DPS board releases video of closed-door meeting after East shooting

Denver Public Schools’ Board of Education released this recording of its March 23, 2023, executive session after news organizations, including The Denver Post, sued the district, arguing the board violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law by discussing public policy in the closed-door meeting. 

The newly released recording of the Denver Board of Education’s closed-door meeting the day after the East High School shooting shows board members working to craft a policy to put armed police back in schools amid pressure from the public, the mayor and their own superintendent.

Denver Public Schools spent the last four months fighting to keep the video of that executive session secret, even after a judge ruled the school board had violated Colorado Open Meetings Law and ordered DPS to release the footage. The board, while appealing that ruling, voted Friday to make it public and released the four-hour video over the weekend.

A review of the recording shows tension among board members about how to move forward with plans to reinstate school resource officers, or SROs, following the East shooting without violating Superintendent Alex Marrero’s contract or the board’s own policies, interspersed with questions about whether board members needed to vote on the plans they were discussing in the closed session — and whether they should have been having the debate in public view.

“We need to walk out today with something that reinstates SROs, because our hands have been tied,” board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson said in apparent frustration at one point during the executive session.

The meeting took place March 23, the day after East High student Austin Lyle shot and injured two administrators inside the school while he was being patted down for weapons as part of a required safety plan. The 17-year-old took his own life hours after the shooting.

The board scheduled the executive session after Marrero informed the members that he planned to put SROs back into East and the rest of the city’s comprehensive high schools despite the fact that doing so “likely violates” the board’s 2020 policy that called for the removal of armed police.

Following the lengthy private session, the board reconvened publicly and voted unanimously, and without discussion, to adopt a memo that temporarily suspended its 2020 policy, allowing the superintendent to return police to the city’s high schools for the remainder of the school year. Last month, a divided board fully reversed the policy, paving the way for full reinstatement of police in DPS schools.

The video released by DPS has a single, short redaction that the district said was made to protect student privacy, though significant portions of the discussion are inaudible due to poor audio.

These are the main takeaways following The Denver Post’s review of the now-public executive session:

There was confusion about open meetings law

The meeting opened with officials acknowledging the unusual circumstances of the emergency gathering, and the legal limits of what they might discuss. The board members stopped periodically to back off from topics and tried to draw clear lines of what was allowed in an executive session.

The board occasionally veered into criticism of the superintendent’s response and what they felt was a lack of communication, before reining in the discussion to again focus on the incident itself. Members cited statutes that they believed allowed for the discussion of rules and regulations and security protocols related to the March 22 shooting.

The Colorado Open Meetings Law prohibits public bodies from crafting policy behind the closed doors of an executive session. Following a lawsuit brought by The Denver Post and other media organizations, a state judge ruled that the March 23 executive session veered too far into creating a policy to put police back into schools and violated state rules. The judge also ruled that the board didn’t give proper public notice about what it planned to discuss.

During the session, board members initially sought to comply with the open meetings law by arguing they weren’t crafting policy, but discussing a proposal that had been brought to the meeting. When Anderson sought to see whether a majority of the board supported the plan to allow armed police back into schools, the district’s legal counsel, Aaron Thompson, suggested he rephrase the request to see if anyone objected — allowing the board to gauge support without the appearance of taking a formal vote.

But over the course of the four-hour recording, the board appears to shift its discussion from the new SRO policy as originally proposed to editing and amending it.

At another point, Anderson asked whether it would be a violation of the open meetings law to choose among three options the board was considering. Thompson answered that it was “probably safe” to decide how to communicate their plan to the public and that it would be acceptable, upon leaving the executive session, to present a resolution the board already had prepared.

Later, about three hours into the private meeting, Anderson specifically questioned whether it was OK to have the conversation about district policy surrounding the reintroduction of SROs behind closed doors.

“Because we are talking about suspending (the board’s 2020) policy, this conversation doesn’t need to be public?” Anderson asked.

Thompson responded, “I think what we’ll have to do is present this memo and then vote to suspend the policy.”

Most agreed “SROs are not the answer”

In 2020, during the racial justice protests in Denver and across the nation, the Board of Education voted to remove school resource officers from Denver public schools, citing the disproportionate effects on students of color.

Anderson said during the March 23 meeting that he wished the district could hold a referendum on police in schools, and said the board — in considering reinstating SROs — was responding to “the loud people.”

“St. Louis has metal detectors and cops, and kids still die,” he said.

Board member Scott Esserman said the board had consulted with experts, none of whom supported policing as the solution to gun violence in schools.

“We can’t simply respond with SROs,” he said. “It’s the easy response. It’s the convenient response. But it can’t be the only response.”

Board member Michelle Quattlebaum said she had talked to six Black girls who attend DPS high schools, and didn’t hear a clear direction. One of the six wanted metal detectors, one said she felt unsafe with police in schools and others were open to the idea of school resource officers but thought they needed to operate differently, she said.

“What they did agree on is, something needs to be done,” she said. “We don’t know what that something is.”

Quattlebuam said police in the school would not have prevented the shooting of two employees who were patting down Lyle. Despite public perceptions, school resource officers were never in charge of searching or patting down students, and won’t be in the future, Anderson said.

“We all agree that SROs are not the answer,” Marrero said. “It is what the community wants right now, without a doubt.”

