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Boulder Valley School District school safety advocates start work ahead of phase-out of school resource officers

Boulder High School’s newly hired school safety advocate, Marcus Askins, monitors students at lunch on November 18, 2021.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Boulder High School’s newly hired school safety advocate, Marcus Askins, monitors students at lunch on November 18, 2021.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Marcus Askins helped set up the school resource officer program with the Boulder Police Department, working as a school resource officer in Boulder schools for 11 years before moving on in 2011 to work in the traffic unit.

Now, he’s back at Boulder High, but not as an officer in a uniform, carrying a gun. He’s one of 10 new school safety advocates hired by the school district.

“I’m here to support students, that’s the biggest thing,” he said as he walked through the Boulder High halls last week, greeting teachers and checking to make sure all the outside doors were locked. “I want them to feel like they have a place to go or a person to go to if something is going on that just doesn’t feel good.”

BOULDER, CO - Nov. 18, 2021:Teacher, ...
Teacher Kathy Blessing, left, and Marcus Askins look at old school photos of the current teachers at Boulder High. Askins, Boulder High School’s newly hired school safety advocate, walks around the school on Thursday. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Along with getting to know the school community and supporting school administrators, he said, he wants to encourage students to interact outside their own social groups and “minimize the drama that starts on social media and trickles into the school.”

As Boulder Valley prepares to end its school resource officer program in January, the school safety advocates started working in schools last week. A new restorative practices coordinator also is working to expand the use of restorative practices in district schools, starting with high schools.

When voting a year ago to end the SRO program, the school board directed district officials to develop new options to ensure safety and develop more equitable discipline practices. The board agreed to make the change based on concerns that students of color are more likely to be ticketed, arrested, suspended or expelled.

District officials said schools will continue to call police to handle criminal issues. But with the right resources and training, teachers and school principals will have better options in handling noncriminal discipline issues, they said.

Brendan Sullivan, Boulder Valley’s safety and security director, described safety advocates as “a friendly, trusted person.”

Their jobs include partnering with school counselors and other mental health professionals, as well as community organizations, to connect students with the support they need. They’re also expected to assist in conducting investigations, including threat assessments, and serve as a liaison with police during emergencies and other events.

They will review and update school safety plans and provide security training to staff members and students, as well as help manage Safe2Tell reports and provide support to campus safety monitors. On the engagement side, they’re expected to participate with student and parent groups.

A school safety advocate will be based at each high school and will work with the school’s feeder middle schools. Three advocates also will be assigned to work with the elementary schools. As they develop their roles, the advocates plan to meet once a week to talk about what’s going well, what isn’t working and share ideas.

“We didn’t have a playbook,” Sullivan said. “We’re carving our own path.”

In developing the safety advocate position, district officials used feedback from eight stakeholder groups. They’re expected to be culturally competent, knowledgeable about law and able to provide emergency management. Their job is to focus on restorative practices, and they won’t be involved in enforcement of discipline. They will be part of the school leadership team and work directly with students.

The interview committee included representatives from the Parents of Color Council, Youth Equity Council, Equity Council, District Accountability Committee and middle and high school leaders.

Centaurus High junior Isaiah Williams was part of the school safety advocates interview team, saying he was wanted to provide a youth perspective.

“I really wanted to hear someone who was passionate about being with students and somebody who makes equitable decisions and decisions based on what’s best for kids, not necessarily ticketing kids,” he said. “I want someone who is a good resource for us and makes us feel safe.”

He said many Centaurus students may not feel they have a trusted adult to help them with issues, while an armed police officer doesn’t represent safety to some students.

“It’s easier to talk to (safety advocates) than officers,” he said. “To me personally, it makes me more safe.”

Boulder High Principal James Hill said the safety advocate will be an extension of the school’s administrative team and can help them with ideas as they handle discipline and other issues.

“It’s really being an advocate for kids, and kids knowing there’s another person in the building to assure their safety and well-being,” he said. “It’s a tremendous asset for a school.”

Hill also was part of the interview committee.

“Any time that you’re interviewing in this profession, you’re looking for people who are kid-driven and kid-centered and kid-focused,” he said. “I look for who is doing this for kids, does every answer come back to kids.”

