Mayor would have forced police back into Denver schools if board didn’t act, Auon’tai Anderson alleges

The Denver school board’s decision to put armed police back in schools following last week’s shooting at East High came after district leaders learned Mayor Michael Hancock planned to use executive action to force the matter, the board’s vice president alleged Monday.

The mayor’s office denied the charge made by school board director Auon’tai Anderson, one of the leaders of the 2020 effort that removed police from Denver’s schools.

The Board of Education voted last week to put officers back in the city’s high schools after meeting for five hours in a closed session the day after two administrators were shot and wounded at East. Denver Public Schools already had faced calls for tighter security following a shooting at East in February, in which a student was killed.

During a news conference Monday, Anderson said Superintendent Alex Marrero told him and board President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán last week that the decision to station police in schools “would happen without the board’s approval” and that Hancock already had drafted an executive order to declare a public health emergency to make it happen.

“The decision that you saw was one responding to the moment, but also preserving the institution of the school board,” Anderson said of the board’s unanimous vote on Thursday. “We cannot be a school district where the mayor of Denver is signing executive orders to overhaul our duly elected school board.”

Mike Strott, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, denied Anderson’s allegation that Hancock had drafted an executive order to put armed school resource officers, or SROs, back in public schools.

“The decision to bring SROs back to high schools was made by the superintendent,” he said.”There’s no truth to what Director Anderson is claiming.”

Hancock expressed support for the board’s decision last week, saying in a statement, “I appreciate this change in direction by the DPS school board, and believe it is the right decision. As I made clear to Superintendent Marrero yesterday, we stand ready to help him bring SROs back to our schools.”

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Gaytán and Marrero stressed in statements released Monday that information discussed by the board and district leaders during Thursday’s executive session — which was closed to the public — was private and needed to remain so. But Anderson said the conversation with the superintendent and Gaytán occurred before that meeting.

Marrero and Gaytán did not directly address Anderson’s claim that the mayor was planning executive action to put police back in schools.

“Following the shootings at East High School last week, I spoke with Mayor Michael Hancock and others about immediate solutions to the gun problem that we are increasingly facing,” Marrero said in a statement. “This included the full support of the mayor and his office to ensure that our scholars remain safe in our schools. During the closed executive session with the DPS Board of Education on Thursday, I shared several items that were discussed by myself and many other people. I can not and will not disclose the content of these discussions.”

Gaytán issued two statements following Anderson’s news conference Monday, including one that said it is the president’s role to “speak to the decisions and policies passed by the board.”

“Individual directors of the DPS Board of Education have a right to free speech and when they engage with the public, they are speaking for themselves and do not represent the views of the entire body,” Gaytán said.

Speaking with “one voice”

Denver’s school board has been plagued by infighting for almost a year as directors disagree on how the board should function under its governance model.

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The model includes policies on how directors should conduct themselves and says the board should speak with “one voice.” Anderson said last year that he believes Gaytán’s implementation of the policy prevents directors from speaking individually to the community on issues affecting the district. 

Anderson, who is running for re-election, is one of three directors who were on the school board when members voted in 2020 to remove Denver police from the district’s schools. He brought forward the resolution to do so with then-Vice President Jennifer Bacon.

Carrie Olson and Scott Baldermann — the other two directors still on the board — declined to comment on last week’s vote or could not be reached for comment, respectively.

The 2020 decision came amid the national racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Board members have argued that having police in schools is harmful to students of color and contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline.

But last week, the board partially reversed course, approving a memo directing Marrero to suspend the board’s policy barring school resource officers through June.

The memo also directed the superintendent to host community meetings to gather feedback from students, parents, teachers and school leaders before developing a long-term “safety operational plan,” which must be submitted to the board by June 30.

A day before the board’s vote, Marrero said he would station two armed officers from the Denver Police Department at East for the rest of the academic year. He also committed to having an officer at each of the city’s comprehensive high schools, even though he said doing so “likely violates” school board policy.

“Ball is in the mayor’s court”

Marrero’s decision followed the second shooting to occur at East in about a month. Last week, 17-year-old student Austin Lyle shot and wounded two administrators inside the school as they searched the teen for weapons. Lyle fled the school and took his own life hours later.

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Dean of Culture Eric Sinclair remained hospitalized at Denver Health Medical Center in fair condition on Monday. Jerald Mason, a restorative practice coordinator in the dean’s office, was released from the hospital last week.

The board’s memo tasked Marrero with working with Hancock to “externally fund” two armed officers and up to two mental health workers in every DPS high school.

It’s unclear where exactly such money would come from; DPS is facing a potential $9 million budget deficit at the end of the academic year because of declining enrollment.

The district does not have the money to put police officers back into its schools, Anderson said Monday.

“The ball is in the mayor’s court,” Anderson, adding, “The mayor was ready to sign an executive order forcing our hand so he needs to now cough up the funding to ensure that both our students are safe but they also have access to wrap-around services.”

Staff writer Sam Tabachnik contributed to this report.

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