Students, teachers plead for Denver district to do more in face of rising gun violence

‘Lives are at stake’

Students gather for a rally while taking part in National School Walkout Day to protest school violence on April 20, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. Students in Denver, Colorado are expressing similar fears around youth violence. Halfway through the 2019-2020 school year, five DPS students have been killed. | Jim Young/Getty Images
Students gather for a rally while taking part in National School Walkout Day to protest school violence on April 20, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. Students in Denver, Colorado are expressing similar fears around youth violence. Halfway through the 2019-2020 school year, five DPS students have been killed. (Photo credit: Jim Young/Getty Images)

Five Denver students have died from youth violence, and it’s only halfway through the school year. The increase in violence, felt acutely in the far northeast, has students, teachers, and principals fearing how the conflict is showing up in schools and worried about it escalating.

They’re calling on district leaders to do more to keep students safe.

“This year by far has been the most stressful year of my life,” Alessandra Chavira, a senior at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College, told the school board at a recent meeting that opened with a moment of silence for those lost.

“Not because of scholarships. Not because of college applications. Not because of credit requirements. But because I live in a community plagued with gang violence, a community my school resides in. Words can’t explain the anxiety that follows the more-than-occasional lockdowns.”

Several times this year, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College has had to bar its doors or ask students to hide from threats. Shurrod Maxey, a restorative justice coordinator at the school, said this year, his second on the job, has been vastly different from his first.

“I don’t get tips about fights and arguments,” Maxey said. “I get tips about students coming to our school from a rival clique or gangs. I get tips that those students may be coming with guns and not afraid to use them. This was not the plan we had coming into our year.”

Denver’s homicide count has been on an upward trend since 2005, though it’s still not as high as in the mid-1990s. But police, city leaders, and gang violence prevention groups are reporting a disturbing trend: Kids as young as 12 years old as both perpetrators and victims of violence.

Typically, it’s 18- to 24-year-olds involved in such crimes, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said on a recent telephone town hall. “But recently,” he said, “the trend is that we’re seeing 12- to 17-year-olds who are most prevalent in the gun violence in our community.”

The situation today is different than 1993’s “summer of violence,” when gang conflicts left bystanders dead and put the entire city on high alert.

Instead of established groups with leaders, “now these kids are just kind of cliquing up and finding seven or eight kids they’re comfortable with, and they start their own group,” said Jason McBride of Denver’s Gang Rescue and Support Project, or GRASP, an intervention program that works with youth at risk of gang involvement and those already involved.

Conflicts that start on social media are ending on the street, McBride said. Violence is how these small groups, sometimes called “hybrid gangs,” legitimize themselves, he said.

At a meeting last month, principals, teachers, and students pleaded with Denver Public Schools leaders for changes they say will help make their schools safer.

“We’re not here to ask you to save us,” Chavira, the high school senior, said. “We’re here to ask you to care enough to do something with our requests. Lives are at stake.”

Their requests include opening an “engagement center” for students coming out of juvenile detention. The center would be staffed with both teachers and mental health workers to ensure teens are ready to reintegrate into school. The goals would be twofold: keeping the rest of the students safe, and helping prevent a student coming out of detention from going back.

“Students are floundering because they have never been supported the way they should have been, and now they are trapped in the pipeline to prison,” said Rhonda Juett, executive principal at Noel Community Arts School in far northeast Denver.

Another idea could prove trickier: vetting students who want to transfer schools midyear for potential conflicts with current students. Principals are worried about students transferring to be closer to fellow gang members, or to students they want to target for violence.

“We understand children should have a right to a free education,” said Kimberly Grayson, principal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College, “but let’s figure out why they’re transferring and let’s figure out if there’s associations — and then we need to have a conversation of, ‘What’s the best fit for this student that’s transferring?’”

As it stands now, much of that responsibility falls on the principals. The stress a principal feels when they know a potential transfer student is posting photos with guns on social media is real, said school board Vice President Jennifer Bacon, who represents northeast Denver.

“We are asking principals to do a lot,” she said.

Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district understands the concerns and is looking at how best to match transfer students to schools that can meet their needs. The issue is especially pressing in “enrollment zones,” which encompass areas with several schools.

Students who live in zones aren’t assigned to a particular school based on their address. Rather, they are asked to choose a school in the zone. All schools must hold seats for transfer students, but some end up with more open seats than others — and thus, more new students who often show up with little information about their academic or behavior histories.

“It’s important to balance how we create the safest environments for all our kids and how we serve the education needs of students who are our most mobile kids,” Cordova said. “I wouldn’t call that vetting kids. I think it’s important we think about good placements.”

The district already has a school meant to help students transitioning from juvenile detention, but it’s located in central Denver, far from the neighborhoods where violence is most prevalent. Cordova said the district is mulling whether more such programs are needed.

The district is also working to ensure impacted communities receive increased funding for after-school activities that can provide students with alternatives to dangerous behavior, she said. And to help better coordinate with city efforts to reduce youth violence, Cordova said the district has hired longtime civic leader Elbra Wedgeworth as a liaison between Denver Public Schools, Denver’s city government, and Denver Health, the city’s safety net hospital.

“It’s really important for us to have a community-wide conversation about how we address the levels of youth violence we’re seeing,” said Cordova, who grew up in Denver, graduated from its schools, and has worked as a district educator and administrator since 1989.

“I cannot remember a time in my 30 years where there has been this level of violence.”

The students and teachers feel it, too. Despite extensive safety measures put in place at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College — clear backpacks, door “screamers” to prevent students from propping them open — and the school’s robust mental health team, which includes four counselors, two social workers, a psychologist, and an on-site health clinic, students said the unrelenting threats coming from outside the school have taken a heavy toll.

“How are we supposed to focus on our education when we as students and teachers don’t feel safe at school?” asked junior Bertina Quach.

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Melanie Asmar on February 3, 2020. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Melanie Asmar covers Denver Public Schools. Asmar previously worked as a reporter for Westword newspaper in Denver and for a daily newspaper in her native New Hampshire. She joined Chalkbeat Colorado in 2015.

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