Safety advocate Lavell Hamilton, who previously worked as a campus safety monitor at Monarch High, said the job posting described his dream job.

“I can work with the kids and keep them safe and inspire them to use their voices,” he said. “We can be there on the ground with the students. We want the students to feel safe as they move through the district.”

As an advocate, he said, he can help students rebuild relationships after an incident or disagreement, allowing them to coexist in the same community and feel confident about coming to school.

Carrie Burger, who was a juvenile probation officer for two years and worked in Adams 12 with students on behavior and attendance issues, said she wants to build rapport and connections with the students, as well as connecting with parent groups, police and community organizations.

“It’s going to be awesome,” she said.

Ema Lyman, right, Boulder Valley’s Mckinney-Vento specialist, leads a training on supporting homeless students for the school district’s 10 new school safety advocates Nov. 10 at the Education Center in Boulder.(Amy Bounds/Staff Writer)

Along with a job description, the stakeholder groups also provided input on the initial training the advocates would need, including anti-bias education, mental health first aid, cultural responsiveness and nonviolent crisis intervention. The advocates spent about 100 hours in training over three weeks before they started at schools.

“I’ve never received this amount of training on the front end,” Burger said. “I’ve never felt so well-prepared, even though we don’t know exactly what this will look like day to day.”

Along with asking safety advocates to focus on restorative practices, district leaders are encouraging schools to use more restorative practices both to prevent discipline issues and in response to incidents.

Janelle King, the district’s restorative practices coordinator, previously worked as a statewide restorative practices trainer for Florida’s Department of Children and Families. She’s also the executive director of Connection First, a nonviolent communication and restorative practices nonprofit organization.

She said she’s surveyed the high schools to see what restorative practices are in use, with middle and elementary school surveys next. Training sessions for high school administrators and counselors are set for the spring.

As she talked to the high school leaders, she said, she’s heard stories of people attending a single training a decade ago, but with no follow-up to help them implement those practices. Her goal is to provide schools with ongoing support, she said.

“A lot of schools already operate with a restorative practices mindset,” she said. “It’s about creating physically and emotionally safe environments for kids. Instead of kicking a kid out of school, you’re trying to identify what’s going on behind the behavior. Behavior is learned. It can be unlearned.”

District schools already incorporate restorative practices include Boulder’s New Vista High School. Ivette Visbal, New Vista’s dean of students and a founding teacher, said the school has used restorative practices for about 20 years.

“Restorative practices take place in the classroom every day,” she said. “Those practices lead to very few discipline incidents at school.”

She said monthly equity check-ins help the school foster the respect and strong relationships needed for restorative justice. Students are asked to think about a moment or situation when they noticed their power or lack of power, then talk about it with about 20 of their classmates.

“The degree of vulnerability and awareness that gets raised allows this group of 20 students to really get to know each other and respect each other,” she said.

When there’s an incident, such as truancy, plagiarism or substance use, it’s often addressed through a restorative justice circle. The circle is led by two students from a student team and includes the person who caused harm, the harmed party, a supportive adult for both, and two to three people from the school community.

“We’re not here to blame or punish anyone,” Visbal said. “Instead, we are going to look at how everyone has been impacted by the situation and what harm has been done. We ask everyone how they have been affected and how the school has been affected.”

The person who caused harm then commits to take three to five actions to repair the harm. Once the actions are complete, there’s a reintegration circle. Once the process is completed, she said, recidivism rates are “very low.”

“The benefits are infinite,” she said. “Taking responsibility without feeling judged or blamed — it’s a skill not just for school, but for life.”

Erie’s Meadowlark K-8 is another school with a restorative practices approach. Counselors Kristin Wagner and Stacey Debroux said, students start each day in a morning huddle, where students are taught lessons and practice skills that include active listening, calming down when upset and problem-solving.

“They really are able to independently problem-solve the natural conflict that comes up in any relationship,” Debroux said.

At the middle school level, Wagner said, the early skill building “helps us have the hard conversations as kids get older.”

“Students are less likely to repeat the same mistake over and over,” she said. “Middle school is still early enough that kids can make mistakes, and they have adult support. They can learn from them and shift the course of what high school or adulthood may look like for them. We’re seeing kids become more responsible young people.”