DENVER — Denver Public Schools (DPS) is seeing an increase in fights, weapons and threats this school year. They've confiscated more loaded guns on or near school this semester than the fall of 2019 – which was before the pandemic changed student learning.
"I am very concerned, right," said Michael Eaton, chief of department of safety for DPS. "My job is to keep schools safe. My job is to ensure students can thrive in a safe environment and not worry about their physical safety."
He said calls to the department of safety are up 25% – this compared to numbers in fall 2019. Eaton has never seen numbers like this in the 10 years he has been in his security position.
"We have a lot of students who are exhibiting severe behavior issues and we are seeing increases in our threats, in our suicide threats, in our fights, students bringing guns to school," said Eaton.
The district found eight loaded guns on or around school grounds, multiple knives, and even a machete. DPS confiscated four guns at this time back in 2019.
Fights are up nearly 35%. Eaton said most of them are fights between students, but they have had fights that involved a parent and a student.
According to the district's safety department, suicide threats are also up about 500% compared to fall 2019.
Students and staff are reporting concerns to the department of safety or to a social worker on campus. The district begins a suicide risk review as early as possible so they can can quickly offer services to that student.
If they get a concern after hours, the district goes to homes with the Denver Police Department and a mental health clinician from Denver Health to make sure the student is safe.
They are focusing on the tools they have available, such as Safe to Tell, to learn about students who are struggling. "Gaggle" also allows the district to monitor all of the student's Gmail accounts.
"I think we have to acknowledge we were in remote learning for quite some time and now we are having students come back in a learning environment and for some students, change is hard," said Eaton.
Before the pandemic, the district had 17 school resource officers at 17 schools. For context, there are more than 200 DPS schools. This school year, students went back to class without school resource officers.
Eaton can't say if or how much the absence of school resource officers is contributing to these numbers.
"The loss of SROs has been challenging for our school communities. I am not going to deny that," said Eaton. "However, it is our job to fill that gap. How do we continue to support our students, keep them safe in the environment they are in."
School leaders acknowledge the pandemic has made this a tough year for students and staff and Eaton believes it's playing a role in students' behavior this year.
"Everyone is challenged with resources," he said. "We are trying to tackle that and get people into the right positions to support those kids."
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