Denver, CO

Counselor, parent say Denver schools no longer safe

David Heitz

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After eliminating most school resource officers, a Denver East High School counselor says the school district needs a better safety plan.

At the Dec. 15 school board meeting, Mario Ortiz told the council that chaos had broken out without the officers. He said he told Denver school board member Tay Anderson in March 2021 that the school district needed a "well-defined safety plan especially in response to getting rid of the (school resource officers) in our buildings.

"Two months later East High School ended our school year with two bomb-threat lockdowns," Ortiz said. "Do you know how our school year started this year?"

In the first week of school, he said a fight erupted in front of the building. One of the students suffered broken teeth, a broken nose, and a concussion. He said a relative of the instigator would not allow district staff to break up the fight.

Ortiz said getting rid of the school resource officers was the wrong decision and that the district should have asked for teachers' opinions on the matter.

The school district did not respond to multiple requests for comment by NewsBreak.

Board replaces sworn officers with 'patrol officers'

Last June, the school board voted to end its contract with the Denver Police Department for school resource officers. This is the first school year without them.

The district still has security, but now they are district employees. About 20 Denver Public Schools patrol officers and a van respond to incidents as needed. The district does not assign patrol officers to specific schools.

The patrol officers carry guns but are not sworn police officers. They can cite students for minor infractions, including drug possession, fighting and vandalism.

But Ortiz said the school safety officers take too long to respond. He and another teacher broke up a fight before Thanksgiving break after it took eight minutes for patrol staff and a dean of students to respond.

He said that during the 10 days before Thanksgiving break, the school had a "safe to tell threat" every day.

"I'm speaking today about a decision you all made to get rid of our SROs," Ortiz told the board. "When this decision was made, you said there would be a plan. You said you would put aside money for us to hire in-building personnel to respond when situations arise. This was your decision."

Student references mass shooter

Ortiz said that around the November shootings at Aurora high schools, just 10 miles away, a Denver East High School student gave a teacher a video submission that showed the first-person perspective of a mass shooter.

Ortiz said the Denver Police Department recommended the student be assessed for threats right away. Instead, he returned the next day and attended four classes before being evaluated.

"I'm imploring this board to do something to address the complete and utter lack of safety in our buildings," Ortiz said.

"Talk to your educators in your buildings and see how they feel. Come to school for a week and experience the sheer terror and horror that we experience weekly. What's at stake are the lives and well-being of all our district's students, parents, faculty, staff and administration."

He said students are dealing with trauma every single day, "and we need to address this immediately."

KUSA 9 News reported in November that the district's safety department recorded a 25 percent increase in calls over 2019, according to Michael Eaton, chief of the district's department of public safety.

"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," he said.

School safety chief admits assigned officers made a difference

Eaton admitted that no longer having school resource officers has made a difference. "The loss of SROs has been challenging to our school communities. I'm not going to deny that," he told 9 News.

But the board eliminated the sworn officers for a reason, patrol officer Nicholas Vasu told CBS4 Denver.

"We have to be intentional about reducing the school to prison pipeline, and not write tickets to students unless all other opportunities for intervention have been exhausted," he said. "I make mistakes, kids absolutely make mistakes, teenagers absolutely make mistakes, and we don't want one mistake when you're 15, 16, 17 to affect you for the rest of your life."

Parent Michelle Lopez also pleaded for the return of school resource officers at the Dec. 15 meeting.

She is more afraid for her child's safety now.

"I am begging you to hire more and do more to protect our children against harm."

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best local newspapers in the country. Today, I report on Denver City Hall, homelessness and other topics for NewsBreak, much like I did in my twenties covering Newport Beach, Calif. for the Daily Pilot. I consider myself a lucky guy to still be doing what I love after so many years.

Denver, CO
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