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Attorney: School safety plans usually required when student faces criminal charges

The Denver East High student who shot two deans was under a safety plan that required him to be searched at school.

DENVER — Denver Public School families still have questions about how a child who needed daily searches for weapons could still be allowed in school. 

In March, a 17-year-old student was the suspect in a shooting at Denver's East High School that wounded two school deans. Both DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero and Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas said that the student was under a safety plan that required him to be searched at school.  

These safety plans feel routine for attorney Jessica Peck who practices family and juvenile law in the Denver-metro area. 

"Safety plans are almost always required in any case where a kid is going to get out of court and not be sent to jail," she said. "The effects of young teens being sent to detention – in other words, sent to jail – are pretty dramatic. So what we try to do is we say – let’s keep kids in our community to every extent we can."

She said it is not uncommon for kids to be required to enroll in school as a term of their probation or pre-trial release. 

"The number of juvenile detention facility beds that we have available for young offenders is very, very low," said Peck. "That means any kid convicted of a crime – except for the most serious crimes – is going to get out."

A different case in 2018 provides more insight on how this works. Court documents from Colorado's Court of Appeals says in December 2018 a Denver Public Schools student went to juvenile court for felony menacing and possession of a handgun. A judge adjudicated the student delinquent, which meant he was found not guilty. 

In January 2019, according to the records, a district threat appraisal team completed a full threat appraisal. They created a safety plan for the student. 

In February 2019, the documents say the same student was involved in a motor vehicle theft, so the high school amended the safety plan. He was required to be searched every day by administrators and security, and the student was not allowed to have a locker. 

The child's mother tried to enroll him in a different high school in the Denver district for the 2019-2020 academic year. That other school put him on a waitlist. 

"A requirement of [the child's] probation, however, was enrollment in high school," said the court documents. "Thus, as the new academic year approached, [the child's] mother hastily arranged for him to return to the same public high school he had attended the prior year."

A few days into the new school year court documents say a campus security officer found a fully loaded handgun in the child's backpack.

The dean of students sent his mom a suspension note.

"Every child in America and in Colorado has a right to a free and appropriate school education," said Peck. "This right doesn't exclude kids accused of a serious crimes."

Peck said there's nothing in state law that says a child must go to a specific school. The student who pulled a trigger at East High last month had been removed from another district for violating policy. Before shooting two administrators, the student had only been at East for two months. 

"I don't think we have yet perfected the way to keep kids safe while also balancing the needs of those who are accused," said Peck. 

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