Reforms pitched for Colorado schools’ zero-tolerance rules
Resource type: News
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By Kevin Simpson
After nearly two decades marked by zero tolerance, reformers are intent on revamping the state’s approach to school discipline, but the effort to craft new legislation has created sharp battle lines.
School-discipline reform has gained traction, as several organizations have mobilized efforts to dismantle what they call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” They claim policies needlessly shunt misbehaving students into the criminal justice system and disproportionately affect minorities.
On the other side, schools fret over liability and program mandates, while youth and family advocates worry that gutting effective new approaches could render any changes pointless.
Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, has introduced Senate Bill 46, after leading a series of stakeholder meetings on the school-discipline issue.
“The bill, as it is, has a lot of parties having angst over it,” she said. “Some have been trying to get at this for a few years now. Others don’t want a bill at all. And others are in the middle saying, ‘We should do something, but gosh, how are we going to pay for it?’ So we’re trying to find compromise and collaboration.”
Padres & Jovenes Unidos, a Denver parent/youth advocacy group, approached the legislature last year with concerns about racial disparity in school referrals to law enforcement — sometimes even for relatively minor conduct infractions.
Marco Nuñez, the group’s director of organizing, also noted the trend of increased involvement of police in school-discipline issues, particularly in the wake of violence like the Columbine and Platte Canyon school shootings.
“It was a slippery slope where year after year, school discipline behaviors were delegated to law enforcement for them to address,” Nuñez said. “Their reach has been far more expanded than ever was the original intent.”
District data “a mess”
Although encouraged by the individual efforts of Denver Public Schools to reform policies in 2008 and reduce out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, Nuñez said, implementation has fallen short.
Statewide, he said, many districts report zero law enforcement referrals.
“We argue that those districts didn’t devolve into chaos and anarchy, but they’re dealing with discipline in a different way,” he said. “We need to get to a place where there’s more parity, get to a baseline where schools are using greater common sense to keep students in school.”
A legislative task force heard testimony and last fall voted to begin work on draft legislation. But trying to accomplish reform amid the current economic crisis presents a challenge all its own.
Newell said school districts are “pretty freaked out” that the effort may come with a price tag they can’t handle in the wake of already deep cuts.
For instance, “graduated discipline” programs like restorative justice, characterized by negotiation, restitution and reconciliation rather than more punitive measures, have been shown to prevent unnecessary criminalization of young students.
Some Colorado districts already employ them. Those that don’t, already besieged by budget cuts, balk at any mandate to start. Yet groups like Padres & Jovenes Unidos see such programs as central to any meaningful legislation.
“The spirit of the bill overall is to move away from zero tolerance, a punitive response to student behavior, to something that’s more restorative and emphasizes learning,” Nuñez said. “Which is what schools are designed for.”
But Newell notes that while she wants to move at least incrementally in that direction, “it’s the resources holding us back.”
Lack of funding, as well as a lack of understanding about how school discipline policy affects kids with disabilities, remains a concern for Yvette Plummer, executive director of the Denver Metro Community Parent Resource Center, which serves families of children with disabilities.
Students with disabilities who act out often find themselves disproportionately referred to the justice system, she said, and their parents tend to be ill-prepared to deal with the fallout.
She worries that much of the conversation about a bill has surrounded institutions and liability, rather than students, and wonders how so many diverse interests can cobble together effective legislation.
“I hate to have to tell you I’m nervous, I’m really nervous,” Plummer said. “And I don’t want to be, because I think everyone’s intentions are good. But I’m scared there’s going to be so much stuff in there but that the kids are going to be lost.”
One element that could be in jeopardy is an improved data- collection system. Stakeholders widely agree that the state has a disappointing shortage of crunchable data on school discipline, which makes it difficult to precisely define key issues.
Kevin Welner, a professor of education and director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, assigned two doctoral students to help analyze the state’s school discipline data sets covering the years 2008-10.
The researchers found reporting uneven and reliability suspect. The sets couldn’t be merged to track demographics in a meaningful way. And for any category of misbehavior, the odds of that incident being referred to law enforcement varied significantly from district to district.
So while struck by the disproportionate outcomes — for example, some minority groups had higher suspension and law enforcement referral rates than whites — the researchers were frustrated that those numbers told only half the story. The data didn’t break down the original incidents by demographic to allow for more complete tracking.
“It’s a mess,” Welner said. “We spent a semester trying to puzzle through these things. There are important questions that need to be answered, and you can’t answer those questions with this data.”
There has been a general reluctance — by everyone — to take on additional expense with regard to data collection. But late last week, Newell said she was encouraged by news that law enforcement may be able to assume those responsibilities at minimal expense.
“If we’re doing it right, there won’t be much of a fiscal note,” Newell said. “That’s what we’re trying to work out with the data piece. That’s the biggest funding challenge.”
One provision that’s certain to remain in Newell’s SB 46 is a fresh look at zero tolerance.
Janelle Krueger, program manager for the Expelled and At-Risk Student Services Grant Program at the Colorado Department of Education, traces the state’s zero-tolerance polices back as far as Denver’s 1994 “summer of violence,” when some high-profile incidents shone a harsh spotlight on juvenile crime.
Cop chief suggests fixes
The Columbine school shootings further swung the pendulum toward zero tolerance, both in Colorado and nationally. But with set-in-stone sanctions came outrageous stories like the Rhode Island kindergartner who was suspended for bringing a plastic knife to school to cut cookies.
Greater discretion for local school officials marks one point of agreement among the stakeholders who have met for months to craft a workable bill.
“We don’t want kids behaving in certain ways,” Krueger said. “But having said that, it doesn’t mean every code of conduct violation needs a law enforcement response.”
Greenwood Village Police Chief John Jackson, who served on the legislative task force that examined the issue, advocates having well-trained school resource officers as a proactive approach — though the cost of more training remains a concern.
And he disagrees that cops in schools are part of any school-to-prison pipeline, a term he calls “an egregious representation that’s great for grabbing headlines and drama.”
“I hear it talked about but that’s not how SROs put on their gear and go to work,” Jackson said. “The better fix here is to work on the systemic problems, fix those, gather better data, train SROs to a higher level and hold people who make goofy decisions accountable.”
Jackson agrees that the well-intentioned pendulum swing toward zero tolerance resulted in a loss of perspective — something he saw illustrated in his jurisdiction by the 2009 suspension of a Cherry Creek School District student for bringing non-functioning, drill-team rifles to school in her car.
Statewide legislation should revisit the definition and response to weapons in a way that makes more sense, he said — and not just in urban areas.
“We talked a lot about local control,” Jackson said. “But there have to be bigger parameters painted on a state level. That’s what makes this so hard. It’s not just about the Denver metro area, or the Front Range. It needs to be common sense-based enough for Delta and La Junta and Monte Vista as well.”
In a state inordinately touched by school violence, stakeholders agree on one other thing: School safety should not be compromised.
“Nobody is talking about doing anything that would undermine schools’ and law enforcement’s ability to prevent something from happening in the future,” Nuñez said. “That’s off the table.”
But the tough negotiating lies ahead.
“Can everybody give an inch, or is everybody going to stay stuck so we don’t have anything?” Newell said. “I’m hopeful. We’ve made a lot of progress.”
Padres y Unidos is an Atlantic grantee via a grant to Public Interest Project’s Just and Fair Schools Fund.