Investigators walk the scene near a playground at the scene of a shooting at Nome Park on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, in Aurora, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Gazette)

When gunmen opened fire at Nome Park near Aurora Central High School during lunchtime Monday, students ran for campus.

The first people they found for help were two school resource officers, who quickly assessed the bloody scene and applied tourniquets to two of the six injured students.

“Two of the students had severe injuries and one of them, we are very confident, is alive today because the officer applied a tourniquet,” said Matt Longshore, an Aurora police spokesman.

Two students, including one who underwent emergency surgery, are still in the hospital. Four others were treated and released.

Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson called the shooting a public health crisis and also thanked the two school resource officers who are assigned by the department to Aurora Central High School for doing their jobs as first responders.

The role and arrest power of school resource officers has been challenged nationally as opponents say they often disproportionally target students of color. The issue came to a head last year in Colorado when the Denver school board voted to end its contract with the Denver Police Department. This fall was the first year with no officers on campus.

Denver school board member Jennifer Bacon defended the move, explaining that students, especially kids of color, are often arrested for crimes instead of being heard. She said it’s a systematic problem that puts young people into the prison system — in effect, creating what she referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.

“We heard from a lot of our students who had been completely frustrated with the presence of law enforcement in their lives,” Bacon said. “For our students, most of color, it was a lifetime of trying to free themselves of how they were seen in the eyes of law enforcement.”

Mark Edson, president of the Colorado Association of School Resource Officers, admits that the role of officers in schools is a work in progress, but says the pipeline-to-prison idea is not a problem he’s seen in Colorado.

“That is a farce that came from national opponents of school resource officers,” Edson said. “There is not one SRO I’ve met who wouldn’t charge right toward someone who needed help, whether it’s in a community or a school, or whether it’s an active threat or applying a tourniquet.”

Edson says his organization has been working with Denver Public Schools Chief of Public Safety Mike Eaton to repair and restore its relationship with the school district.

“We need to talk about this because we all recognize the problem. How do we come together and show there’s a value to properly selected and properly trained police officers working in a school?” Edson said.

Training for the transition from street patrol officer to working in schools is not a requirement to be an SRO, but Edson thinks it should be.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, SROs have become more prevalent. Only 1% of American schools had them in 1975. Today, nearly half of America’s schools have an SRO, many of whom carry firearms. There are 300 SROs assigned to Colorado public, private and charter schools, mostly working in middle and high schools, though there are some stationed in elementary schools.

The two SROs who responded to Monday's shooting near Aurora Central High School are staffed through the Aurora Police Department. “They aren’t just officers who wear a uniform and a badge,” Longshore said. “They also act as mentors and they’re trusted sources kids can talk to. They play sports with them and keep them safe.”

Bacon counters that there are plenty of people who work in the schools who can mentor kids, keep them safe and even apply a tourniquet.

“It’s not that we don’t want to have a relationship with the Denver Police Department. We just don’t want them parked at our schools,” said Bacon, who acknowledged that the decision to remove officers in schools was not universally applauded. “There was lots of anxiety. Some folks didn’t want us to do it.”

She says the board is in communication with Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen as the two sides attempt to strengthen their relationship.

School safety and rule enforcement is on the minds of Colorado lawmakers. A bill that would have decreased the ability for principals, teachers and other school staff to refer students to law enforcement was nixed last session after educators and police agencies voiced opposition, saying the bill would legalize crime.

Co-sponsor Leslie Herod, whose father was a police officer, says she’s not against having SROs in schools, and noted that the officers in Monday’s incident were heroic. But if a student has a first offense, they should be given a chance.

“Why are we arresting students with mental health issues? Kids should be able to make mistakes,” said Herod, adding that she plans to reintroduce a similar measure next year, but she’s looking at something “more narrow and less confusing.”

Aurora police have not made an arrest in Monday’s shooting at Nome Park. They are canvassing the neighborhood and have located one of two vehicles they believe were involved in the shooting. They are still looking for a black Chrysler 300. There is a $7,000 reward in the case. 

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