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Denver Public Schools patrol officers can write legal citations to students for minor offenses

Advocates believe this will perpetuate the issue of minorities being targeted in what's called the school-to-prison pipeline.

DENVER — Teacher Ben Isaac says learning in school is not just about words and numbers--it's also about students learning their identities.

"Being a Black, male teacher, especially teaching language arts, looking the way that I do with all the tattoos and the gauges and the hair and whatever, it lets them know that, wow, I don't have to abandon my identity or who I am to be professional and responsible," Isaac said.

Isaac teaches on the Montbello Campus in Denver, one of 18 campuses where school resource officers provided by Denver Police were removed last school year because the school board believed it pushed too many students to be identified as criminals.

"Those kids that don't enjoy school, it's because something negative happened in their educational experience that shaped their opinion of what school is," Isaac said.

Picking up the slack for the school resource officers are people like Nick Vasu. He is a Denver Public Schools Patrol Officer. They drive patrol cars, carry guns, and look like police officers. But, they are not.

"I think we serve a very important role. I think what's really important is that we are Denver Public Schools employees and so our mission is students first," Vasu said.

Mike Eaton runs the DPS Department of Safety like a small police department. The district has a dispatch center, which can send armed officers to a school if trouble arises.

"They are assigned to patrol districts and they provide response when needed," Eaton said.

Now, under an agreement with the City of Denver, DPS patrol officers can write official citations to students for minor offenses.

"So, those are things like marijuana possession. Those are things like vandalism, low-level assaults, trespassing," Eaton said.

Elsa Banuelos doesn't like it.

"It's a slap in the face," Banuelos said. "I'm also a parent. I'm a DPS parent. So, it's also a very personal issue for me."

Banuelos runs Padres y Jovenes Unidos, an advocacy group fighting for years against what she calls a "school-to-prison pipeline" for students of color.

"When our students get a ticket, it's an actual police ticket and that's the beginning of going into the prison system," Banuelos said.

For example, in the 2019-2020 school year, the Colorado Department of Education shows that DPS referred 400 students to Denver Police for arrest or citation. Of those students, 82% were Black or Latino and 9.5% were white. Compare that to the student population: 66% Black and Latino, and 26% white.

"I don't know about the idea of blemishing a record, because to be honest, for students of color that blemished record plays out completely different for them," Isaac said.

Banuelos said removing police officers from schools was supposed to help the problem.

"The same police that are traumatizing our communities are the same police in our schools," Banuelos said.

She feels the district essentially pulled a bait and switch.

"They are okay with finding other ways to still issue tickets to our kids," Banuelos said.

Eaton sees it differently. He said the power to write tickets is also the power not to write them. 

"Our intent is to not write tickets," Eaton said. "Our intent is to use our existing resources to support those kids."

Vasu said he can still address immediate threats and confiscate things like drugs to keep campuses safe and secure.

"So, we are able to give that discretion. We're able to not have to cite or issue a summons to a student," Vasu said. "The difference is that I am not a sworn law enforcement officer, working for a police department or county sheriff department. I'm a Denver Public School employee."

Eaton said previously the district had to call Denver Police for minor infractions like marijuana possession, and the likely outcome was the Denver police officer had to write a ticket.

"I don't see a difference," Banuelos said.

Eaton said the difference is in the numbers. He said there are serious offenses where Denver Police have to be called. So far this school year, school patrol officers have already confiscated four loaded guns on campus and multiple weapons, including a machete, while calling police. 

Still, Eaton said overall calls to police are way down compared to 2019. He said there has been an increase in marijuana possession at school by 39%, yet DPS wrote zero tickets and handled the issues internally. Fights are up 21%, Eaton said, but no tickets were written to students, keeping these offenses as school matters, not legal matters.

"We're talking about low-level, municipal infractions that most likely end up in court and a monetary ticket issued that we could do much better for students by offering our wraparound services with evidence-based approaches," Eaton said.

Suspensions or expulsions are always a possibility. But Eaton said the preferred method is restorative justice, where a student works with an adult to make amends for an offense and work on the reasons why a student made a decision to misbehave.

Banuelos supports restorative justice, but she does not believe DPS taking control over writing citations is the answer.

"Anytime you have police in our schools, it will continue to be the same problem," Banuelos said. "It's not a solution."

Isaac believes the best way to break the "pipeline" has nothing to do with tickets or security. He said it's about relationships.

"They love the discipline. They love when I talk to them. There's a sincerity in my words. They each get individual attention when they come in my room and they do that check-in. I talk to all of them," Isaac said.

In Thursday's school board meeting, Superintendent Alex Marrero presented data on the security changes. He said, so far, DPS patrol officers have not issued any tickets.

Isaac hopes that stays true to form.

"We will see," Isaac said.

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