’ve experienced. 

The current SRO program falls short in accomplishing both, said Landon Mascareñaz, vice president of community partnerships at the Colorado Education Initiative. The nonprofit organization, which focuses on improving Colorado’s public education system and creating greater equity, coached the council as it shaped its recommendations.

BVSD’s SRO program dates back to the 1980s. The Equity Council first tackled the program in response to wider community concerns. Mascareñaz said that Boulder County’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People this summer asked Superintendent Rob Anderson to end the program. Anderson opened a larger conversation around equity — one that would touch on how to handle SROs in schools.

Anderson sees the primary role of a SRO as one of ensuring safety in schools, responding to any crimes committed by students or others. 

The superintendent believes that while some elements of the district’s SRO program have unfolded as designed, other aspects demand attention, such as disproportionately high rates of discipline among non-white students.

For instance, the most recent district data available over three years shows that Black students comprise 1% of BVSD’s student population but accounted for 5.3% of tickets and arrests.

Anderson is committed to reducing those disparities while also continuing to keep kids safe. He said that once the board provides BVSD direction, the district will sit down with staff and law enforcement agencies to design a plan that does both.

Anderson is appreciative that both the equity council and the District Accountability Committee invested time in reviewing data and listening to the stories of community members.

“Those are incredibly powerful as we think about moving forward,” he said.

Akwa-Asare, the parent of the third grader, understands that schools face safety concerns and advocates for structures and support systems to be in place but doesn’t necessarily believe the answer is through a police presence.

She also isn’t entirely opposed to intertwining schools and police officers, but she wants to see a shift in the way police approach their jobs at schools, citing a longtime problem with law enforcement’s emphasis on reacting to incidents.

“There is not much focus put on preventative action,” said Akwa-Asare, who is biracial, “and so I think over time it has eroded trust and until there are mechanisms that would make sure that the relationships between school and police are really focused on support and not discipline, police presence is problematic.”

Akwa-Asare, who hasn’t had any experience with SROs, noted that regardless of the role that police play in school safety, BVSD must better define their roles and the district’s expectations.

Marilynn Su, a sophomore at Boulder’s Fairview High School and a member of the Equity Council, also hasn’t really crossed paths with her school’s SRO. But over the last several weeks as she learned about the variety of incidents that officers have been involved in across BVSD schools, she has questioned what their boundaries should look like.

Marilynn Su, a sophomore at Boulder’s Fairview High School, poses outside her school on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. Marilynn served on the BVSD Equity Council and offered student input on the future of the district’s school resource officer program. The council is recommending the district retool the relationship between schools and police. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Marilynn, who is half Asian and half white, also isn’t convinced that SROs necessarily reinforce a climate of school safety, explaining that a lot of evidence suggests they do little to help. 

She doesn’t believe that SROs are currently contributing to an environment “that makes students feel safe.”

Rebecca Vlasin, a white parent of a BVSD middle schooler with special needs and a high school graduate, fully understands how privileged she and her sons are because of the color of their skin. Even though her younger son has landed in situations requiring security, he maintained a good relationship with his school’s SRO. Still, she said, she worries about students who end up in the juvenile justice system as a result of their interactions with SROs.

“In general, the sense was that while SROs seek to have a really supportive relationship in schools with students, that experience of support is felt very differently by different students,” Vlasin, a council member, said.

She added that she didn’t hear a lot of evidence that strong relationships exist between students and SROs but instead were more of a “goal or an aspiration on the part of SRO officers.”

Promoting equity from within

The Equity Council’s recommendations stretch beyond simply redesigning BVSD’s SRO program. The council wants the district to ensure that all non-emergencies and mental health concerns are managed by staff from within the district rather than by SROs or any outside corporate vendors. Other major focal points: Having safety staffers be employed by BVSD and knowledgeable about addressing student trauma, expanding staff who can help students dealing with mental health challenges and trauma, conducting bias and antiracist training to all staff, and routinely reviewing discipline data in the district.

Anderson said that the district has already begun work on some of those recommendations, including hiring more counselors in schools, and training its employees to be more culturally responsive.

Though the council hasn’t laid out a specific framework for a replacement to the current SRO program, it has an idea of who should have a say in the conversation. It envisions a task force of administrators, teachers and students — one that elevates the voices of Black and Indigenous people as well as people of color along with the voices of individuals representing different sexual orientations.

That wide swath of input is exactly what the Equity Council set out to gather. Those who convened the council created it to not only pursue equity but to embody it. Along with tapping community leaders to participate, the council recruited members through an application process — one that generated close to 900 applications — and randomly selected others from the community to be involved.

Equity councils are in an important position “to bring the voices of those furthest from opportunity into conversations about solving the district’s most pressing problems,” Mascareñaz, of CEI, said.

Perhaps there’s no more significant voice than that of students.

“I feel very strongly that students should be on the Equity Council because BVSD definitely has a lot of bright students who want to create change,” Marilynn said, “and I think the people who will be most affected by the recommendations the Equity Council gives to the board are students.”

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