Midway through the school day on Sept. 6, officials at Denver’s East High School made an unusual call in response to a reportedly gang-related threat. They closed the school and sent students home.

A school security passes teachers leaving East High School, on Sept. 6, 2013 (Kate Schimel/EdNews Colorado)
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
A school security vehicle passes teachers leaving East High School, on Sept. 6, 2013 (Kate Schimel/EdNews Colorado)

Their decision meant that on a sunny Friday afternoon, under the watchful eyes of Denver police, students dispersed to bus stops and elsewhere. Some wandered into the neighborhood, heading for the park or contemplating lunch. Teachers and staff followed not long after, shooing any lingering students towards home.

And some watching the action from the outside wondered: who made the decision to let students go early? And why? How, in the context of a gang-related threat, could the streets be the safest place for East’s students?

“What sense does that make?” said Leon Kelley, head of Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives, a group that works with children to prevent gang recruitment. “You keep them confined inside to keep them safe.”

By all accounts, school security decisions are highly situation-dependent. However, East’s decision highlights the complex calculus schools perform in deciding what will keep students, staff and faculty safest.

Although the police can’t confirm the nature of the threat against East, principal Andy Mendelsburg said the intelligence he received indicated it should be taken seriously.

“We talked to our school resource officers a bit who had some words from the streets,” said Mendelsburg. East, like several high schools in Denver, has police officers, known as school resource officers, on campus.

Denver police are still investigating who made the threat. It is speculated to be linked with gang activities related to the deaths of Harry P. Morgan, a known member of the Bloods street gang, and Reysean Abram, who is thought to have had Crips gang affiliation. The East closure also coincided with the end of the 11 a.m. funerals for Abram and Morgan, when Denver police would have been in high demand as the funeral parties dispersed.

For Mendelsberg, the decision came down to balancing the availability of police supervision and the number of students he knew would be leaving the school.

“Because of the other events going on, the most support the [Denver Police Department] and security could give us was early in the day, between 12 and 12:30,” said Mendelsberg, who said he had extensive conversations with Denver police. “As it was, our kids were supported getting out, getting to buses and getting home.”

Mendelsberg said the decision was also driven in part by reports from earlier in the week that kids had been chased for wearing red, a color associated with the Bloods street gang. It’s a tradition at East High School for students, faculty and staff to dress in red, the school color, on Friday.

Although news reports following the situation at East described it as a modified lockdown, district officials clarified that the decision at East was an early release, a diversion from the school’s standard threat response.

“Early release is not part of our emergency plan,” said Michael Eaton, chief of school security at Denver Public Schools. “It’s additional decision-making tools we use in certain circumstances.”

Eaton said in each case, they have to find the right balance of student safety and student learning. For East, he think the school made the right call.

“Does it make sense to let students out early, if there’s minimal impact on learning with a big impact on safety?” said Eaton.

The district coordinates heavily with Denver police for decisions involving school security, including the decision involving East.

“We really look for intel from the police department,” said Eaton. “Sometimes they say lock it down, in some cases they say here are some options and sometimes the school leader makes the decision.”

The district places a lot of the decision making power in the hands of staff and principals. It maintains a flexible decision structure so that staff throughout the chain of command can put a school in lockdown, from district security dispatchers to principals to the district’s security division.

“We want staff to have the ability to make time-sensitive decisions,” said Eaton. “Our school leaders, our principals, are the on-site decision makers.” Both Eaton and Denver police ultimately confirmed that the decision to close down East came from within the school.

“Our main goal is, we want to educate our kids but we also return kids home safely,” said Mendelsburg.