While board member Charmaine Lindsay did advocate for more police in schools, she said she agreed they likely wouldn’t stop mass shootings — but she felt they could help with the day-to-day. Lindsay said she has two grandchildren who attend East and who told her they know of dozens of firearms brought into the school daily.

Lindsay also questioned the wisdom of unarmed school staff searching students who may be armed — such as what happened in the lead-up to the March 22 shooting — without armed officers. They could also serve as a deterrent, she said, particularly toward “minority kids” who may bring firearms.

“I have dealt with minority kids who are likely to carry guns, who’ve been in and out of gangs, who are in and out of criminal justice, and these are the kids who might bring a gun to school and might shoot someone,” Lindsay said. “I know these kids. And they should have police officers there to stop them from doing this to themselves, to stop them from shooting people.”

The board crafted a policy on SROs

Board member Scott Baldermann said a resolution directing SROs to be put back in schools would probably violate Marrero’s contract, but that he felt Marrero had already violated it by deciding to defy the board. Under the DPS’s “policy governance” model, the board doesn’t direct the superintendent to take specific actions, it sets policies and goals.

“Dr. Marrero, if you want to decline our request, that’s your choice,” he said.

Board President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán expressed reservations about violating Marrero’s contract with a resolution that directed him to take specific actions.

“I’d rather get a public commitment from him than the actual resolution,” she said.

Anderson responded that he didn’t trust Marrero to follow non-binding direction from the board, since the superintendent had announced he’d bring back police officers despite board policy. Marrero countered that bringing back officers temporarily wasn’t a violation of policies the board had passed.

After much back-and-forth, the board decided to turn what had been framed as a resolution into a memo, and spent a significant portion of the meeting discussing what language to use.

As the board tweaked descriptions of what kinds of police officers would be let into schools — members suggested writing that the police officers would be trained in community policy — the superintendent agreed that he wanted those kinds of officers but couldn’t guarantee which cops were being brought into schools.

Esserman agreed they should strike the “community police training” qualification in the memo, noting it would be a liability for the board to guarantee how the officers were trained.

“If and when something happens with one of these armed officers in the school… and somebody in the school says did this happen and we say no, because we… couldn’t train them on community policing… I think this consideration is essential,” Esserman said.

The board also debated language in the memo around adding mental health supports to schools while DPS attorney Thompson noted the board should not overpromise what it could deliver due to funding constraints.

“My callout is that this is a tall funding order,” Thompson said.

Anderson said it was on then-Mayor Michael Hancock to figure out how to fund the initiatives.

“The mayor is publicly calling the school board out,” Anderson said. “He has said we have made a reckless decision and we need to reverse it. We are reversing our decision. He needs to figure it out. That is the mayor’s issue. Unless he wants to give Denver police to us.”

Anderson pointed to Marrero, asking the superintendent if he wanted to become the police chief.

Board members faced pressure from Hancock, public

The DPS board members acknowledged facing public pressure to put police back in schools — and they were confronted with what Marrero described as a pledge by Hancock to issue an executive order to force the reinstatement of armed police in schools if the board didn’t do so.

“The mayor can exact an executive order just like he did with the vaccination mandates. I understand this is a very problematic conversation to have. But it is going to happen. It is beyond our control,” Marrero said.

Hancock’s office denied he ever threatened to use an executive order.

At another point, Anderson said board members were being used as a “scapegoat” by public officials, mayoral candidates and their own employees.

“Everyone has made the seven of us the enemy, including you, and that’s not fair to us,” he said, appearing to point at Marrero.

Anderson also told board members at the meeting he’d been called a racist slur, “a murderer and a Nazi in the last 24 hours by some of the same folks that we are hoping to protect.” He warned that some members’ home addresses had been posted online, and said he’d drafted his own letter of resignation from the board — “Right now, I don’t feel safe” — that he ultimately did not deliver.

He argued that intense scrutiny from other elected officials and constituents bore down too heavily not to act.

“If there is no action out of this board today, the mayor has already said through the superintendent, ‘I will make you do it,’ and the superintendent has said (to the board), ‘I will not comply with your policy,’” Anderson said. “In order for us as a board to be responsive to the community, we have to go into a meeting and pass something today, because we have to be responsive to the community.”

Marrero said he also was facing pushback for his stance, and that his support for returning police to schools would reduce his own future employment prospects.

“People are calling for my resignation because suddenly I’m pro-cop,” he said.

Some board members stressed a need to “humanize” Austin Lyle

Anderson said the mental health aspect of the East High shooting wasn’t getting enough attention. The district may have failed Lyle by allowing him to enroll at East rather than an alternative school that was better equipped to meet his needs, he said.

“People have painted this young man in a horrible light, ignoring all the mental health challenges he had,” he said. “When it is white people shooting up schools, we always go to the mental health aspect.”

Marrero said the district had sent a team to assist Lyle’s family, but the board needed to be careful about portraying him as a victim. One of the staff members who was shot expressed a desire that Lyle not be blamed, but witnesses also reported Lyle stood over the two men after shooting them and could have shot again, before deciding to run away, he said.

Quattlebaum agreed the board needed to “humanize the child,” despite his actions.

“We’re going to get pushback. We’re going to get blowback. But I’m ready for it,” she said.

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