By Kati Weis

DENVER (CBS4) — It’s been a full semester since Denver Public Schools eliminated school resource officers and is only using its in-house security guard unit instead. The elimination was meant to help reduce the “school to prison pipeline,” but some students say they still feel unsafe at school.

(credit: CBS)

“I mean, it’s the same thing, there has been no change there,” said Evelyn Gonzales Miranda, a sophomore at DPS’ Abraham Lincoln High School. “We’re still being targeted; students are always having to look over their shoulders.”

Gonzales Miranda says she and her friends feel uncomfortable around some of DPS’ in-house safety patrol officers.

“I don’t feel super safe as most kids should be,” Gonzales Miranda said.

Another student at a DPS high school, Jacóbo Gracia-Meza, also says his friends have been unfairly targeted by DPS’ safety patrol officers.

“(One of my friends) was just walking home from school with friends, and she noticed that an officer was following them, and my friend confronts the officer, and the officer tells her that he was just following them to make sure they don’t do nothing, because they seem suspicious, and my friend was confused, because they weren’t doing anything,” Gracia-Meza said. “She was furious.”

This, as police data obtained by CBS4 Investigates shows an increase in calls for some violent crimes in schools last semester, even as overall calls for police help in Denver schools are down.

Some say that’s why having some sort of security officer program in school is important.

CBS4 Investigates looked into the numbers for calls for police service to DPS high schools and compared last semester to the fall semesters of 2019 and 2018 — since school wasn’t in person for much of 2020.

(credit: CBS)

While overall, Denver Police were called less to DPS high schools last semester than before, calls for some violent crimes increased.

There were 88 sex assault calls in fall 2021 compared to only 37 in the fall 2019. There were eight assault in-progress calls in fall 2021 compared to only two in 2019, and 23 concealed weapon calls in fall 2021 compared to 19 in 2019.

While the DPS safety patrol officers that replaced Denver police SROs had the ability to write tickets to students last semester, the district says officers didn’t write any tickets to students, but instead turned over 55 cases to Denver Police.
The district would not say what types of crimes those cases involved.

In a memo last September to the activist group Movimiento Poder, DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero wrote about some of the crimes the district was seeing.

“There has been a 5% increase in assaults. Of those 38 incidents, only one student was ticketed and/or arrested by Denver Police,” Marrero wrote. “There has been a 21% increase in fights at school (81 total this year) – no one ticketed, and parents were encouraged to allow the discipline process to handle the situation rather than pressing charges.”

But Movimiento Poder believes DPS should spend more money on mental health resources for students, instead of security guards, to deal with school crime.

“Students, community members, parents… have mentioned that they have seen an increase of patrol officers in specific schools and specific neighborhoods,” said Elizabeth Burciaga, a lead organizer with Movimiento Poder.

Movimiento Poder led the charge for a resolution the DPS school board approved two years ago to remove SROs from the district. The group says the security guards as a replacement is not what the resolution called for.

RELATED: Calls For Police Backup In Aurora High Schools With SROs Higher Than Denver High Schools, Data Shows

“This has already been in the works for many years in Denver Public Schools,” Burciaga said. “The fact that we have to remind the district to implement this resolution is very concerning, especially because it impacts so many of our historically underrepresented students.”

The group wants DPS to take out its security guards too, saying they have been intimidating students more than helping.

“There are data that shows that if we actually invest in mental health and resources for our students and community members, a lot of the issues of violence and crime would be reduced,” Burciaga said.

DPS School Board Member Tay Anderson says he doesn’t support the complete removal of security guards from schools.

“I believe that in all areas of security enforcement, there needs to be additional training around centering the needs of BIPOC individuals,” Anderson said.

DPS says it has hired 15 new social workers this year that are spread across the largest district in the state.

Students like Gonzales Miranda and Garcia-Meza say there are still long wait lists for counseling in their schools.

(credit: Katie Wood/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

“We are not being supported, our system has been failing us constantly,” Gonzales Miranda said. “I think that’s why a lot of bad things happen.”

The DPS superintendent declined an interview for this story, but the district issued the following written statement to CBS4 Investigates:

“Providing for the safety and security of our school communities is always our highest priority, and it takes on added importance at times when crime rates are increasing and impacting our school communities. We know that there is a need for safety and mental health professionals to work collaboratively in keeping our school communities safe. The Denver Public Schools Department of Safety not only works to protect students and educators from outside threats, but also manages situations involving students at our schools. When disciplinary action is necessary, Dept. of Safety officers work within the school district’s discipline matrix to address incidents that may have, in the past, been referred to law enforcement.

“The leadership of the Dept. of Safety recognizes that there have been instances of disproportionality in managing discipline, whether intentional or unintentional, that negatively impact students of color. Our Dept. of Safety officers participate in a variety of trainings every year. Subjects covered are not solely related to their safety and security duties. It also includes instruction on equity, racial biases, and microaggressions. This work by the Dept. of Safety is intentional in addressing disproportionality and being proactive in solutions to address inequity.”

Kati Weis