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.

"I wasn't somebody who wrote a lot of referrals," Dickson says. "I almost never used the office counselors as disciplinarians. But there were some incidents this year that were unbelievable. The final straw was when some of my own students stole my car."

Dickson's car keys were stolen by one of her students. A few days later her Geo Spectrum was found totaled; the teenager behind the wheel was not a Rishel student. It took some sleuthing on Dickson's part, as well as the offer of a reward, to discover the names of the students responsible for the theft. She promptly relayed the information to her principal and the police.

"The kids needed to be getting a message from the school that they'd done something pretty darn serious. I expected expulsion, to be honest," she says. "But there was no discussion of expulsion."

None of the three students who played a role in the auto theft were expelled. Principal Millspaugh says the students involved in the theft of Dickson's car keys agreed to sign "behavior contracts" and received four-and-a-half-day suspensions; it was not a Rishel student but the older sister of one of the key thieves who actually stole the car. "We were dealing just with the theft of the keys," she says.

Dickson insists that one of the students suspended over the affair was also directly involved in stealing the car; Millspaugh says that she's unaware of that and that the matter of the car theft is in the hands of the police. Her decision to focus on the theft of keys rather than the car itself is supported by Marjorie Tepper, executive director of DPS's department of secondary education.

"I don't think that's a reason to expel a youngster," Tepper says. "It can be demoralizing for the teacher if she feels she's not getting any support, but we believe that Karen has done a good job and that the discipline is good at Rishel."

Yet Dickson says she was involved in several other disciplinary incidents at Rishel last semester that should have resulted in expulsion. In one case, she says, a student stole a knife used to sculpt clay from a pottery class; he was later hauled back into her classroom by a counselor who'd just seen the boy throw the knife at another boy. The knife-thrower, she says, "had a lengthy [disciplinary] record and was on the edge of expulsion. He was a threat to other kids and to teachers. But he was given a suspension and another chance."

Another student of hers stole an X-Acto knife, she adds. When caught, he admitted to a guard that he intended to use the knife on a fellow sixth-grader who'd been "messing" with him. "He was suspended for a few days," Dickson says. "He appeared back in my classroom belligerent, self-righteous. What's going to happen to a kid like that?"

Millspaugh says the knife-throwing incident posed no risk of injury because the knife was dull (but still dangerous, Dickson insists) and was thrown at the ground, not at the other student; it merely bounced off the victim's pants leg. "They were just playing around," she says. She could provide no information concerning the X-Acto incident and says she didn't have time to check her file on the case. Yet under district policy, offenses involving weapons could easily merit expulsion, whether any injuries were sustained or not.

"It's true that there weren't any serious injuries," Dickson says, "but what about the injury that's done to the students who aren't inclined to arm themselves? The innocent ones can't learn in an environment like that."

Dickson also complained to Millspaugh about a former student, expelled last fall after several infractions, who showed up several times after school outside her classroom window, as if stalking her. She claims that Millspaugh was annoyed that she was working late and suggested that she close the blinds. "It was like the Twilight Zone," she says.

Millspaugh denies making such statements. She says it's "sensationalistic" to make an issue out of a single unfortunate incident at Rishel such as the theft of Dickson's car. But after a string of unfortunate incidents in the course of one semester, none of which resulted in serious consequences for the perpetrators, Dickson decided to take a leave of absence. Although she hopes to return to DPS, it won't be at Rishel.

"I won't go back to Rishel under any circumstances, and I love that school," she says. "I went to school there myself, and I took a lot of dreams and ideals back with me."

C'de Baca says that the policy of striving to keep miscreants in school has backfired: It not only drives good teachers away, but it may actually raise, not lower, the dropout rate.

"A lot of the kids who drop out are afraid to go to school," he says. "I get frustrated when they blame the dropout rate on the parents. I'll accept a 25 percent rate and blame it on the parents, but there is an administrative component here, too. Kids are telling us that these schools are unsafe, and they don't want to go hear the teacher yell 'Shut up!' over and over instead of teaching."

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