SRO 101

10 questions about school resource officers in Colorado, answered

School Resource Officer Stacey Collis of the Lakewood Police Department has worked at Green Mountain High School for past 18 years. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Colorado lawmakers have responded to demands to make schools safer with a plan to spend $35 million on school security, including school resource officers. Proponents of this idea see it as basic common sense that having armed law enforcement on school grounds makes them safer – but opponents think they don’t make schools safer, especially for the students who end up arrested or ticketed for what would have been a school discipline matter a generation ago.

A decision by the bipartisan Joint Budget Committee to allocate the money to training for officers and other school employees – and make explicit that it cannot be used to hire additional officers – alleviates one of the concerns opponents had. They’ll be working to nudge more of this money toward approaches they support, like training in restorative justice.

As we wrote about this debate, we realized we had some questions. Like, what exactly is a school resource officer? Are they any different from regular police officers? To whom are they accountable? And why are they controversial?

To answer some of these questions, we talked to Stacey Collis, president of the Colorado Association of School Resource Officers and a longtime officer at Green Mountain High School in Jeffco Public Schools, and Corrine Rivera-Fowler, director of policy and civic engagement for Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, which opposes the expansion of school resource officers. Here’s what we learned.

Is a school resource officer a police officer?

Yes. They’re sworn officers who are employed by law enforcement agencies and go through the same certification process as other police officers. Collis does make a distinction between the way school resources officers approach the law-enforcement aspect of their job and the way cops on the street would. Campus officers usually have special training and choose to work in schools.

“Yes, we are law enforcement, and sometimes we have to react with tickets or arrests, but we try to deal with things at the lowest level that we can because students are in that learning curve,” he said. As a resource officer, Collis said he’s more likely to call a student’s parents or refer them to a restorative justice program than to make an arrest.

Rivera-Fowler said the fact that officers have discretion doesn’t make them any less an arm of law enforcement.

“They are cops,” she said. “They can choose to give you a warning or write you a ticket or handcuff you, just like any police officer.”

Some districts also employ campus security guards who are not police officers.

Are school resource officers armed?

Yes. Collis said some districts have occasionally had discussions about having unarmed resource officers – and some schools use unarmed security personnel – but he has a hard time imagining working without a gun.

“God forbid, if something does happen, they have that right there to deal with that situation, and hopefully deal with it effectively,” he said.

Do school resource officers work for the school district or the law enforcement agency?

School resource officers work for the law enforcement agency, and their chain of command runs through that agency. They are not under the authority of a building principal, and Collis describes himself “on equal footing” with school leadership.

“I don’t take orders from them, and they wouldn’t try to do that,” he said. “I don’t do school discipline. That’s not for me. I handle situations that may become criminal.”

That’s one of the problems, from Rivera-Fowler’s perspective. There are lots of gray areas between criminal and disciplinary matters, and by having resource officers, schools lose the ability to make their own decisions.

Intergovernmental agreements between police or sheriff’s departments and school districts lay out the responsibilities of each party, and in Denver, Padres & Jóvenes gets involved in negotiating this contract in an effort to more narrowly define the role of police officers in schools.

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district, also has its own Department of Safety patrol officers, in addition to 16 school resource officers from the Denver Police Department.

Who decides if a problem should be handled as a disciplinary matter or a criminal matter?

Charges are ultimately decided by prosecutors, but on the ground, the officer uses his or her judgment about which cases to treat as criminal.

Why does this matter?

This question is at the heart of the debate over school resource officers. Advocacy groups like Padres & Jóvenes Unidos say the vast majority of incidents at schools can and should be handled as disciplinary matters. Nearly any fight that turns physical can technically be charged as assault, as can possession of small amounts of drugs, trespassing, and so on, but going that route gets students involved with the criminal justice system – and for some students, particularly those of color, that can turn into a cycle that derails their life.

At the same time, school resource officers have been criticized for taking a light touch at the expense of victims. In Fox 31’s recent investigation of the Cherry Creek school district’s handling of sexual assault complaints, reporters obtained a previously confidential incident report in which a school resource officer wrote: “I issued (redacted) a written warning for sexual assault and explained to him about his behavior and how it could get him into future trouble. I explained that if a girl or woman says stop or no, it means exactly that. I advised him that (redacted) did not want him charged as they used to be friends, but if she had, it would have been serious.”

Collis said he’s seen fights that involve weapons and serious bodily injury, and sometimes criminal charges are appropriate. He stressed that juvenile offenders almost always get community service or are ordered to treatment, like anger management or substance abuse treatment. Charges can be expunged if they follow the rules.

