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SRO removal: best of plans, worst of plans

It was the best of plans, it was the worst of plans.

With apologies to Dickens, this adaptation of his words aptly describes a tumultuous year for the Denver Public Schools Board of Education. A combination of tragic events at East High School focused community wrath on its adoption of a policy in 2020 to remove School Resource Officers (SROs) from schools. 

At the same time, as happens following every shooting, there is renewed attention to the importance of addressing mental health issues as part of the solution for making schools safer. 

The violence at East led to immediate condemnations of the board for incompetence while the creeping progress of mental health work, which is not nearly as dramatic nor as immediately impactful as gun violence, makes evaluating the board’s performance on this front more difficult to do. 

What is apparent about the board is the divergence between the approaches they took in addressing each issue that reveals their best and their worst.

Dickens’ famous passage continues, “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” There is an ever-present tension between wisdom and foolishness when it comes to making public policy. Elected leaders at times appear willing to make decisions after thoughtful consideration, supported by evidence and incremental progress with sincere belief in the wisdom of a proposed policy. At other times, the same elected leaders are ready to make decisions rooted in emotion and advanced with foolish recklessness.

In May, 2023, DPS issued a press release on the progress of its best of plans. After passage of a mill levy override in 2020, the district started applying some $3 million of funds to provide improved mental health services in schools via the Therapeutic Service Provider Program. The pilot program put 13 mental health professionals into schools to provide individual and group therapeutic support for students. 

The executive summary of the program available on the board website gives every indication that the program rollout included careful consideration of how it can be most successful before expanding its reach. 

In early 2023, this program was merged with the Substance Use Prevention Program and School Health Professionals Program, which, per the press release, allowed for an increase in the number of mental health professionals to 30. The number of students who have received services is now over 1,000.

Obviously, 30 mental health professionals for a student population of nearly 90,000 is still inadequate, but given that such programs did not exist at all until recently, it is a small step in the right direction. 

While the long-term efficacy of the district’s efforts to improve mental health services is unclear at this stage, it is clear that the effort involves an attempt to be reflective and accumulate evidence to support the choices for advancing the program. 

Measures like these are prerequisites for good policymaking and if all policies were made with such intentionality, perhaps there would be less skepticism about the ability of government programs to deliver on their promises.

In contrast, withdrawing SROs from schools was the worst of plans. 

The resolution adopted by the board is filled with high-minded rhetoric like addressing the “school-to-prison pipeline” and invokes the need to address both systemic racism and inequities in enforcement with respect to students of color. 

Unfortunately, the resolution and its subsequent implementation lacked substantive support for how removing SROs would actually achieve these grand objectives.

When then-Superintendent Susana Cordova made a statement to CBS News about the board’s decision, she said, “George Floyd’s death, and every tragic death of black people at the hands of law enforcement, have brought to light how we as a district can respond and do more for our students of color.” 

Her statement underscored the extraordinary frustration felt by many about inaction in the face of racial injustice and highlighted this as informing the board’s desire to do something in response.

When politicians feel a need to be seen as doing something about a problem that inflames people’s passions, they become prone to overreach. Superintendent Cordova’s statement indicates that the hasty adoption of the resolution to remove SROs as an antidote for a host of societal ills was an emotional response to the moment rather than a well-conceived long-term plan. 

By the same token, the board’s hasty reversal in response to this year’s shootings was an emotional reaction to a problem rather than a deliberative one. If the board believed from the outset that removing SROs would improve school safety in the long-run, then surely they should have accounted for the possibility of this kind of violence. Had they done so, they would have been prepared to explain why the incidents at East could be considered an outlier rather than a result of the new policy and a reversal would not have been necessary. 

The current change of policy combined with the fact that it is only after the shootings that the board released a first draft of a broader safety plan illustrates that the original resolution was such overreach.

By withdrawing the SROs — making a policy borne out of a desire to be seen as doing something rather than making an evidence-based choice implemented incrementally and with care in the same manner as the mental health supports have been — the effort failed. Absent due diligence by the policy makers, school administrators without adequate training or safety gear were ultimately placed in a position they never should have been in. The administrators ended up injured while an obviously troubled student is dead at 17. 

On top of it all, instead of remediating the ills that led to the resolution in the first place, the board undermined that effort by making the cure appear worse than the disease.

“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” As these policy decisions illustrate, distinguishing wise decisions from foolish ones begins with how the decisions are made. Action predicated on care and forethought is wise. Action for the sake of action is foolish.

Copyright © 2023 by the Intermountain Jewish News

1 thoughts on “SRO removal: best of plans, worst of plans

  1. Yaakov G Watkins

    Why would any loving parent send their beloved child to a school of crazy kids who need an SRO?


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