Longform

PRACTICE WHAT YOU TEACH

part 2 of 2
By 1988 the situation at Mitchell had worsened. Dropout rates had continued to climb, as had drug use and gang activities--much of which Delia blamed on the nearby apartment complexes. Kids told her they were actually afraid to come to school. She asked superintendent Ken Burnley, a black man who'd taken the job in 1987, and newly appointed assistant superintendent Jim Kocher for extra security guards. She didn't get them.

She also sought financial and administrative backing for what would be called the Absence Addiction Program and would look at absenteeism as an addictive behavior rather than something "bad" about the student. With support from counselors and teachers, the student would be asked to come up with a plan to change the behavior. That way, the responsibility for making the change as well as recognizing the consequences for not changing was in the hands of the child. Instead of punishing the student with expulsion, the student would be encouraged to find a reason to stay in school.

The dropout-prevention program eventually would be recognized as a model by such entities as the U.S. Department of Education and the Southwest Regional Drug-Free Schools and Community Association. Staff members for Governor Roy Romer's office would hear of its successes and urge that it be adopted in other Colorado schools. But it took Delia's efforts to obtain a grant from a private foundation to get the program going, because once again she received no support from school district administrators.

Having decided that she couldn't count on the district for support, Delia took it upon herself to start the Neighborhood/Community Coalition. The local business community had grown disenchanted with Mitchell and blamed the school's students for assorted crimes, including the gang-style graffiti that appeared on area buildings. Now Mitchell officials, led by Delia, met with representatives of the police department, the district attorney's office, businesspeople and the owners and managers of the apartment complexes.

According to Deputy District Attorney Daniel H. May, those coalition meetings were a rousing success. May, who represented his office, noted in a letter that the cooperation between apartment managers and police resulted in the arrest and prosecution of major and street-level drug dealers "who had been attempting to sell crack cocaine to high school and junior high students on their way to and from school."

Delia had started lobbying the legislature for a new law that would stiffen the penalties for dealing drugs within 1,000 feet of a school. When that measure passed, May wrote, it resulted in numerous arrests of drug dealers near the school, "effectively chasing dealers away from the area. Without the coalition, this could not have been done as effectively or efficiently. Ms. Busby is to be commended for this highly successful program."

Romer's office also took note of the coalition project and it, too, was added to the list of suggested programs for schools trying to deal with similar problems.

Delia also demanded more of her students. If they violated rules, she would suspend them. If they violated the law, she personally filed the police complaints.

Her efforts were noted by the school's neighbors. "Dear Students," wrote Bonnie Riley, the president of nearby Winslow Court, a retirement community, "this is a note to thank you for removing the graffiti from buildings in our neighborhood.

"We are pleased that you young people take an active interest in the better appearance of our city."

And Delia didn't stop there. In 1989 she announced that Mitchell would be a hat-free zone. She had noticed that the gangs identified themselves--and their enemies--by certain brands of hats.

She gave several weeks' notice of the impending change, but there was no response until the day the rule went into effect. Suddenly, some parents were calling the school and writing letters to the local newspaper complaining that the policy was a violation of their children's First Amendment rights. Teachers disgruntled with Delia saw the public dissension as an opportunity to foment rebellion, and they complained that she was trying to create a problem where one didn't exist.

Delia ignored the criticism. She thought the right to attend school in safety was more important than the right to wear a hat.

One afternoon a frightened student ran into her office to report that a girl had pulled a gun on another student. Delia went to the door. Looking out, she saw a group of students standing frozen in place. Then she saw a girl holding a gun and pointing it at another girl.

Delia didn't want to do anything sudden that might cause the girl to panic and pull the trigger. She slowly opened the door. Just as slowly, the students turned their heads to look at her.

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Steve Jackson