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Northfield’s School Resource Officer: More than a cop

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on our partner site, Central Park EdNews.

Ken Harris has been on the job at Northfield High School for only a week, but he knows the sprawling 20-acre campus like he’s been there for years.

That’s because he has. The police officer returned to NHS as its school resource officer April 3 after more than two-and-a-half years away.

He is one of 14 armed Denver Police resource officers assigned to high schools after two East High shootings last month prompted the Board of Education to reverse its June 2020 decision to terminate its contract with DPD in the wake of  nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman.

Harris was Northfield’s school resource officer (SRO) from 2016 to 2020, when he was reassigned to patrol duties after the school board ended its DPD contact. When the SRO opportunity came up again, he jumped at it.

“I know this school, I know this community,” he said. “I just know that if there is a need, I can fill it here at Northfield.”

With five separate buildings housing 1,872 students on the Paul Sandoval campus and another 574 students at DSST Conservatory Green High School, Harris does a lot of walking and a lot of talking.

“How’s it going?” he asked a group of boys gathered outside in the sun on a walk-through last week.

“Do you have any stickers?” one replied.

“Let’s see…”

Harris pulled out a couple of the white DPD shield stickers.

“Here you go. So where you gonna put these? I don’t want to see these posted on the restroom wall,” he said, half-jokingly.

“No. Right here,” one of the boys said, pointing to his jacket.

“Cool,” approved Harris. “Be good!”

These kinds of daily interactions are typically the opposite of what he experienced as a patrol officer.

“As a cop on the street, kids don’t want to approach you. Here, this is their world, and they are a lot more comfortable talking to me.”

The day before, he started early before classes began, situating himself across 56th Avenue in the parking lot of businesses that have complained about students parking all day in their customer spaces. Rather than hand out parking tickets, Harris told students to move their cars in the school lot or on the street.

Helping NHS be a good Northfield neighbor is not part of the job description, but it’s the way he approaches his job.

In fact, the job description for SROs has changed from previous years. The school board made clear that school cops are not there to discipline students or make long-term connections.

“The marching orders for SROs are that we are just to be armed security guards so the community can feel safe,” Harris said. “I can understand that if you don’t have adequate training or experience. But for me, there is so much more I can do here.”

Board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson has been an outspoken foe of SROs, arguing that they contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline” when they arrest teens at school, particularly students of color.

As a 24-year veteran of law enforcement who grew up in nearby Montbello, Harris is keenly aware of the criticism.

“I can promise you that I have done more to keep kids of color out of trouble, even when a school has wanted me to write them up with a citation. I know the potential impact this could have on their lives.”

As an alternative to citations and arrests, resource officers work with the city’s Youth Programs staff who meet with students and their parents to develop a diversion plan to prevent future incidents. They connect students and their families  to resources that can address underlying problems. That way, Harris said, students can get the help they need rather than ending up in the juvenile justice system.

Harris said he wanted to return to Northfield in part because he can relate to its ethnically diverse student body: 46% white, 30% Latino, 14% Black and the remaining 10% mixed race, Asian and Native American. And at adjacent DSST, students of color make up 90% of the school.

“Respect is important to these kids,” he said. “As SROs, we work hard to build a rapport with our students to show them respect and to earn their respect.”

With only eight weeks left before school ends, the role of SROs will be evaluated by Superintendent Alex Marrero, who will deliver a long-term safety plan to the board this summer. Until then, Harris said he will continue to work with Northfield administrators, faculty, staff and its two non-police security officers to keep the school safe.

“This is the most worthwhile job in policing…This is where I want to be.”