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Daily searches of students deemed to be threats not unusual, says safety expert

“It’s based on past behavior," said John McDonald, former Jefferson County Public School District security chief.

DENVER — Denver Public Schools and other Denver metro school districts have policies that allow for students to be searched, including for weapons. 

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

“This particular student, actually, had a safety plan that was in place where they were to be searched at the beginning of the school day every day. They had been searched previously to today and had never had a weapon on them before,” Thomas said. “During that search, which took place away from other students, away from other school staff, they did produce that weapon and fired shots.”

“It’s based on past behavior, and that’s as far as I can feel comfortable saying. It’s as a result of previous behavior,” Marrero said. “This is common for all schools and all districts. It’s part of what we have in making sure that we can support the needs and behavioral needs of all students, so it’s very common across the nation.”

And that is accurate.

School district policies include provisions on when and how students can be searched.

“It’s not unusual to have this level of search conducted on multiple students in your building at any given day,” said John McDonald, former Jefferson County Public School District security chief.

McDonald now works for Council for School Safety Leadership, which provides on-scene incident response, crisis communications and critical incident training to school principals, school boards and superintendents.

Safety plans can range from keeping distractions out of school to concerns about weapons and safety.

“Some students, for example, on a safety plan, we may say, ‘You can’t bring a cell phone into school.’ Maybe because you engaged in behavior that was inappropriate on the cell phone, so we’re going to search you every day to make sure you don’t have a cell phone on you. Some cases, it may be, ‘We’re worried about weapons because of a threat you made,’” McDonald said.

Denver Public Schools has a campus safety policy listed on its website.

The policy is from the 2018-19 school year. Next with Kyle Clark has asked for the current policy.

Under the listed policy, it says a pat down of the student can happen.

In accordance with a safety plan identified through the District Threat Assessment process developed pursuant to district policy, a school leader or designee may search the person of a student … if the school official has reasonable grounds to suspect that the search will uncover:

  1. Evidence of a violation of Board and/or district policies, school rules, or federal, state, or local laws.
  2. Anything which, because of its presence, presents an immediate danger of physical harm or illness to any person.

The policy states that the search shall be down away from other students “as privately as practicable.”

Then, in bold print, the policy states: “If it is suspected that a student has a weapon, an employee of the DPS Department of Safety must conduct a search regardless of gender.”

A DPS spokesman told Next with Kyle Clark that staff, and not a security officer, conducted the search of Lyle.

“If there’s a reasonable suspicion that you feel a student may bring a weapon, and you’ve taken that substantial step to say that ‘before you can come in the building, you have to get searched every day,’ it’s really important to be consistent in your practice and be consistent in your search technique,” McDonald said. “Denver Public Schools has a top-tier school safety department; they are well trained.”

McDonald said that the security officer training should include contingencies for what might be found.

“What were your counter measures if you did find a weapon? How would you handle that? What was your prevention tool, if any, to make sure if you found a weapon that the student wasn’t able to fire shots?” McDonald said.

He said it is possible to train administrators to do student searches.

“It’s important that we’re training them on how to do that search, both of the backpack if there’s a backpack involved, and of the person. If you can, you should always have a campus security officer there or a school resource officer. You always want that person that’s well trained to handle those situations,” McDonald said.

Jefferson County Public Schools policy allows for pat down searches, as does Cherry Creek School District and Aurora Public Schools

If a student is subject to a search for weapons, why is the student allowed in school at all?

“So, that’s the great struggle that schools have right now. Here in lies the issue. We have to educate our students,” McDonald said. “Safety plans are a step before you make the determination did that student is not safe enough to be on school property.”

McDonald is a proponent of trained law enforcement in school settings.

“I’d want an SRO (school resource officer) there in every school if I possibly could,” McDonald said. “In Colorado, there are some significant requirements that you have to meet to become an SRO, including enhanced training on how to work with students in educational settings.”

McDonald knows that an SRO does not mean a shooting would not happen, but he believes it is a deterrent.

“There have been a lot of school shootings around the country where an SRO has been in the building. What I will say is this, an SRO always provide you an advantage, always provides you a safer and more secure school setting. You have a professional threat detector in your midst,” McDonald said.

Marrero sent a letter to the Denver Public Schools school board saying that he would be bringing back armed Denver Police Officers to each high school, in violation of a board policy that took DPD officers out of school in 2020.

Aurora Public Schools has two SROs in each of its five high schools. Cherry Creek Schools have an SRO in each high school, as does Jefferson County Public Schools.

“Kids are feeling anxious, teachers are worried and nervous, you just had two people shot in your school, there’s a lot of trauma that comes with that, so the police officers can help reduce that trauma,” McDonald said. “The climate and culture of a school is always enhanced by a good school resource officer. School resource officers are not just a cop in a uniform in a school, they become a trusted adult for these kids.”

He cautioned that it requires the right officer in school.

“It’s putting in police officers that actually like kids. Not every cop works well with kids. So you want to find police officers that enjoy working with juveniles, working with high school students, and that can add value to that environment, that provide that calm in a pretty chaotic environment right now,” McDonald said.

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