School discipline policies in Colorado too harsh? Lawmakers and advocates say yes

School discipline, once considered too lax, has now swung too far in the opposite direction, say several state lawmakers and child advocates. As such, Colorado is one of a growing number of places rethinking harsh, "zero-tolerance" policies that lead to students being jailed for writing on bathroom stalls with marker and charged with felony assault for fighting in the hallway.

"We're realizing this is a statewide issue and that there are different practices in different districts," says Sarah Brown, a youth organizer with the Denver-based Padres y Jovenes Unidos, or Parents and Youth United. Padres y Jovenes was instrumental in revising Denver Public Schools's discipline policy in 2008 to focus more on restorative justice and less on punishment. Now, Padres y Jovenes has set its sights on all of Colorado.

And lawmakers are listening. Senator Linda Newell, a Littleton Democrat, chairs the Legislative Task Force to Study School Discipline, which convened this summer to look at current practices and suggest changes. The task force has written a draft bill that would require schools to use prevention, restorative justice and peer counseling in place of arrests and tickets "to the extent practiable," and to limit the use of suspensions and expulsions. It would also require school resource officers to undergo additional training.

The task force will vote on the draft bill on Tuesday, October 18 at 9 a.m.

"We've heard through testimony quite a few stories of kids being swept up in a system that is not flexible enough," Newell says. "We have ended up having kids, instead of walking out with diplomas, walking out with criminal records. That's just not acceptable."

Instead of being sent to the principal's office for behaving badly, advocates say many students now end up in the hands of the police. Just how many? According to the Colorado Department of Education, the average percentage of incidents referred to law enforcement between 2001 and 2010 was 5.2 percent. Some school districts reported no referrals, while others reported several. The highest percentage came out of the Big Sandy School District in Simla, which referred 75.6 percent of its incidents in 2009-10.

Many referrals are for minor offenses, says Brown. For instance, during the 2008-09 school year, state data shows that 60 percent of referrals were for incidents such as disorderly conduct, fighting and disobedience. Only 4 percent were for students carrying weapons, according to a chart made by Padres y Jovenes. Zero-tolerance policies were largely born in the 1990s of the threat of weapons in schools, experts say.

Furthermore, Brown says, minority students are more likely to face harsh punishments. Another chart shows that for every white student suspended, nearly four black students were suspended, and for every white student expelled, two Latino students were expelled. "There continue to be a lot of challenges around racial disparities," Brown says.

Over the next 100 days, Padres y Jovenes will be releasing 100 stories of students they say were unfairly disciplined due to zero-tolerance policies. (Click here to read a collection of anecdotes.) They've released two so far, including that of Dalilah and Julian Vasquez, who told about their experiences at a rally for Padres y Jovenes's campaign, "End the School to Jail Track in Colorado." Watch their story below and stay tuned for more news from the Legislative Task Force to Study School Discipline, as well as the upcoming release of a report by Padres y Jovenes on the effectiveness of DPS's discipline policy.

"The problem with all of this is money," says Newell, chair of the task force. While she says there is no cost estimate yet on implementing softer discipline policies statewide, she suspects any price tag at all will cause hand-wringing. "That is going to be the biggest rub. We've got some great ideas and we've got some great nonprofit organizations who are willing to help but we just need to figure this out. The schools are already being cramped and constrained fiscally; how can we support them through this process?"

Here's the Vasquez's story.

More from our Education archives: "Proposition 103: Politicos underestimate voters' willingness to pay more for kids, advocate says."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar