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.

out of pocket

Pencils, shelving, wiggly chairs: What Colorado teachers bought for their classrooms — and why

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry provided the pencil totes, floor dots, balls and wiggle seats, and everything you see on the shelves out of her own pocket.

The rugs and bean bag chairs, the workboxes full of hands-on learning games, the file folders that help her track student progress — all came out of special education teacher Laura Keathley’s own pocket.

Robyn Premo, a high school science teacher, buys styrofoam and cans, glass rods and balloons, patches of fur and s’mores ingredients — just about all the materials except beakers that her students need to do hands-on experiments.

Marcea Copeland-Rodden, a middle school social studies teacher, bought an air-conditioning unit for her classroom because it was so hot students were getting bloody noses.

And everyone buys loads and loads of pencils.

“I don’t think that not having a pencil is a reason a kid should not learn today,” Premo said.

There’s nothing new about teachers spending money on their classrooms, but as rising housing prices and stagnant wages put more pressure on working families and as academic expectations rise even in kindergarten, teachers have to dig deep to meet their students’ basic needs and outfit their school rooms.

A national survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that 94 percent of teachers spend their own money for their students, with the average teacher spending $479 in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available.

When the Colorado Education Association surveyed more than 2,000 members in 2017, they reported spending an average of $656 out of their own pocket on classroom supplies.

The usual caveat applies: These numbers are self-reported.

To better understand what this looks like in Colorado classrooms, Chalkbeat reached out to teachers around the state to ask how much they spent out of pocket, what they bought, and why.

The teachers who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey work in districts large and small, urban and rural, and spent anywhere from $75 to $2,000. Most respondents spent several hundred dollars, and the majority said they do not get a stipend for school supplies.

Their spending covers the most basic of classroom supplies — pens, pencils, glue sticks, crayons, paper, folders, notebooks — but also the things that make classrooms feel inviting, that make learning engaging, that help a kid get through the day. Teachers bought snacks and spare clothes, earbuds for students to listen to audio books as part of reading lessons, wiggly chairs and yoga balls for fidgety learners, classroom decorations, tissues and wipes, prizes for good work and good behavior, fish for the fish tank, storage bins and shelving and fabric for makeshift blinds.

Premo teaches chemistry and physics at Westminster High School. Her department gets a $3,000 supply budget for the high school’s 2,400 kids. She emphasizes that she thinks her school is doing everything it can, but if she didn’t reach into her own pocket, her students would mostly experience science in online simulations.

“That is not, in my opinion, sufficient for rigorous, authentic science instruction, so I make the personal contributions to give my kids those learning opportunities,” she said.

Premo spent $2,000 getting ready for the school year, the most of any teacher who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey. She said she’s able to contribute more than many teachers, so she does.

“There are some fantastic online simulations, but kids learn better when they get to put their hands on things,” she said.

Fur patches help demonstrate static electricity, and s’mores help illustrate principles of chemical reactions. All these materials add up, and many of them are consumed in the process of lab work.

If Premo didn’t spend her own money, “we would run out of pencils very quickly. And we would run out of lab materials, and they would not be able to do anything hands-on. And we would lose our ability to be creative. We would work very bare-bones. It would be a lot of listening, a lot of videos.”

Laura Henry teaches kindergarten in Aurora Public Schools. It’s her 29th year in the classroom, and as kindergarten has moved away from play and more toward academics, she’s spent more and more of her own money on curriculum supplies.

Her school provides $500 a semester to each grade level, which has to be shared among three teachers, and the money goes fast. Teachers also get $10 a month for copying, which she burns through quickly, so she bought her own printer just for school use.

Because most of the students come from low-income families, the school tries to keep the school supply list modest, closer to $25, but only about three-quarters of the students bring in supplies.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry’s classroom after it has been cleaned during the summer. With the exception of the red shelf, a few alternative seating items, and the pencil coat rack, these items are school purchased.

She spent about $500 of her own money getting ready for the school year, on everything from folders to hold student poems to snacks and wipes to materials for dramatic play, building toys, puppet theater, books, and more.

“Kindergarten is supply-heavy because we use construction paper and glue like there is no tomorrow,” she said.

Many of our survey respondents said they don’t use online fundraisers like Donors Choose because the only people who donate are friends and family, and teachers feel bad hitting them up over and over again. Henry encounters the same dilemma, but she did turn to it this year for $550 in science and engineering supplies: gears, a light table, animal X-rays, a microscope and more.

