Colorado to Crack Down on School Discipline

Education reformers in Colorado have targeted the state’s approach to school discipline, with several organizations mobilizing efforts to break up the state’s “school-to-prison pipeline”.

Critics of the current system believe that existing policies needlessly shunt misbehaving students into the criminal justice system and disproportionately affect minorities, writes Kevin Simpson at the Denver Post.

However, some are reluctant to embrace the changes. Schools are concerned about liability and program mandates while family groups worry that altering effective approaches could “render any changes pointless”.

Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, introduced Senate Bill 46 – after discussing the school-discipline issue with education stakeholders across the state.

Newell said:

“Over the last ten years, nearly 100,000 students across the state have been referred to law enforcement by their schools.

“The majority of these referrals have been for minor offenses that reflect normal adolescent behavior and do not threaten school safety. Behavior that once would have resulted in a trip to the principal’s office or a call home now results in an arrest or a trip to juvenile court. The school discipline crisis in Colorado prevents thousands of students from getting the quality education they deserve, and often undermines school safety.”

Padres & Jovenes Unidos, a Denver parent/youth advocacy group concerned about the racial disparity in school referrals to law enforcement, approached the legislature.

Marco Nuñez, the group’s director of organizing, cited the trend of increased involvement of police in school-discipline issues:

“It was a slippery slope where year after year, school discipline behaviors were delegated to law enforcement for them to address.

“Their reach has been far more expanded than ever was the original intent.”

Although efforts by the Denver Public Schools to reform policies in 2008 and reduce out-of-school suspensions and expulsions have been noted by Padres & Jovenes Unidos, Nuñez believes implementation has fallen short.

Many districts in the state still report zero law enforcement referrals, he said.

“We argue that those districts didn’t devolve into chaos and anarchy, but they’re dealing with discipline in a different way,” he said. “We need to get to a place where there’s more parity, get to a baseline where schools are using greater common sense to keep students in school.”

While a legislative task force voted last fall to start work on draft legislation, the current economic crisis is providing a less than adequate environment for reform.