Zero for Conduct

Teacher Joseph C'de Baca says Denver's public schools are failing Hispanic students--by passing those who don't deserve it.

One first-year teacher assigned to West last year recalls writing twenty referrals within a few months, none of which resulted in suspensions. It's a high number, she acknowledges, but many of them derived from a single class--an overcrowded "study hall" she was supposed to supervise that was actually an ongoing detention gulag for sixty students, disciplinary problems who'd been booted out of other classes.

"I was dealing with the worst kids in the whole school," she says. "They didn't always come, and when they did, they would never read. They'd just sit there and start fights and cuss."

She sent kids to the office for fighting and for threatening her or spewing vile sexual suggestions, usually in Spanish. ("One kid told me he wanted to mount me," she recalls. "I'd rather he used the F word, I think.") None of them were suspended. One student charged her at her desk; the principal didn't believe her, she says.

"The same student later used a racial epithet against me, but nothing ever happened with that complaint, either," she says. "When I checked his record, he had three of these study halls--no math class, no social studies, no science. And he walked across the stage and graduated. They probably just wanted to get him out of school."

The teacher continued to write referrals, she says, "until I found out they were putting a copy of each one in my file. I always had to defend myself. The principal asked me, 'Why is security always being called to your room? Why can't you control it?' But this wasn't a class; it was a room filled with a hundred percent too many kids and nothing for them to do. They were destroying the room and ripping the blinds."

The administration did take swift action against one student of hers who was flashing gang signs in the classroom. When she summoned a police officer who happened to be next door, the student tossed to the floor "the biggest bag of marijuana I'd ever seen--a Safeway produce bag filled with pot." Under the district's three-strikes drug policy, he was suspended, but only for three days.

"In my day, if I'd had a joint or even a cigarette on me, I would have been expelled," the teacher says. "He got a slap on the hand, got to sleep late a couple of mornings, and then he was back."

The teacher eventually decided that the referrals were only bringing more heat on her, and she stopped writing them. "They were trying to keep the suspension rate down," she says, "and it's a lot easier to control a hundred teachers than 2,000 students."

Seick says she doesn't have much sympathy for teachers who look to the administration to constantly intervene in their classroom. "There are teachers who are absolute masters at controlling the environment in which they teach," she says. "Then there's a group of people who expect someone else to control the behavior that's going on in their classroom. That doesn't mean there aren't times when appropriate action isn't taken, but it's pretty easy to blame the administration when, in fact, there's a problem with the teacher's classroom-management skills."

Yet the behavior that most troubles teachers may be well beyond their control. The decline of civility in public schools, along with rising incidents of drug use and violence, even at the elementary level, is an old story; but teachers say it's doubly difficult to impose discipline when neither parents nor administrators will back them up. One young teacher, who worked in DPS briefly before departing last year for the greener pastures of the Cherry Creek school district, recalls how horrifed she was the first time she heard the bruising expletives and racist trash issuing from the mouths of kindergartners at one of Denver's inner-city elementary schools. "The principal told me not to pay attention," she says, "because they were too young to know what they were saying."

Veteran substitute teacher John Garcia says that DPS is trying to polish its image at the expense of teacher morale. "In the schools I go to, it's like a zoo," he says. "In a class of 25 kids, you may have four or five that are so disruptive you can't do anything."

Last semester the seventy-year-old Garcia was substituting at a west-side middle school when a fight erupted between two boys in his classroom. "That fight lasted five or six minutes," he says. "I called security, but it took them that long to get there. The kids were all bloody, and the rest of the class was just trying to keep out of the way. Well, I think that's grounds for expulsion. They were endangering other kids. But those boys were just counseled--no mention of suspension or anything like that."

But if anyone has cause to question the effectiveness of DPS's new approach to discipline, it's probably Susan Dickson. Dickson enjoyed a relatively trouble-free ten years as an art teacher at Rishel Middle School; last year she was one of 23 finalists nominated for Teacher of the Year for the entire district. It all came crashing down last fall, when she left the school in frustration over several serious disciplinary incidents that she believes were poorly handled by Rishel principal Karen Millspaugh--culminating in the theft and destruction of Dickson's automobile.

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