Poudre School District Community Weighs In On Police Debate As Contract Renewal Looms
Poudre School District will vote on whether or not to renew its contract with local police departments on Tuesday. This comes as Denver Public Schools recently ended their contract with the Denver Police Department.
Colorado Edition co-host Henry Zimmerman spoke to KUNC's Stephanie Daniel about the debate over police presence in schools ahead of the vote.
Henry Zimmerman: To start, explain how school safety and security works in the Poudre School District. Who is providing the security?
Stephanie Daniel: Poudre School District spent almost $2 million on safety and security for the 2019-2020 fiscal year. This includes campus security, district security department personnel and school resource officers.
School resource officers (SROs) are actually police officers that work in schools. Poudre Schools covers a large area, so the district partners with three law enforcement agencies: Fort Collins Police Services, the Larimer County Sheriff's Department and the Timnath Police. The district and law enforcement agencies split the cost of SRO salaries.
Twenty law enforcement personnel currently work in Poudre School District.
District spokesperson Madeline Noblett says school resource officers serve many purposes, but the first priority is to provide safety in schools.
Noblett: When you think about the landscape of safety in America and especially our history of school shootings. It has been something we've heard from our community that it's important for them to know that these individuals are in our schools and are there with our students. That said in recent history, we have heard from so many in our community voicing a multitude of perspectives and experiences with school resource officers.
Why do students and community members want the district to stop using SROs in schools?
One of the biggest reasons people want police officers removed from schools is that students of color are disproportionately targeted with disciplinary action.
27% of students in Poudre School District are minorities. But during the 2018-2019 school year, the discipline rate for students of color was almost 44%.
These interactions often become a gateway into the criminal justice system, leading to what's been called the "school-to-prison" pipeline.
I spoke to a former student named Demetriece Langston, who is Black. The 29-year-old graduated from Poudre High School in 2009. He's the oldest of six kids and while he didn't have a bad experience with an SRO, two of his younger brothers did. One was accused of stealing a skateboard when he was 14 or 15. This led to an arrest, court appearances and fines and spending time in multiple juvenile detention centers. This brother is now in his early 20s, living and working in Fort Collins.
Langston says these police interactions have affected his whole family.
Langston: My brother's been depressed for years, years and it's so, it's painful. It takes away motivation, ambition and it really makes you feel like you're worthless. All of this trauma between, you know, from him to my family. My younger siblings happened to see this, happened to see the cops come and taking your family away. They know every time the cops come something bad is going to happen. That's traumatic.
How did this movement to remove SROs from Poudre School District start? I have to imagine the recent protests played a part?
They did. College student Kobi Salinas went to Poudre High School. He received a ticket from an SRO when he was a sophomore that was eventually thrown out. He doesn't think police should be in schools.
Salinas: What I think most people of color think that they're just not necessary. They're put there to traumatize and marginalize us and it's what they do out on the streets and is what they do inside our classrooms. It's something that's, you know, it's a tool that's used by the system and it's used everywhere in our lives.
At the beginning of the month, Salinas participated in the Denver protests and heard that the Denver Public Schools Board of Education was planning to end its contract with the police department. Salinas, who is Latino, was compelled to act. He and his mom, who's an immigration lawyer in Fort Collins, met with the president of the Poudre School District Board of Education a couple days later. Coincidently, they learned that the board was scheduled to renew its SRO contract at its meeting the following week.
So, Salinas got to work. He got the word out and encouraged people to make their voices heard. There was a student rally and about 500 people emailed the board asking them not to renew the contract.
At the meeting, the all-white board voted to postpone the renewal until its next meeting.
Salinas: So just trying to get the community to like speak their stories and tell them like, yes, this is good for you. Right but you're a 50-year-old white man. Of course, the system works in your favor, right? These are undocumented kids and the tiny, tiny percentage of us that live in Fort Collins of people of color is finally like we just needed everybody to speak their voice. So yeah, that was really exciting.
What's on the other side of the debate? What is the argument for maintaining the contract with the police department?
As I mentioned earlier, SROs serve several purposes. Poudre School District's website says they maintain schools' safe learning environments, improve school and law enforcement collaboration and promote positive relations between students, staff and law enforcement officials.
Melanie Potyondy is a school psychologist at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins. She started her career after the Columbine school shooting and says there's always been a police officer at the traditional high schools where she's worked.
Potyondy works closely with the SRO at her school. This partnership includes the officer transporting students to the hospital if they are expressing suicidal ideation. Or students talking to the SRO if they feel unsafe at school or at home. Potyondy will also have her students talk to the officer if they have questions about topics like sexual consent laws or harassment.
She wants to keep SROs in schools but acknowledges that changes need to be made in how they are policing students, especially kids of color.
Potyondy: Looking from the safety and security and the mental health piece and just how I interact with SROs on a daily basis, I see so many positives. My hope is that maybe SROs could be that bridge to you know, I had this close trusting relationship with an officer at school and they really helped me through this situation because I think, I guess arose for many kids is their first contact with the police.
The school board is meeting on Tuesday and will be discussing the school resource officer contract. What are you expecting to happen?
Well at the last meeting, the board vice president Rob Petterson introduced a motion, that passed, and it included postponing the contract renewal until June 23. The motion also called for other actions including recommendations for immediate changes to the contract, talking with district stakeholders and communities, especially students of color and parents, about their experiences with SROs.
It also called for follow up progress reports throughout the upcoming school year to determine if the contract should be renewed for the 2021-2022 school year. If the contract is not renewed, alternative safety measures must be put in place.
This interview is part of KUNC's Colorado Edition for June 22. You can find the full episode here.