A group of Montezuma-Cortez students is asking school administrators to reconsider using school resource officers on campus.
Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1 has the equivalent of 1.5 SROs stationed on district campuses. The group of students said a police presence on campus fosters a fearful environment.
“It doesn’t create that great of an atmosphere to learn in and try to be productive in,” said Caro Gomez, a recent graduate of Montezuma-Cortez High School.
Some of the students spoke up about SROs at the latest virtual school board meeting June 30. The district agreed to discuss the matter with students soon.
Gomez, who’s been gathering other students of color to join her in her request, said she was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement that has surged nationwide. As a member of a minority group herself, the issue hits home: Family members have experienced bias or profiling by law enforcement, she said.
She added there doesn’t have to be a specific example or incidence of wrongdoing by an SRO to address the issue.
“Why don’t we get someone that’s less intimidating?” Gomez told The Journal.
She would like to see SRO funding reallocated to health services, transportation for extracurricular activities or teacher pay.
Gina Lopez is a member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe and works for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which is “grounded in anti-oppression,” she said. Lopez supported the students in their movement, and said she’s proud of them for standing up.
A big part of the issue at hand is understanding that law enforcement has a different meaning for different communities and cultures, she said.
“This isn’t about — we don’t support, care for, or love the police,” Lopez said. “We understand what that is. But we’re just asking that folks understand that policing is very different depending on the community you come from.”
She also worries that the specific role of an SRO might not be clear, and that if a law enforcement official also serves as a counselor or truancy officer, misunderstandings can arise. The presence of a uniformed officer also can seem to “criminalize” certain aspects of schooling, which is not good for students who have experienced bias or profiling.
It’s part of a larger, systemic issue related to discipline in schools, Lopez said. She recalled when she worked for the victim services department for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, Southwest Open School came to them for help, looking to implement a restorative justice model of discipline — school staff were seeing Native American students being disproportionately disciplined.
“On their own,” Lopez said, “they came in and said, ‘We feel that it’s humanly impossible to ask for these students to come from homes where there are struggles — I could name off what all those things are — and hop on a bus and come to a campus and switch all that off the moment they step off of it. And then somehow they’ve got to turn that back on when they get back home.’”
She also would like to see Montezuma-Cortez High School work toward a restorative model.
At the school board meeting June 30, board members and administrators agreed that it would be a good idea to meet with the students to hear their concerns.
“As a school district, these students’ voices at least need to be heard,” said board member Lance McDaniel, adding that it was important to acknowledge different experiences throughout Re-1.
A few board members cautioned, though, that while they want to address the concerns, they also want to ensure student safety. Board member Sheri Noyes added that many students have had a positive relationship with SROs.
“There were several kids who were upset when some of the resource officers left, because that was a safe spot for them,” she said.
Superintendent Lori Haukeness said she would like to meet with the students, calling it a great opportunity to “really look at how we serve students of color as a district.”
She added, though, that it was important to recognize the value SROs have offered the district.
“They’ve always been incredibly supportive, even working behind the scenes on the proactive side, which you do not see,” she said.
The district pays $23,000 annually for the SROs. The Cortez Police Department has paid the majority of SRO funding, since former police Chief Roy Lane felt it was a priority, Haukeness added.