School security measure passes the Colorado Senate in late night reversal

A budget amendment sets aside $35 million for school resource officers and building upgrades to improve security.

Colorado Senate Democrats stand to vote no on a budget amendment to add $35 million for school security. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)
Colorado Senate Democrats stand to vote no on a budget amendment to add $35 million for school security. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)
Colorado Senate Democrats stand to vote no on a budget amendment to add $35 million for school security. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

By Erica MeltzerChalkbeat 

The Colorado Senate joined the House in adopting a budget amendment Wednesday that sets aside $35 million for school resource officers and building upgrades to improve security. The late night vote came after the initial version of the amendment failed on something close to a party line vote.

There are some complicated political dynamics in play with this budget allocation, but the reversal in the Senate makes it much more likely that a large, security-focused allocation will be included in the final budget. A separate bill would be necessary to describe the uses of the money and the distribution process.

The House version of the amendment passed with the support of Republicans and some Democrats and draws money from the general fund. The Senate version draws from the state education and public schools funds.

The Senate amendment was supported by Republicans, who hold the majority, but it initially failed because two Republican Joint Budget Committee members, who are obligated to defend the budget from amendments, joined Democrats, who were united in voting no. The Senate’s sole independent, Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge, voted with Republicans. In the final vote, one Democrat joined Republicans 

“Clearly safety has been a priority in both chambers,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, which will have to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the budget. This is a much larger addition to the state’s $28.9 billion budget than most of the amendments under consideration in either chamber.

Some Democrats, particularly members of the African-American and Latino caucuses, opposed this amendment because they worry about adding more law enforcement presence to schools. Community groups have also mobilized to oppose this idea. Democrats proposed that schools be able to apply for grants for counselors and school psychologists, conflict resolution training, and other uses that focus on less tangible aspects of school safety, along with school resource officers and building upgrades.

State Sen. Tim Neville, a Littleton Republican who co-sponsored the amendment, said constituents have been calling him to demand: “What are you going to do this year to help our children be safe in our schools?”

Neville’s son, state Rep. Patrick Neville, is a survivor of the Columbine shooting. As House minority leader, the younger Neville made a passionate case for spending more money on school security last week. He called it a “less political” solution than his preferred answer, more armed adults in schools.

But as the debate on the Senate floor showed, school security is very political, and Republicans and Democrats arrived at their positions from very different worldviews and life experiences.

State Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, said she feared more police in schools would lead more children into the school-to-prison pipeline and reminded her colleagues of an infamous video from South Carolina that showed an officer dragging a girl from her chair and throwing her to the ground.

“Students, especially youth of color, are being arrested for misbehavior that used to be handled by school administrators and counselors,” she said.

The other co-sponsor, state Sen. John Cooke, a Republican from Weld County and the former sheriff there, said he had never seen a school-to-prison pipeline.

“(Police) are there to protect our children, not to send them to prison,” he said.

State Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, said $35 million could be better used in other ways.

“We need more money in classrooms,” she said. “Give that $35 million to classroom teachers, so everyone can have textbooks. Give the $35 million to school counselors and nurses. Thirty-five million dollars for more police in schools?”

Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican, said he wanted to offer “perspective.” The money is not that much, once it’s spread around, but it might mean the next school shooter gets confronted by an armed, trained person.

“This isn’t too much money,” he said. “It’s a start. It’s a step in the right direction.”

This story has been updated to reflect new developments.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.