Another advantage of Donors Choose: The money she puts into it herself is tax deductible, unlike the rest of what she spends on her classroom.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Kindergarten teacher Laura Henry purchased the housekeeping table and chairs, everything on the wall and shelves, the books in the bin, tool bench, and playground buckets for her Aurora classroom.

Henry said she used to sometimes feel resentful about spending her own money, when her friends get reimbursed for their work expenses, but now she “rolls with it” as part of the teaching profession.

But she sees the lack of supplies as one more stumbling block for young teachers.

“I see these new teachers come in, and they’re so ready and eager to make a difference, and they don’t know how they get supplies or how they get copies,” she said. “I don’t know that our school board is even fully aware of how much we’re lacking at the classroom level. I don’t need 8,000 consultants to help me. I need my classroom funded.”

Keathley runs a multi-needs special education room with two paraprofessionals at Avery-Parsons Elementary in the Buena Vista district in the Arkansas Valley. She spent $485 getting the classroom ready this year. A lot of that money went to filing systems that help the teachers keep track of each student’s needs and progress. It also went to bulletin board supplies. These boards serve as the “411 wall” with everything kids need to know for the day, from what their classroom job is to what outside appointments they have.

PHOTO: Laura Keathley
The bulletin board in Laura Keathley’s Buena Vista classroom serves as a 411 wall for her students. She purchases all the supplies for the board herself.

Keathley and her team used their own money to outfit the “crash corner,” where students go when they need to decompress with fidget toys in a giant bean bag chair, and to make workboxes with activities that students can work on independently throughout the day.

Keathley said she hardly asks her parents for any school supplies.

“We know that a lot of times parents of kids with disabilities, we know their money goes other places and they spend so much on special things for their kids, we don’t want to ask them,” she said.

Without her own investment in the classroom, it would be a very different place.

“I could go with what the school provided me and stay within my budget, but my classroom would not be the place I would like it to be,” she said. “We wouldn’t have rugs. We wouldn’t have nearly the supplies to give snacks or do cooking in the classroom. Our desks would be much more utilitarian, and we wouldn’t have much on the walls.”

Copeland-Rodden teaches seventh grade social studies at Pueblo Academy of the Arts in southern Colorado.

She spent $500 this year, more than most, because she dropped $350 on the air conditioning unit. It might seem like an extravagance, but after years of buying more and more fans, for minimal relief, it felt like a necessity.

“It’s just really hot in the classroom,” she said. “We have kids get bloody noses, that’s how bad it is. By sixth and seventh period, everybody is done. They don’t do their work. They fall asleep. They get cranky and angry at each other. It makes it tough on everyone.”

She also bought materials for Civil War shadow puppets and other projects that will make history come alive, but most of her classroom spending is on basic supplies. She doesn’t feel like she can ask parents, most of whom are low-income, to pay for supplies when she only has their child for one period a day. Out of 130 students, one brought in a box of tissues at the start of the school year.

“I spend so much on pencils,” she said. “It’s not just once. I go through a big 50-pack of pencils every month. Every class there’s at least one kid who has lost a pencil. I’ve given up trying to get back the pencils.”

She used to ask kids for something in exchange for the pencil to prompt them to return it, but too many kids had nothing to give.

“One boy said, ‘Here’s a shoe,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want your shoe,’” she said. “I have kids walking from class to class with nothing.”

Teaching has been this way for a long time, and the teachers who talked to Chalkbeat don’t see it changing anytime soon.

“If we all collectively agreed we weren’t going to pay for school supplies, maybe eventually someone would do something,” Premo said. “But I don’t want to risk this year’s kids to make that point.”

Super Search

‘Who we are:’ Denver’s background statement for superintendent candidates, annotated

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Denver Public School Superintendent Tom Boasberg speaks to faculty during a town hall meeting in Denver on Aug. 20, 2013.

For the first time in more than a decade, the Denver school district is searching the nation for its next superintendent. The school board recently hired a big search firm to help find candidates to replace Tom Boasberg, who is stepping down in October.

The board also penned a four-page document introducing the 92,600-student district – and its greatest strengths and weaknesses – to potential future leaders.

“The point of this document is to make a statement to those who would apply and to the community that we understand how important this job is,” board member Happy Haynes explained at a recent meeting where the document was unveiled. “We wanted to make sure people have a holistic view of our district: the good, the bad, and everything in between.”

Chalkbeat has embedded the full document below. We’ve also annotated it with explanations and context about the various initiatives described in it, as well as links to our previous coverage and to other sources. Click on the highlighted yellow passages to read our annotations.