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State panel targets school discipline

Zero tolerance policies came in for a lot of criticism Wednesday at the first meeting of a legislative study committee assigned to review discipline methods in Colorado schools.

Such policies have lead to criminalization of students who commit minor infractions, exploding suspension and expulsion rates, increased dropout rates and reduced student achievement, witnesses told the Legislative Task Force to Study School Discipline, meeting at the Capitol.

Witnesses repeatedly used the phrases “school to prison pipeline” and “school to jail track” to describe the effect of zero tolerance policies, increased use of suspension and expulsion and rising numbers of student referrals to police. The use of all those tactics has increased in the years since the 1999 Columbine High School tragedy.

“Zero tolerance, when it comes to the vast majority of incidents … actually makes schools less safe,” said Seema Ahmad of the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group that works on school discipline.

She continued by saying, “Zero tolerance is a mismatch with where young people are developmentally” and “Zero tolerance policies that are blunt and hard don’t have the deterrent effect many of their proponents believe they have.”

Ahmad’s slide presentation even cited No Child Left Behind, accountability systems and testing as having created incentives for schools to push troublesome and under-performing students out of school.

Marco Nuñez, a member of the task force, presented Colorado statistics gathered by Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, a community group that has advocated for reform of discipline practices. Nuñez is a staff member of the group.

Nuñez and high school senior Dionna Hudson said the group’s research found that there have been nearly 100,000 student referrals to law enforcement in Colorado during the last decade.

“We see racial disparities in how students are punished,” said Hudson, saying that three black students and two Hispanic students are disciplined for every white student.

Nuñez said more than 60,000 Colorado students received out-of-school suspensions last year and more than 2,000 students were expelled. Referrals to police, suspensions and expulsions vary widely by district, the two said.

Discipline methods vary by district

They said Jefferson County has the highest rate of police referrals, 19 percent of all disciplinary cases, and the Harrison district has the highest use of suspensions and expulsions.

Nuñez said there’s a data gap in how many police referrals result in citations, and that there’s also no data on how much current discipline policies cost schools and law enforcement.

Both cited the Denver public schools as a case study in how reform of discipline policies can work. The district adopted a less punitive discipline policy in 2005, and Nuñez said referrals to police dropped from about 1,400 in 2002-03 to 512 in 2007-08.

National statistics for 2006 cited by Ahmad included 3.3 million students suspended, 100,000 students expelled and discipline rates double those of 1974. Those statistics found that minority and disabled students were disciplined at higher rates than other students.

Jonathan Senft, a legislative researcher, told the task force that “Colorado has a pattern of setting rigid laws” on school discipline but that the legislature “has eased those laws” in some cases.

Incidents “that would have been handled internally a generation ago are now referred to police,” he said, tracing the origin of zero tolerance policies in Colorado to a comprehensive law passed in 1984. That and subsequent laws “have resulted in a number of unintended consequences,” Senft noted.

The 16-member task force includes six legislators and 10 other members from law enforcement, education and youth services agencies. It’s assigned to examine zero tolerance, use of law enforcement referrals and the interaction of school discipline and the criminal justice system.

Members of the panel seem inclined to the view that school discipline policies need change. “Sometimes we’ve created new problems” with school discipline laws, said Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland and vice chair of the task force. “That’s certainly the case with zero tolerance.”

The task force is scheduled to meet on Aug. 24 and 30, Sept. 12 and Oct. 12. The panel is authorized to propose up to eight bills on the issue. The Legislative Council will review the committee’s proposals during a Nov. 8 meeting. Task force website

The panel is one of two study groups looking at education-related issues this summer and fall. The Educational Success Task Force, assigned to suggest ways to improve student transitions at key points in the K-12 system, hasn’t yet started work.