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.

Local control

Change in Colorado law sets up a ‘David and Goliath’ school choice battle no one saw coming

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Paraprofessional Ben Johnson washes of the back window of a bus at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal November 10, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Buses from other school districts already pass through the tiny Sheridan school district, picking up homeless students who are entitled by law to transportation to their home districts in nearby Littleton or Denver.

What if those buses could make a few additional stops, picking up perhaps dozens more students who aren’t homeless but prefer to attend higher-performing schools in other districts — and taking with them tens of thousands of dollars in state funding?

That’s the concern of small, relatively poor districts in Colorado after a last-minute provision tacked onto an unrelated bill in the closing days of the legislative session became law. It allows school districts to run buses through other districts’ boundaries without first getting consent, a change from current law.

“Will we start to see the David and Goliath of school choice, where a large district with lots of resources starts to do a marketing campaign and send buses into smaller districts?” Sheridan’s outgoing Superintendent Michael Clough asked in an interview with Chalkbeat.

The Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, is exploring the possibility of a lawsuit. The Sheridan district is among the potential plaintiffs, after publicly opposing this change when it was part of a stand-alone bill earlier in the session, though no district has made a formal decision about legal action.

The lawsuit wouldn’t target the substance of the policy, but the way it was enacted. Colorado’s constitution requires that each bill deal with a single subject, clearly expressed in the title of the bill, and that any amendments also relate to that subject.

The transportation provision in question was slipped into a bill on educational stability for youth in foster care that also has a transportation component. In a signing statement attached to the foster youth bill, Gov. John Hickenlooper said it likely represents a violation of the single-subject rule and would be open to a legal challenge.

“We make no judgement today on whether this language is sound policy,” Hickenlooper wrote of the amendment. “However, we have serious concerns about the process in which this amendment was bolted onto such an important bill.”

Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers. The bill seeks to make it easier for these students to graduate by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. The bill’s title is “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth.”

The tacked-on language, added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session, sounds relatively benign. It says that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also strikes language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bussed.  

Where did this come from and why was it added on?

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee, sponsored a bill earlier in the session with the same transportation provision. It was called “Improving School Choice in Traditional Schools” and also contained requirements to standardize the open enrollment process.

Students in Colorado can enroll in any school that has room for them and can meet their needs, but deadlines and procedures vary from district to district. Most students who go somewhere besides their neighborhood school don’t get transportation, something that advocates for school choice have long criticized as a major barrier for students from low-income families, whether they’re moving between districts or within one.

Hill’s bill was opposed by the Colorado Association of School Executives and by the Colorado Association of School Boards. They said allowing districts to run school buses in neighboring jurisdictions at will would represent a serious erosion of local control and call into question the entire purpose of school district boundaries. 

Wendy Rubin, superintendent of the suburban Englewood district south of Denver, raised the specter of neighboring districts offering bus service to more affluent neighborhoods and siphoning off the funding associated with those students while leaving Englewood to educate those with greater needs.

Like Sheridan, Englewood is a small district surrounded by larger, wealthier neighbors that post better test scores.

“If we lose a class of kids, we lose a teacher or we offer one AP class when we used to offer three,” Rubin said. “We do not have the economies of scale to withstand losses of kids of 30 or 40 in a year. We would be cutting programs left and right. And what does that do to the kids who stay?”

Rubin and Clough also worried that the legislation would allow districts to cherry-pick students – offering transportation to, say, a star athlete but telling a student with disabilities that it was unable to meet her needs.

To be clear, both superintendents said they have no reason to believe their neighboring districts have immediate plans to come after their students, but they fear future school boards might make different decisions, particularly if declining enrollment increases competition for per-student dollars. 

Supporters of expanding transportation options say such possible challenges do not outweigh the importance of students being able to pursue the best education available to them. If districts want students to stay, they should offer a high-quality education, not block buses from entering their borders, they say.

Kelly Caufield of the business-oriented education reform group Colorado Succeeds pointed to a 2015 case from Pueblo. The lower-performing Pueblo 60 district is surrounded by the higher-performing Pueblo 70 district, and roughly 150 students who lived in 60 used their open enrollment rights to go to school in 70. Pueblo 70 had 10 bus routes within the boundaries of Pueblo 60 – until Pueblo 60 said no.

“Why should a superintendent worried about neighborhood lines get in the way of that student having access to a better education?” Caufield asked. “This is the exact example where that kid and their family deserve to be in a better district. And if transportation is a barrier, this bill would address that.”

The Colorado Springs area that Hill represents also has numerous districts in close proximity to each other. None of them have weighed in publicly on this issue. Hill said he brought the bill forward at the request of constituents, but none of them testified before the committee.

Hill’s bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate but died in a Democratic-controlled House committee near the end of the session. The next day, the foster youth bill came up for its first vote in the Senate State Affairs committee. Filling in as chair, Hill amended the bill without explaining what his addition would do. With the 2018 legislative session nearing its close, the committee members had a long agenda in front of them representing hours of testimony and votes, with tight deadlines to move bills to the floor. No one asked any questions or raised any objections, and the amended bill was adopted.

