Kayden Robinson, a junior at East High School, has been doing all he can to raise awareness about violence and gun safety issues that have been plaguing Denver schools. He signed a petition asking school board members to resign. He lobbied for gun safety legislation at the state Capitol. And he protested outside a recent school board meeting. “I hope to help create change so we can feel safe at school again.” He says the school board has been too politicized and never should have removed the Safety Resource Officers (SROs) from schools. “That was a huge mistake.”
Anger has been growing after two recent incidents of gun violence at East High School, which left one student dead and two administrators wounded. Thousands of students, parents, teachers, and administrators are demanding that leaders at Denver Public Schools (DPS) take action to make schools safer.
One newly-formed group called “Resign DPS” thinks the current school board is so dysfunctional that board members should resign. Formed by a group of East parents, including Heather Lamm, the group collected 1,600 signatures within 36 hours of forming and now has active members from dozens of DPS schools. They hope to have at least 15,000 signatures in the next few weeks. “We want the board to realize they’ve lost the confidence of people in Denver,” says Lamm. “The board is not keeping kids safe.”
While she acknowledges it’s unlikely that board members will resign en masse, she hopes a few will–or at least some might not run for re-election. She also hopes the petition drive will increase awareness so voters understand why school board elections matter. “This board has violated open meeting laws. They haven’t had any conversations with the community about new safety protocols. Perhaps most importantly, they aren’t even listening to their own principals and teachers about what needs to be done.”
Dozens of parents and students flocked to an April 17 school board meeting to express their dissatisfaction. At the meeting, DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero announced the timeline for developing a long-term safety plan. He says he will release Version 1.0 on May 1, solicit public feedback through May 21, and release a final plan by the end of June. DPS communications director Scott Pribble says the superintendent will engage with parents, students, and teachers. “Nothing is off the table. He’s going to listen to all ideas and then find out what works, what doesn’t work. What’s feasible, and what’s not.” On April 20, Marrero emailed a survey to all DPS parents and students asking their thoughts on violence in schools and what should be done to reduce it.
East High School parent Steve Katsaros is unimpressed. He formed the Parents Safety Advocacy Group (P-SAG) to get parents, teachers, and principals involved in researching and advocating for specific safety initiatives. “There’s no easy solution. This is complicated. So we’ve created working groups to research solutions.” He doesn’t believe that Marrero or the board will actually listen to parent groups like his. “They are just trying to improve the optics of the very broken system they have,” says Katsaros.
One of the biggest problems Katsaros points to is the discipline matrix that DPS uses. “It’s shocking all of the things kids can do at school and staff are not allowed to call the police. If kids come to school high or are drunk. If a kid steals something worth less than $5,000. If they are bullying kids or there’s mutual fighting–staff is blocked from calling the police. It makes my blood boil,” says Katsaros. “Our students aren’t safe when there are these kinds of policies in place.” Pribble says the discipline matrix is reviewed every year and is put in place to make sure DPS is following state guidelines.
The policy that has particularly galvanized many parents is the fact that students with serious crime records can be placed in large, mainstream schools and the administrators’ hands are tied. The student shooter who wounded two East deans had been expelled from a Cherry Creek school and had to have his backpack searched every day at East for weapons because of a past offense. It was during such a search that he pulled out and fired a gun. Katsaros understands that troubled kids shouldn’t be denied an education, but he doesn’t think kids with a record of violence should be in mainstream schools. DPS’s Pribble concedes that opening an alternative school for young offenders could be an idea worth exploring, and says, “Dr. Marrero is looking at all options.”
Katsaros doesn’t believe that either Marrero or the board has demonstrated any leadership since the two shootings. “They don’t have anyone competent driving the bus and they don’t even know where the bus is going.” He says real leadership is what McAuliffe Middle School principal Kurt Dennis is demonstrating.
On April 14, Dennis sent a letter to McAuliffe parents, outlining “near-term” safety solutions while the school awaits further guidance from the District “of a more comprehensive safety plan.” One of those short-term plans is to have adult volunteers on campus during the school day to help check IDs and to provide additional supervision. The school will no longer sell hoodies as part of the school uniform since the hoods make it difficult to recognize students and the front pockets can be used to keep items out of sight from staff. Dennis is also hiring another half-time school psychologist and hopes to hire an additional social worker for the 2023-2024 school year. He’s also requesting money from the McAuliffe at Smiley Foundation for more security cameras.
When asked about these McAuliffe protocols, Pribble said that any additional plans that school leaders enact should be approved by leaders at DPS or the Northeast Innovation Zone (which governs McAuliffe). “We don’t want people implementing things that seem like valid solutions but may cause additional problems,” says Pribble. “For example, if you’re going to have more parents in schools, they all need to go through background checks.”
While parents, teachers, and administrators wait for the safety plan from Superintendent Marrero, student Kayden Robinson says he’s going to focus on finishing up his classes in honors chemistry and pre-calculus. Robinson says he hopes to go to college to study criminology. “I want to learn more about why people are doing what they’re doing. And I’d like to put a stop to the violence that’s going on.”