But a failure to show up in court can turn into an arrest warrant, which is one reason advocacy groups argue for handling more problems within the school.

“Any time you expose a young person to the criminal justice, you’re exposing them to various harms that impact their future,” Rivera-Fowler said. “Students don’t understand the weight of that ticket and that order to appear in court. They may not even inform their parents, or their parents may be busy and forget. They do get a warrant out for their arrest.”

For students who are undocumented or in mixed-status families, that harm can extend all the way to deportation. And charges, once filed, can take on a life of their own.

In 2016, a 14-year-old student at Denver’s Northfield High was dragged from the bathroom, handcuffed, and ultimately charged with resisting arrest because she wore a headband that the principal said violated the dress code and didn’t immediately take it off. The officer and the principal in question were fired, but charges against the student weren’t dropped until months later, after audio emerged of the officer saying the student did not resist arrest.

Why do schools need their own police officers?

Groups like Padres & Jóvenes would argue that they don’t. Rivera-Fowler said having police in schools introduces tension and anxiety that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Even the most law-abiding citizen gets nervous when a police car is driving behind them, she said, and students in hallways are no different.

Collis sees high schools as the equivalent of small cities.

“That small city is going to have the law enforcement issues that any small city does,” he said. “You’re dealing with traffic, you’re dealing with drugs, you’re dealing with fights, you’re dealing with sex assaults. You’re dealing with everything. And just like an officer in a small town needs to understand, you live there. There are things you have to bend on, and you need to know the right approach.”

Collis argues there’s a benefit to having an officer on site who knows the students.

“If you do have a serious situation and you call an officer, will they know how to deal with that?” he asks. “Will they deal with it appropriately or will they deal with it like they would on the street, without the insight that comes from knowing the kids?”

How are school resource officers trained?

The agency that certifies police officers in Colorado requires that every department have at least one officer that goes through a special 40-hour training to work in schools, and Collis said most of the state’s more than 200 school resource officers have gone through that training. Many also have additional training focused on issues like suicide risk assessment, understanding mental health issues, and single-officer response to violent incidents.

Padres & Jóvenes would like to see officers have training in restorative justice practices.

What do school resource officers do all day?

How the officer fills his or her time varies from school to school, but Collis said it’s a busy job. In addition to his law enforcement duties, he teaches classes on things like distracted driving and healthy relationships. Or he might bring an officer with expertise in accident investigation to talk to a math class. And all day long, there’s a string of students, teachers, and administrators who want to talk, he said. A student might want to vent about a classmate she wants to fight, or a teacher might want to touch base about a student who seems troubled. 

Are there racial disparities in how school resource officers handle infractions?

An analysis of police referrals during the 2015-16 school year by Padres & Jóvenes Unidos didn’t break out who was getting ticketed or arrested by race and ethnicity, but it did find that schools and districts with a high percentage of students of color had much higher rates of tickets and arrests than majority-white schools. Statewide, 1,245 students were arrested that school year and 5,482 received tickets.

“There is always more enforcement happening in schools of color,” Rivera-Fowler said. “We have seen that since the expansion of school resource officers.”

Can school resource officers stop school shootings?

School resource officers have confronted shooters in schools, as in the 2013 Arapahoe High School shooting and in the March shooting in a Maryland high school. It’s certainly possible that their response prevented more deaths, but in both cases, the shooters managed to kill fellow students before turning their guns on themselves.

Padres & Jóvenes argues that real school safety comes from investing in social workers and counselors and promoting restorative justice. If the legislature is going to put more money into school safety, they want it used to better identify troubled students and get them help early.

Hiring more school resource officers “does nothing to prevent a shooting or make a school safer, from our point of view and from the history of school shootings,” Rivera-Fowler said. “We’re wondering why we aren’t using these funds to ensure our students are actually safer and making sure our students are getting the mental health supports that they need.”

Collis sees school resource officers as one piece of a bigger picture that includes better building security but also cultural changes within school communities, so that parents are more involved and students are more likely to speak up when something is wrong.

Day without a Teacher

These Colorado school districts are canceling classes for teacher protests

Empty Chairs And Desks In Classroom (Getty Images)

Thousands of Colorado teachers are expected to descend on the state Capitol Thursday and Friday to call on lawmakers to make a long-term commitment to increasing K-12 education funding.

