Students in Denver's public schools will no longer be ticketed by police for minor infractions, such as using bad language or getting into a scuffle in which no one is hurt, according to the terms of an agreement signed today by superintendent Tom Boasberg and Denver police chief Robert White. The agreement encourages schools to handle discipline and the police to step in on crime.
"We have, as the police, no desire to be disciplinarians," White says. "That's not our job. That's the parents' job, that's the schools' job. Our job is to deal with serious violations of the law and that's what we're going to do."
The two signed the agreement (on view below) at a ceremony at North High School hosted by Padres y Jovenes Unidos, a group that's been working on the issue for years. It updates a previous agreement by making several changes, including that in-school police officers, known as school resource officers (SROs), must recognize that the district has adopted a model of restorative justice that's designed to limit police involvement.
Other changes include that parents and principals must be notified as soon as possible when students are ticketed or arrested, that SROs must meet with the school community at least once per semester, and that principals and SROs must attend three two-hour citywide trainings per year about how to respond appropriately to student behavior.
Boasberg says the goals of the agreement are to keep kids safe and to keep kids in school, rather than have them spend time in juvenile court or at home because they've been suspended. "We have a focus that when our young people make mistakes -- and they sometimes do -- that the focus is on 'how do we make that a learning experience?'" he says. "And when harm has been done to someone, that that harm is made right."
"We have to keep these young people in school," White says. "And we should do everything we can to keep young people from getting a criminal record."
Plus, he says, improving the relationships between students and in-school police officers may actually help deter and solve crime -- both inside and outside the schools.
As for whether DPS's approach represents a departure from the viewpoint some are espousing in the wake of the Newtown school shooting that more police are needed in schools, Boasberg says the solution isn't that simple. "You can't take a one-dimensional approach," he says. "It can't just be more security, more security, more security....The restorative piece is a real important part of keeping schools safe and having kids learn."
DPS has fifteen SROs who work in seventeen schools. Since adopting a restorative justice model, which emphasizes repairing harm rather than punishing the offender, DPS reports that the number of students ticketed for minor infractions has decreased.
In December, Padres y Jovenes released a report praising DPS for expelling and suspending fewer students than in the past and referring fewer students to law enforcement. Indeed, all of those numbers are down (as can be seen on a chart below). For instance, 1,399 students were referred to law enforcement during the 2003-04 school year. But by the 2011-12 year, that number had dropped to 512 students.
However, the report criticized the district for the racial disparities that still exist -- namely, that black and Latino students are punished more harshly than white students. For instance, black students make up only 15 percent of the student population, yet they accounted for 32 percent of suspensions during the 2011-12 school year.
The racial disparities weren't discussed much today, as the officials and students in attendance congratulated each other on reaching what a juvenile court judge from Georgia calls a unique agreement. "What happened here was a combination of two things: it was a grassroots effort led by students and parents combined with the mindful leadership of your school superintendent and your chief of police," says Judge Steve Teske, who helps cities and school districts nationwide reform discipline.
"This (agreement) is the first of its kind in the nation," says Tori Ortiz, a youth member of Padres y Jovenes Unidos who attends CEC Middle College. "The Denver (agreement) is unique because it includes the input of youth, particularly youth of color."
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