Hill has pushed back repeated interview requests with promises to try to talk soon. He’s involved in a heated three-way primary campaign – the election is Tuesday – to unseat sitting U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn. When his school choice bill was heard in committee, he expressed surprise that the transportation provision was controversial and suggested it could be struck from the bill to save the rest of it.

Caufield said Colorado Succeeds wasn’t involved in the decision to amend the foster youth bill, but said, “we care about what’s good for kids, so we’re excited that it crossed the finish line, even if it’s in a different form.”

Clough said Sheridan is prepared to sign on to a lawsuit. Rubin stressed that she had had only a very preliminary conversation with her school board informing them of the situation and the possibility of a lawsuit.

The law is scheduled to go into effect Aug. 9, but school districts may seek an injunction stopping the transportation provision.

Round up

What Colorado lawmakers did for and to schools in 2018

Jefferson County educators Joel Zigman and Elizabeth Hall march during a teachers rally for more educational funding at the Colorado State Capitol on Thursday, April 26. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

The Colorado General Assembly’s 2018 session ended with a down-to-the-wire compromise on pension reform that left some teachers feeling bruised, but Gov. John Hickenlooper said there should be no confusion. In a world of competing priorities, education came out ahead.

The 2018-19 budget puts more into K-12 education than the state has spent in years, and Republicans agreed to put ongoing taxpayer dollars into stabilizing the Public Employees Retirement Association system, something they had long resisted.

Making those investments is why lawmakers ended up budgeting far less money into transportation infrastructure, another top priority, than Republican leaders wanted.

“That money went to PERA and school teachers,” Hickenlooper said. “Let’s be bluntly honest about that.”

Hickenlooper, who began the session with a certain futility about increasing education spending, called it “pretty remarkable” that Colorado’s education funding shortfall is down to $672 million, when it was over $1 billion just a few years ago.

“We made major investments in K-12 education,” he said.

The education bills this year were not just about money. Lawmakers also took modest steps to address the teacher shortage, tightened up the school accountability system, made it a little easier for foster children to graduate from high school – and enabled more children from low-income families to take AP exams or just eat lunch at school.

Here’s a look at the education legislation that made it through this year:

School finance

A little more than $7 billion in base spending will go to K-12 education in 2018-19, a 6.95 percent increase from the current school year, with the state portion going up considerably more than the local share.

In addition to mandated budget increases, the bill adds $150 million more for education. That means Colorado fell $672 million short of its constitutionally required level of education funding, a gap known as the negative factor or budget stabilization factor. That gap is the smallest it has been since this budget maneuver was created during the Great Recession, but for some, its persistence is a major source of frustration.

Average per-pupil spending for 2018-19 will be around $8,137, a $475 increase from this year. That translates into millions of additional dollars for many districts. Lawmakers also sent an extra $30 million to cash-strapped rural districts and set aside $5.5 million for state-authorized charter schools to make up for local property tax revenue they don’t get.

This abundance was made possible by a booming state economy and a major compromise last year that eased the impact of constitutional restrictions on state spending. With teachers marching on the state Capitol, legislators urged local school boards to turn some of this new money into pay raises.

Two efforts to change how schools are funded failed to gain traction, though. One bill would have changed how Colorado shares money with school districts, giving much more weight to student characteristics like disability, poverty, and the need to learn English. It would have only gone into effect if voters approved a major tax increase in November.

A proposal to use incentives to get more school districts to ask voters to raise local taxes never even got introduced. It was one solution to the long-standing problem of unequal mill levies around the state, and its proponents hope that an off-season interim committee on school finance will consider it for next year.

Also going to an interim committee: some sort of fix to constitutional provisions that have had the unintended consequence of ratcheting down property taxes in rural districts.

Teacher shortage

Colorado lawmakers set aside $10 million and passed nine bills to address the shortage of teachers in some subjects and in many rural areas. The bills send $2 million to the Colorado Department of Higher Education to work with educator preparation programs and $3 million to school districts to design their own incentives to keep teachers. There are $10,000 fellowships and $6,000 stipends for rural teachers and a “grow your own” program that pays the final 36 credit hours for student teachers if they make a three-year commitment to a district.

There are also two bills that make it easier for teachers moving here from other states to get licensed and another that simplifies the background check process for student teachers.

Several hundred teachers are likely to benefit directly from these programs, but without money to raise teacher pay, especially in rural districts, the impact will be modest. Bills on loan forgiveness and improving school leadership – two strategies supported by research – didn’t pass.

Pension benefits

To address the unfunded liability in the public employee retirement system, legislators raised the retirement age to 64, increased employee contributions by 2 percentage points, and cut retirement benefits. They also boosted contributions from school districts by 0.25 percentage points.

The deal also promises that $225 million a year in taxpayer money will go into the public pension fund, something Republicans had long opposed.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, sees the compromise approved in the final hour of the 2018 session as putting too much burden on teachers.

