Lack of Leadership Plagues Denver Public Schools Board | Westword

Commentary: Lack of Leadership Plagues DPS School Board

"The board's inability to identify and address the challenges our children face is glaringly evident."
Denver police cars outside of East High School after the March 22 shooting.
Denver police cars outside of East High School after the March 22 shooting. Ben Neufeld
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The June 15 Denver Public Schools school board meeting starkly exposed the profound dysfunction within the board, as a certain faction persistently refuses to listen to the resounding feedback from principals, teachers, administrators, parents and students from all regions in the district.

Despite the overwhelming participation in a recent survey, which unequivocally voiced the community’s demand to have Student Resource Officers (SROs) made available as an essential safety resource for schools, board members remained dismissive. The meeting, although resulting in the selection of Plan B from the proposed Executive Limitations, was marked by a six-hour-long debate that yielded meager progress toward a comprehensive safety plan and the persistent dismissal of critical discussion surrounding the flaws in the discipline matrix; it served as a distressing reminder of the board’s failure to fulfill its leadership responsibilities. Theatrical performances and distracting antics further undermined the board’s ability to address the urgent matter at hand. This continued disregard for the community’s voice highlights the severe deficit in leadership within the board.

Board directors Auon’tai Anderson, Michelle Quattlebaum and Scott Esserman championed Plan A, which proposes the removal of SROs and their reassignment as “Community Resource Officers” who would only be called upon after an incident occurs. This approach blatantly disregards the importance of proactive security measures and deterrence. Plan A fails to address gun violence, criminal activity and the prevention of mass shootings in our Denver schools. It offers no tangible solution to the reported acts of gun violence on campuses. Furthermore, it overlooks the urgent need to empower principals to temporarily remove children in crisis and provide the necessary support. This plan compromises the safety and well-being of our students.

On the other hand, director Scott Baldermann presented Plan B, which could have been a strong starting point for effective Executive Limitations if not for the constraints imposed by the current discipline matrix. However, we must confront the reality that students have access to firearms. The presence of armed police in visible and prominent areas serves as a deterrent, making potential perpetrators think twice about bringing weapons onto school grounds. The murder of Luis Garcia stands as a stark reminder of the impact that a police vehicle stationed in front of a school can have. Yet the board’s contention over the visibility of police vehicles exposes a distressing lack of understanding about crime deterrence and the significance of visible security measures.
click to enlarge flower shrine outside East High
A shrine to Luis Garcia, killed outside East High School.
Evan Semón Photography
In the midst of these pressing concerns, Vice President Anderson voiced his frustration, emphasizing that he had not been provided with the revised Plan B document — despite its upload on the board doc site and the fact that it is an integral part of his duty to check the doc site. This incident underscores a concerning lack of communication and coordination within the board, as well as highlighting individual members' failure to fulfill the duties of the job they are elected to, hindering the progress and meaningful discussions that are desperately needed.

In Anderson’s insistence on the ineffectiveness of SROs and law enforcement in preventing school shootings, it is important to highlight the facts. Contrary to these claims, a report by the Federal Commission on School Safety reveals that the presence of specially selected and trained SROs has been demonstrated to prevent school shootings. The report also highlights numerous documented instances of SROs directly intervening to quickly mitigate active shooter situations. Additionally, a study conducted by the National Association of School Resource Officers found that schools with SROs involved in safety planning are less likely to experience acts of violence. These findings underscore the valuable role that SROs can play in maintaining a secure school environment.

Regrettably, the board squandered valuable meeting time debating procedural matters instead of addressing the urgent need for action. This recurring dysfunction within the board is disheartening and undermines the trust of parents, taxpayers and community members. More important, and beyond the debate over reinstating SROs, the board’s continuous failure to rectify the flaws in the discipline matrix and its reluctance to make necessary temporary adjustments that disrupt learning and endanger others only heighten the necessity of SROs. The members who proposed plan A seem to turn a blind eye to the fact that we live in a country where children have access to guns. We must be prepared for the safety threats posed by emotionally volatile and impulsive students who may possess firearms on school grounds. The current discipline matrix devalues every individual, treating them as expendable — an unacceptable approach.

