Denver educators, police take interesting route to protect students


By Brian Washington/photo by Larry Johnson

Jane Spence, a dean of students at a local high school in Denver, enjoys a good relationship with her School Resource Officer (SRO), an extremely professional man who has been at her school for about ten years.

“We work very closely,” said Spence, who believes the key to making the educator-SRO relationship a successful one stems from having clearly defined roles. “He is very familiar with the students, and I have never seen him overreact or be inappropriate.  He follows protocol.”

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That protocol could become even more defined thanks to a new agreement in Denver that is catching the attention of those on both sides of the “armed-guards-in-schools” debate. At a time when some districts and politicians across the country are seeking to increase the role of law enforcement in schools as a way to prevent deadly shootings like the one in Newtown, Conn., Denver appears to be going in the opposite direction.

The agreement signed last month by Denver police and leaders with Denver Public Schools (DPS) limits the role of SROs and clearly spells out those student offenses that should be handled by educators and those that require action by law enforcement.

The agreement also promotes the use of “restorative justice.” Restorative justice, referred to as “RJ,” involves progressive disciplinary practices that focus on students making amends for certain wrongdoings and bad behavior rather than receiving punishment for them.

“We use it extensively,” said Spence, who said many of the RJ meetings are about what she calls, “he-said, she-said” matters that often have the potential to turn into something more.

Students sit down with a facilitator, get to the facts, have their say, then come up with an agreement as to how students in conflict can agree to certain behaviors so that both can remain in the school and we can do what we are here to do—help students learn and graduate.

The Denver agreement formalizes practices that were already happening in the district since 2008, thanks in part to city officials working together with grassroots organizations. Community leaders sought to limit the use of officers in schools out of concerns that more armed guards in schools might add more students—especially minorities—to the “school-to-prison” pipeline. Supporters credit RJ with driving down out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and court filings from DPS.

However, RJ is not without its concerns. Some educators fear schools may be using it as an excuse to avoid punishing students for major infractions, which is why Spence believes it’s important to clearly delineate what kinds of offenses are covered by RJ and which ones are not. She also believes if Denver is serious about its commitment to RJ—which is a voluntary process that can be used for teacher-student conflicts as well—city officials must hire more personnel, namely more facilitators.

“I think they need to fund full-time restorative justice facilitators and that’s something I am not seeing,” said Spence, who says the RJ facilitator at her school is funded through a grant that has to be renewed each year. “They talk about wanting to use RJ more and it has its place but RJ takes personnel.”

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