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Practice of placing cops in Aspen public schools under scrutiny

Scott Condon, Aspen Times

Like most public schools in America, Aspen’s schools have had armed police officers and sheriff’s deputies roaming the halls for at least couple decades.

But the recent killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a police officer has forced a reckoning over policing in America, and that has trickled down to questions about officers in schools — Denver’s school district recently terminated its program — and whether those duties might be better performed by others.

In Aspen, the conversation over the issue is in the infant stages amid a transition period in the program that has seen one longtime school resource officer removed from duty in recent months, while another is leaving town this summer.

Most public officials — from Aspen’s police chief to the former Aspen High principal to the school board president — remain supportive of the program, though all were willing to listen to a community dialogue on the subject and change it if necessary.

“We see SROs as protectors of the school rather than policing of the school,” said Tharyn Mulberry, Aspen High School’s principal up until the end of the last school year and now an assistant superintendent with the district. “But it’s definitely something we can examine and make sure we are not creating a fearful environment. We want to make sure we’re serving our kids.”

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Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor said that having police officers who are good communicators and can demonstrate the value of policing to kids through empathy and compassion can bring about less fear of police.

“If you can create a relationship (with kids) in elementary school and middle school, then you can have a conversation with them when you see things going sideways (in high school),” he said. “That’s why I would prefer to keep the program going and have it still exist.”

The one outlier on the subject of cops in local schools was Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, who is in charge of the school campus because it falls within the county and his jurisdiction.

“I think a professional counselor is probably better for schools,” he said. “Cops are not really the best ones to relate to kids and their problems.”

For DiSalvo, school resource officers serve one main purpose: satisfying safety concerns, mainly for adults.

“We put cops in schools (originally) to prevent school shootings,” he said. “But that hasn’t really happened. If it’s a feel-good thing to have a gun in school, then let’s call it that. It’s peace of mind for the administration and parents.”

For students at Aspen High School, the issue of whether a police officer in the halls is merely a benign security guard or a possible malignant threat to be avoided may come down to the color of their skin.

Two current white AHS students interviewed for this story said they viewed the school resource officers mostly as gatekeepers who remain in the background and are not at all intimidating to kids.

“In Aspen, they kind of just patrol and they’re pretty friendly,” said Hannah Smith, a 16-year-old junior-to-be.

However, Smith said she thinks replacing police and sheriff’s deputies with a counselor or social worker is a good idea.

“I strongly believe that handling a situation that way would be much more helpful than a police officer contacting (a student),” she said. “It’s a much better approach than a cop approaching a kid, which could be more intimidating.”

Emily Kinney, who will be a senior next year, said she thinks of school resource officers mainly as a bulwark against threats, though she knew one longtime SRO who acted as a mentor to some students.

“I appreciate their being there because there’s no other security in the building,” said Kinney, 16.

But for students of color, the perception is different.

Climary Sanchez, who graduated in May, said that while she didn’t have any run-ins with SROs or any overt negative experiences, she felt like they paid more attention to the few black students.

“There were only three black kids in my grade and we would (pass) by and they would watch us and stare at us,” said Sanchez, 18. “They’d stare at you more than someone else.”

Sanchez, who grew up in Aspen and went to Aspen public schools from kindergarten on, said she tried to keep to herself for most of her academic career and found the almost totally white environment disconcerting at times. For example, when she received a full academic scholarship to Notre Dame, many white students assumed it was for sports, she said.

As a black person, Sanchez said she’d been warned repeatedly over the years about police, including once by a white driver’s education teacher who told her in no uncertain terms that she needed to be more careful than her white peers. So when it came to police in schools, she avoided them.

“I’m scared of them,” she said, “and because I’m scared of them, they were not going to be the first person in the world I would go and talk to.”

Arnold Muasa, a 19-year-old who graduated in 2019 and is now a sophomore-to-be at the University of Colorado, said he felt the same way.

“There’s this divide you have,” he said. “Because history for black people is to be in trouble with SROs. So I always tended to keep my distance.”

Muasa, who also attended Aspen public schools his entire academic career, said he too was warned about police because of the color of his skin.

“Growing up as a black kid in Aspen, my parents told me never to talk back to police officers,” Muasa said. “Because we are treated badly by police.”

Like Sanchez, Muasa also said he never had any run-ins with SROs at Aspen High or any significant negative experiences with them. And while he understood the safety reasons behind SROs, he said he thinks students would be far better served with more counselors in school instead of police.

AHS only has two counselors and it was difficult to book time to talk with them, Muasa said. Replacing the SROs with counselors would mean that more students could have access to those services, he said.

Bruce Benjamin, a detective with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office who mainly investigates crimes involving juveniles, has spent much of the past 20 years serving on and off as an SRO at Aspen schools. He said the SRO program is valuable to protect both students and staff, as well as providing kids with a positive example of law enforcement.

“That said, it’s important to have the right person in the role,” Benjamin said. “(It’s) a person who loves kids and is approachable by kids and staff (and) thinks outside the box to provide value to kids.”

Mulberry said the traditional role of an SRO has evolved over the years since they became ubiquitous after the Columbine High School massacre in Denver in April 1999.

“When I started in education, it was a real law-and-order (position) … to get tough on kids,” he said. “I’ve seen it change to now where it’s a service model.”

The SROS at Aspen High serve on boards and committees at the school, acting as part of teams that make sure kids aren’t left behind, Mulberry said. They also can provide immediate help in dealing with students who are suicidal or are into drugs or are suffering physical or mental abuse because they have access to services, or can even stop by a student’s home for a welfare check, he said.

“They’re there to help students rather than write tickets or get them into the criminal justice system,” Mulberry said. “What we want is for the behavior to change, not for the kid to be punished.

“Nobody wants to incarcerate a kid. That’s insane.”

Aspen School Board President Susan Marolt also said she had a good feeling about the SRO program.

“I feel like kids use them as a resource,” she said. “I don’t think they’re feared. Kids feel like they are a good role model.”

She also said there’s something to the peace of mind police officers in school provide to parents in terms of safety, and that some parents have expressed concern that there’s not a full-time at SRO at Aspen Elementary School.

Still, Marolt said she can understand kids hesitating to go to an SRO with problems that might get them into legal trouble.

“I could see that as a reason for a counselor (at the school) rather than a police officer,” she said.

Like DiSalvo and Pryor, Marolt said she supports a community dialogue about the issue.

“It’s a good conversation to be having about whether that is the right role for police officers,” she said.

Paul Hufnagle, who served as school resource officer at AHS for 12 years, was dismissed from the Sheriff’s Office in December after questions arose over his alleged acceptance of a $400 cash gift from a parent group. Aspen Police Officer Brian Stevens, who also served as a longtime SRO, is leaving the department this summer and was unavailable for comment, Pryor said.

DiSalvo and Pryor are discussing how to move forward with the program. One of the ideas is to post a deputy at the school who doesn’t wear a uniform or carry a gun, DiSalvo said.

“It’s too soon to say what will happen,” he said. “It depends on what the community wants an SRO to be. The community needs to speak and let us know what they want.”


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