DPS expulsions, suspensions down but racial disparities in discipline remain, report says

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Denver Public Schools is expelling and suspending fewer students than in the past, according to a new report by the group Padres y Jovenes Unidos. The number of times students are referred to law enforcement is also decreasing, though the group notes that racial disparities still exist. Black and Latino students continue to be punished more harshly than white students, its report says.

"DPS has made some impressive progress over the last year," says Tori Ortiz, a sixteen-year-old member of Padres y Jovenes Unidos (Parents and Youth United) and a junior at CEC Middle College of Denver. But, she adds, "the fight isn't over and we will keep pushing for an end to racial disparities."

Padres y Jovenes has been working to reform so-called "zero tolerance" school- discipline policies for nearly a decade. Over the years, they've collected stories from around Colorado of discipline that went too far: A ten-year-old arrested for theft for stealing a stick of gum from a teacher's purse. A twelve-year-old ticketed for assault for pushing another student into a locker. An eighth-grader ticketed for graffiti for doodling on his desk.

In 2008, the group cheered when DPS revised its policy to focus more on restorative justice and less on punishment. Padres y Jovenes soon set its sights on the entire state. Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a bill nicknamed the Smart School Discipline Law that requires districts to eliminate automatic expulsion except in cases where a student brings a gun to school. The law also encourages districts to limit the number of suspensions and expulsions in favor of restorative justice, peer mediation and other tactics. Starting in October 2013, the law requires school resource officers to undergo special training.

DPS already has a good policy, Padres y Jovenes says. The question is how well the district is implementing it. For the 2011-12 school year, the group gave the district an overall grade of C. Out-of-school suspensions were down 13 percent from the year before, its report shows, and expulsions were down 40 percent. In addition, referrals to law enforcement decreased by 24 percent -- which isn't enough, Padres y Jovenes notes.

Meanwhile, racial disparities remain high. Black students make up only 15 percent of the DPS student population, the group says, yet they account for 32 percent of suspensions. For every white student suspended, over five black students were given the same punishment. For Latinos, that number was nearly two and a half. The disparities are similar for expulsions and law enforcement referrals, as shown on a chart on view below.

Restorative justice coordinators are key to making the new discipline policy work, Ortiz says. She and others would like DPS to hire more of them. The district has sixteen school resource officers, which cost $1.3 million, yet it only has four full-time restorative justice coordinators and one part-time coordinator, she says.

"Obviously, (restorative justice) is a great alternative," Ortiz says. But when she and others asked DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg at a meeting this week to commit to hiring more coordinators, "they said it was not within their budget," Ortiz says.

According to John Albright, DPS's deputy chief of staff, the coordinators are not the only staff members trained in restorative justice. Eighteen members of the district's mental health and assessment team, which includes social workers and school psychologists, are also fully trained and "provide support to schools as needed," he says.

Plus, he says, "almost all of the schools have people in them who are fully trained on restorative approaches." This school year alone, DPS has trained 446 staff members in some aspect of restorative justice, Albright says.

"To be clear, we're not hearing from schools that they're lacking support in this area," he adds. "Padres's idea of having a full-time coordinator in every school -- we're just not hearing that schools need that at this point."

As for the racial disparities highlighted in the report, Albright says the issue is "a clear area of concern for us" and the district is working to address it. In addition, DPS spokesman Mike Vaughn sent the following statement:

We have seen a significant decline in out-of-school suspensions and expulsions across all racial groups in recent years, and DPS continues to work hard to address the disparities that still exist. Our partnership with Padres y Jovenes Unidos is centered around making sure discipline issues are handled equitably and in a way that fosters a strong school culture of collaboration and student success.

Continue to see Padres y Jovenes's report.

DPS Accountability Meeting Report Card
DPS Discipline Statistics 2011-2012

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Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

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