By Kati Weis

AURORA, Colo. (CBS4) – Public high schools in Aurora that have school resource officers called for police help at a much higher rate last semester than high schools in Denver, according to government data obtained by CBS4 Investigates. In the fall of 2021, Denver high schools had an average of 15 calls for police backup per school, while Aurora high schools had an average of 50 calls for police service per high school with an SRO.

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Overall, calls for police service in Aurora high schools were down last semester compared to fall semesters of 2019 and 2018. But recent incidents in Aurora schools, like the November shooting at the Hinkley High School parking lot, which left three students injured, has community members wondering what more can be done to curb violence in schools.

Experts say SROs may not be the answer for better school security.

“Through survey work, there is not any evidence of greater perceptions of deterrence, likelihood of being caught for example, by students in the presence of police in schools versus no police in schools,” explains Ryan King, Director of Research and Policy at the Justice Policy Institute. “Some comparison studies between schools with and without police have not shown any meaningful difference in crime rates. So, you’re not really getting much bang for your buck in terms of public safety.”

King says his research has found officers in schools can often hurt students more than help.

“The presence of police officers in schools increases arrests for non-criminal behavior…. which then sort of has the opportunity of shuffling people into what we call the school to prison pipeline,” King said.

But Sgt. Kevin Palacio — a former Aurora Police SRO — tells CBS4 Investigates that officers in Aurora care deeply about helping students.

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“SROs are more than just officers, we’re also parents, we’re brothers, sisters, so we have kids, as well, and we know how we want our kids to be treated, and we have to be able to bridge that gap,” Palacio said. “You know, we don’t want the kids to see us as an enforcer… we want it to be so that if they have an issue, they know they can come to us, and we can maybe help them in one way or another.”

When Palacio was promoted to head of patrol, comments flooded Aurora police’s Facebook page from former students, saying how much of an impact he had on their lives.

“It felt it felt really good,” Palacio said. “It made me feel like I am making a difference, even though I can’t save every kid, if I save one, then that’s good enough.”

King says what’s important for schools to have is more staff that can connect with students.

“Where there has been research identified that school police officers have been effective, has been the ones who’ve taken the time to build the relationships with students to get to know them, because then they start to get to sort of have their own sort of proverbial ear to the ground and have a sense of what’s going on,” King said. “So, when we talk about removing police from schools, we’re not necessarily talking about replacing it with nothing … but whether that’s some sort of school security officer, counselors and social workers, individuals who whose first move is not necessarily the justice system, but who builds trusting relationships with students, so that they know things in advance, so that things can be prevented.”

Aurora Public Schools did not respond to requests for an interview with the superintendent on this issue, but did provide data showing the number of mental health professionals in the district has increased significantly over the last few years — from only 249 last year, to now 277.

Denver Public Schools removed SROs for the 2021-2022 school year. CBS4 Investigates will have a story examining the situation in that district on CBS4 News at 10 p.m. this Sunday, following the Grammy Awards.

Kati Weis