With the lack of a comprehensive safety plan, the community has spoken and demanded an interim solution. The recent survey conducted by DPS sheds light on the opinions of various stakeholders regarding the reinstatement of SROs. As noted by President Xochitl Gaytan, the survey saw an 18 percent response rate, which is a significant representation of the community’s views. Among the respondents, a staggering 83 percent of students expressed their desire to bring back SROs, along with 86 percent of parents and 84 percent of teachers. Notably, the Latino community overwhelmingly voted in favor of bringing back SROs. These findings highlight the strong support for SROs within the DPS community.

“Who am I to ignore the Latino, Mexicana, Chicano community when they are telling me overwhelmingly that the SRO issue is something that they deeply care about?” said Gaytán, the only Latina on the school board, a statement capturing the importance of considering the desires and voices of the students themselves. Their overwhelming support for the return of SROs indicates the need to address their concerns and prioritize their safety.

Board member Carrie Olsen’s perspective also resonates with the sentiment of many principals who participated in the survey. Feedback from sixteen high schools showed that principals want to bring back SROs, while working toward a comprehensive safety plan. This includes the implementation of additional mental health resources and the resolution of issues within the discipline matrix. These considerations reflect the collective wisdom and insights of the educational leaders working closely with students and their safety on a daily basis.

It is also important to recognize and address the harmful and unjust comparisons made by one board member, who equated the police to post-Civil War slave owners. Such comparisons are not only baseless, divisive and inflammatory, but they undermine the credibility and professionalism of our entire police force and the community it serves.

Likewise, our principals are not extremists; they are problem solvers who understand the unique challenges faced by their communities and recognize the need for targeted interventions. Many of these school principals are people of color themselves, serving diverse communities that have chosen Denver as their home.

Labeling these individuals, who are actively engaged in creating safer environments for our students, as anything other than committed professionals is not only misguided but also disrespectful to their efforts and the communities they represent. We should focus on fostering productive conversations and collaborative solutions that prioritize the safety, well-being and academic success of all students. By acknowledging the dedication and expertise of our principals and the valuable contributions of law enforcement, we can work together toward a more secure and inclusive educational environment for our children.

It is evident that the support for bringing back SROs aligns with the sentiments expressed by the principals who have been directly involved in the educational environment. Their perspectives underscore the importance of addressing the broader safety concerns while simultaneously ensuring the well-being and development of students. By taking into account the wishes of the students, the insights of principals and the need for a comprehensive approach, the DPS school board can make informed decisions that prioritize both safety and the overall educational experience.

Throughout that excruciatingly long meeting, the discipline matrix, a crucial aspect of addressing school safety, was barely mentioned, with only a passing reference. Instead of focusing on the pressing issues at hand, board members resorted to finger-pointing, exposing hidden agendas and delving into unrelated historical lessons. It was a disheartening display that completely ignored the legitimate concerns of teachers and the community they are meant to serve.

In the words of Kendall Roy, “You are not serious people.” And indeed, that is a valid critique. If the board truly prioritized the well-being and safety of students, it would set aside this discussion temporarily and engage in meaningful conversations about implementing the necessary support systems that could render SROs unnecessary. However, this board fails to take such proactive measures.

By neglecting to delve into the underlying issues and work toward long-term strategies, the board is failing in its duty to ensure the safety and well-being of students and the overall success of the educational system. It is disheartening to witness this lack of seriousness and commitment to meaningful action from those entrusted with shaping the future of our schools.

DPS “leadership” continues to evade the real problems and meaningful solutions, leaving parents, taxpayers and the community frustrated and disillusioned. The board's inability to identify and address the challenges our children face is glaringly evident. Collaboration and united efforts should be the driving force behind resolving these issues, and it is imperative that the board steps up to fulfill its leadership responsibilities.

Our students and teachers deserve nothing less.

Paul Ballenger is an at-large candidate for the DPS Board of Education. frequently publishes commentaries on matters of interest to the community. Have one you'd like to submit? Send it to [email protected], where you can also comment on this piece.
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