Cracking jokes, singing songs: Boulder security staff try to keep kids safe in school through trust and connection
By Leigh Paterson, KUNC (via AP Storyshare)
IMG7063 or 7069, 4/20/23
Steve Brown, a school safety advocate (SSA) at Monarch High School, greets a student on April 20th, 2023. Brown, along with nine other SSAs, focus on both the security and well-being of students in Boulder Valley School District.
Since voting to end its police program in 2020, Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) has been working to keep students safe without school resource officers. These police, employed by local law enforcement agencies, had previously been stationed at schools throughout the district.
Parents and administrators often turn to SROs in times of crisis. Denver Public Schools recently put several police back in their schools after a deadly shooting at East High School in March.
Despite recent safety threats at BVSD, including a fake shooting scare at Boulder High School in February, the district is sticking with the choice to end the SRO program.
Instead, some schools in the area now have school safety advocates (SSAs). These unarmed staffers, who are uninvolved in discipline, watch for threats from the outside and try to encourage safety and well-being inside schools. As one of the district’s ten SSAs, Steve Brown is part of that effort at Monarch High School in Louisville.
“I like meeting and greeting the kids in the front. And that’s a real big deal for the kids to be able to have someone that they trust in the building,” Brown said of his morning routine. “So when they’re coming in and they’re dragging, I try and give them the pep talk. ‘Hey, welcome, young coyotes.’ I get the laugh and I know we’re in a good spot.”
Connecting with students is a big part of his job. He goes to a lot of basketball and football games.
“If you’re a theater kid, I pretend that I was a theater kid, and I might sing a song or try something, and they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s that guy,’” Brown said.
Security is part of the job too. Brown was a police officer with the U.S. Air Force before being hired by the school district as the lead campus security officer at Monarch High School several years ago.
Now, Brown monitors dozens of video feeds from his office, organizes evacuation drills and consults with the administration regularly on safety concerns. No major security incidents have unfolded since Brown came on as an SSA, but he does deal with a lot of smaller crises like fights and breakups.
“A lot of kids just want to talk, you know, they want to talk about their weekend or their game, and we can do that,” Brown said. “But 10%, you might have a concerning event that we have to address to make sure that that particular student is safe and that all the students are safe.”
‘The disparities are significant’
Prior to the board of education’s vote in 2020, BVSD held stakeholder meetings and created an equity council to address the SRO issue and others related to equity and disproportionality.
“I will say that our children are less anxious about police officers in the buildings,” Jamilla Richmond, who has a middle schooler in the district and advocated for the removal of SROs said. “I think they’re less anxious about having those encounters and the risk that may come of those encounters.”
At the time, and in the wake of the George Floyd protests, families came forward saying that having cops in school made their kids uncomfortable. Recent school district data also showed Black and brown kids were being referred to police and suspended at much higher rates than white kids.
“The disparities are significant,” Richmond said. “And if you’re asking me if the district is doing enough, the answer to that is no. But I do think the district is trying and I think that there is more room for growth.”
Swapping SROs for school safety advocates has been just one piece of a plan to address discipline and safety in Boulder Valley School District. The district has hired more mental health workers and added staff dedicated to addressing sex-based discrimination and restorative justice. The teachers and students now learn about bullying prevention as part of the standard curriculum. The district has also written new discipline standards.
“I just want people to understand that this is a complicated issue, that we are putting our best resources towards it,” Kathy Gebhardt, the vice president of the board of education, said.
The district hopes these changes will help create a clearer line between safety and discipline.
Still, security concerns persist: the frightening shooting threat at Boulder high school earlier this year prompted an enormous law enforcement response. Disparities in discipline persist too. Last school year, Latino and Hispanic kids received 40% of all suspensions but only make up 20% of the student body.
“I think as with everything in education, we wish we could just fix it quickly, but that’s just not how it works,” Gebhardt said. “So, yes, we’re making good progress. Do we have more progress to make? Absolutely. Do we still think it was the right decision? We do.”
‘It’s awesome to see them graduating’
Back at Monarch High School, Steve Brown is wrapping up the school year and preparing to coach competitive baseball this summer. Later this week, Brown will be at graduation; the students picked him to announce their names as they walk across the stage.
“That is nerve-wracking because I don’t want to say any names wrong,” Brown said with a laugh. “So I always tell the kids, ‘Listen, if I screw up your name, I’ll apologize. Okay? So tell Grandma who flew out here from Florida that I’ll do the best I can do.’”
He got the list of senior names from the counseling office and has been practicing.
“It’s awesome to see them graduating, to announce their names,” Brown said. “It’s a big deal.”