Accountability

Struggling Colorado schools being monitored by the state will have to show more sustained improvement to avoid intervention under legislation passed this session. Requested by the Colorado Department of Education, this bill also clarifies the next steps after a school or district implements a state-ordered improvement plan, allows the state to step in earlier, and requires more communication with parents.

Lawmakers also approved changes to the READ Act, which requires schools to identify struggling readers in the early grades and provide additional support. The update seeks to ensure that schools are using appropriate materials and that they’re using money for its intended purposes. The law also creates a working group to study the READ Act plans developed by schools and recommend additional changes.

There were two changes to the factors schools use to reach state accreditation. One bill gives schools credit for the number of students who enlist in the military after graduation, similar to the credit they get for students who enroll in college, and the other gives schools credit for students who take Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes or who enroll in college classes while in high school.

Colorado lawmakers also took an additional step to prevent schools from pressuring students to take state assessments, prohibiting the use of rewards like pizza parties or raffle tickets.

College credit

Colorado has had a big push in recent years to expand access to concurrent enrollment and AP courses, particularly for low-income students and students of color. Because the courses allow students to get college credit while they’re still in high school, they’re seen as offsetting some of the cost of college, allowing students to graduate with less debt.

Lawmakers created a $500,000 grant program to help high schools cover AP exam costs for students from low-income families. At $94 apiece, the cost can really add up, yet a passing score on an exam can excuse a student from an entire college course. A federal program that reduced the cost of the exam ended in 2017.

Legislators also continued an existing pilot program that pays rural school districts for every student who takes an AP class and exam. The goal is to encourage school districts with fewer resources to offer more college-prep courses.

Lawmakers also passed a bill that requires school districts to provide more information to students and parents about the benefits of concurrent enrollment options, along with deadlines and requirements.

At the same time, they voted to restrict the expansion of so-called “early college” high schools that allow students to stay in school a fifth and sixth year while taking college classes. These programs in Eagle County and Denver Public Schools are small now, but state budget writers feared that their expansion could put a strain on school finance.

Foster youth

Youth in foster care have the lowest graduation rates in the state, much worse than homeless youth. One bill makes it easier for these children to make it across the finish line. It provides money to pay for transportation to allow them to stay in their home school, and it also provides flexibility in graduation requirements.

This makes Colorado one of the first states to comply with federal requirements about providing school transportation for youth in foster care.

School security

After a deadly shooting in Parkland, Florida, students twice marched on the state Capitol, many of them calling for more gun control. In Colorado’s split legislature, gun control is a non-starter. Instead, lawmakers voted to set aside $30 million for school security. The money can be used to provide additional training to school resource officers who are already employed, to train school staff in crisis response, and to improve the physical security of school buildings. It can’t be used to hire new school resources officers, a provision drafted in response to advocates concerned about the criminalization of students of color.

Legislators also dedicated $5 million for interoperable radio systems to allow rural school districts to more directly communicate with emergency responders.

Schools will have to apply for grants to use this money.

Well-being

Colorado elementary school students who qualify for reduced-price lunch could already get the meal for free, thanks to a state program that picks up the 40-cent cost not covered by the federal lunch program.

A new law extends that benefit to middle school students. School nutritionists had seen a big drop-off in lunch participation in middle school, and they hope this program encourages more kids to eat at school. Advocates also hope it reduces the practice of “lunch shaming,” in which kids are denied hot lunch and given crackers or other small snacks to get their parents to pay outstanding lunch debt.

Lawmakers also made a small step to address youth suicide, the second leading cause of death of people aged 10 to 24 in Colorado. Grants will help schools train staff in recognizing the warning signs of suicide and in how to get help for children in crisis.

Early childhood

Lawmakers extended a tax credit for people who donate to child care centers. This credit, which allows donors to take half the value of their donation as an income tax credit, is an important incentive in the eyes of people who run these businesses.

Another bill created a licensing process for substitute early-childhood teachers that advocates hope will ease staffing shortages.

Of more significance to middle- and upper-class families, Colorado lawmakers expanded the income tax credit for child care expenses. Parents can take a percentage of their federal child care credit as a state tax credit. This bill raises the income limit to take advantage of this tax credit from $60,000 to $150,000 and increases the percentage of the federal credit that can be applied to state taxes.

Rural broadband

Money from a fund previously used to subsidize rural telephone service will be invested in broadband construction through 2023. Bringing high-speed internet to remote parts of Colorado is key to economic development and the provision of modern health care. It also will allow students in rural schools to use the same online resources that other students do. This is a long-standing priority of Hickenlooper, realized in his final year in office.

School construction and repair

Colorado will put more marijuana tax money into the BEST program, which gives out grants to school districts for building repairs and, occasionally, new buildings. A bill lifted a $40 million cap on marijuana excise tax revenue going to the program. However, the money won’t go as far as it could have because lawmakers are hesitant to borrow against pot money in an uncertain regulatory environment.