The Denver Police Department is up against increasing criticism for how it handled a criminal search of an alternative high school last month.
Officers entered Rise Up Community School on April 24, looking for a student accused of attempted murder. School staff members say officers drew weapons during the search, all while going classroom-to-classroom for a student who was not in the building.
Denver’s Department of Public Safety announced Thursday it had opened an investigation into the incident. Later that evening, students, staff and teachers from RiseUp demanded answers at Denver Public School Board meeting.
Mary Jimenez, a junior at the school made up mostly of Latino, Black and Native American students, told the board that some of her peers have been afraid to come to school since the search.
“Because we are students of color and students of low-income, we get harassed and pushed around and we are expected not to fight back,” Jimenez said. “We need our respect and we need answers.”
Jimenez said those answers should include which school official authorized the search.
Lucas Ketzer, the school’s principal, said he was not that official. He told board members that officers asked him to look for the student inside the school. After he informed the police the student wasn’t in the building, he returned to a meeting under the assumption that DPD would not search the school.
The department insists it had reason to believe the student was there. In a statement published by Westword, police added they entered the school because, given the nature of the charges, the student could have been a threat to other students or staff members. Contrary to Ketzer’s account, they said they worked with him to gain access to the building.
Police also established a perimeter around the school during the search. Ketzer said that one of the staff members exited the back door to make sure no students were outside. At that point, Ketzer said three officers drew their weapons on the staff member and told her she could not go back into the building.
The department did not specifically deny that claim. Their statement claims “officers that were inside did not draw their weapons at any point during the search for the suspect.”
The student police were searching for turned himself in a few days later and has been charged with attempted first-degree murder, The Associated Press reports.
The incident has renewed worries over the effects of police inside schools, especially alternative schools like RiseUp. The charter high school serves about 100 students who are at risk of dropping out of traditional schools.
At the board meeting, representatives for Padres y Jovenes Unidos, a nonprofit that advocates for racial justice in schools, said the police would have handled the situation differently if the majority of the students were white.
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district will do all it can to support the ongoing investigation of the incident.
“What happened should not have happened,” he said.