These Colorado districts have announced they’re canceling classes because they won’t have enough teachers and other staff on hand to safely have students in their buildings. They include the state’s 10 largest districts, serving more than 500,000 students.

Some charter schools, including DSST and STRIVE Prep, are joining the teacher demonstrations, and others are not. Parents whose children attend charter schools in these districts should check with the school.

Unless otherwise noted, classes are canceled for the entire day on Friday, April 27.

    • Denver Public Schools, serving 92,600 students (early dismissal scheduled for Friday, April 27)
    • Jeffco Public Schools, serving 86,100 students (classes canceled Thursday, April 26)
    • Douglas County School District, serving 67,500 students (classes canceled Thursday, April 26)
    • Cherry Creek School District, serving 55,600 students
    • Aurora Public Schools, serving 40,900 students
    • Adams 12 Five Star Schools, serving 38,900 students
    • St. Vrain Valley School District, serving 32,400 students
    • Boulder Valley School District, serving 31,300 students
    • Poudre School District, serving 30,000 students
    • Colorado Springs School District 11, serving 27,400 students
    • Brighton 27J, serving 17,800 students
    • Thompson School District, serving 16,200 students
    • Littleton Public Schools, serving 15,600 students
    • Adams County School District 14, serving 7,400 students
    • Cañon City School District, serving 3,500 students

Some districts already don’t have classes Thursday or Friday, either for professional development or spring break. Those include Westminster Public Schools, Greeley-Evans Weld County School District 6, Eagle County Schools, Widefield School District, and Harrison School District.

Teachers who miss work to engage in political activity generally have to take a personal day to do so.

This list will be updated as we hear from more districts.

The list has been corrected to reflect that Douglas County will not hold classes on Thursday.

strike that

This Colorado bill would ban teacher strikes and hit violators with fines and jail time

Colorado teachers march around the state Capitol Monday, April 16, to call for more school funding and to protect their retirement benefits. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Two Republican lawmakers who have long helped shape education policy in Colorado have introduced a bill that would bar teachers from striking and strip unions that endorse strikes of their bargaining power.

This bill stands practically no chance of becoming law. House Democrats already killed a bill this legislative session that would have prohibited any union activity by public employees during work hours, and this measure goes much further in limiting the rights of workers.

However, that it was introduced at all speaks to growing concern that the wave of teacher activism that has hit other states could come to Colorado. Last Monday, several hundred teachers marched at the state Capitol for more school funding and to defend their retirement benefits. Hundreds, perhaps thousands more, are expected for more marches this Thursday and Friday.

Earlier this year, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association threatened to strike before backing off and continuing negotiations over that district’s pay-for-performance system. And Pueblo teachers voted to strike this month after the school board there voted down pay raises.

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According to numerous reports, Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier of U.S. states for both education funding and teacher salaries, though there is considerable variation around the state.

The reaction at the Capitol to teacher activism has fallen largely on party lines, with House Democrats joining teachers in calling for more school funding, and Republicans expressing frustration because this year’s budget already includes an increase for K-12 education. Republicans want to secure more funding for transportation projects, and lawmakers are also arguing over the final form of a proposed overhaul to the public employees retirement system.

The bill sponsored by state Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs and state Rep. Paul Lundeen of Monument would prohibit teachers and teachers unions from “directly or indirectly inducing, instigating, encouraging, authorizing, ratifying, or participating” in a strike. It also would prohibit public school employers from “consenting to or condoning” a teacher strike.

The bill authorizes public school employers to go to court and get an injunction against a teacher strike.

Teachers who violate such an injunction could be fined up to $500 a day and be jailed for up to six months. They would also face immediate termination with no right to a hearing.

Local teachers unions found in contempt could face fines of up to $10,000 a day. More significantly, they would see their collective bargaining agreements rendered null and void and would be barred from representing teachers for a year or collecting dues during that time. School districts would be barred from negotiating with sanctioned unions as well.

Courts would have the ability to reduce these penalties if employers request it or if they feel it is in the public interest to do so.

Teacher strikes are rare in Colorado and already face certain restrictions. For example, the Pueblo union has informed state regulators of their intent to strike, and the state Department of Labor and Employment can intervene to try to broker an agreement. Those discussions can go on for as long as 180 days before teachers can walk off the job.

The last time Denver teachers went on strike was 1994. A state judge refused to order teachers back to work because they had gone through the required process with state regulators. Teachers had the right, he ruled, to reject the proposed contract. That strike lasted a week before teachers returned to work with a new contract.