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Zeroing out school zero-tolerance policies

School officials around the state returned to their classrooms this fall with far greater discretion about when to involve police in discipline issues.

And at Denver’s North High School – home of one of the nation’s premiere restorative justice programs – students and legislators marked that fact Thursday with a celebration.

“They said it couldn’t be done,” boasted Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, co-sponsor of Senate Bill 46, dubbed the Smart School Discipline Law, which was approved by the Colorado General Assembly in May. “But the young people in our state deserve this.”

The celebration was organized by Padres & Jovenes Unidos, a community group that has long pushed Denver Public Schools to re-examine its discipline policies.

The bill, which underwent some 50 revisions over two years before finally winning passage, marks an effort to curb the so-called School to Jail Track that critics say resulted from the adoption of zero-tolerance discipline policies a decade ago.

100,000 students referred to law enforcement

In the last 10 years, nearly 100,000 Colorado students have been referred to law enforcement by their schools – many for offenses that didn’t rise to the level of an actual threat to school safety.

Last year, 9,183 students statewide were referred to law enforcement in school – about one in every 100 students in the state.

Yet students arrested or ticketed face potentially serious future consequences, including difficulties getting into college or the military, or landing a job. And students who are suspended or expelled invariably fall behind academically, further hampering them.

“I want to make sure young people have good jobs in the future,” said Newell. “So we need flexibility when it comes to discipline. Things like the age of the child, and the child’s history and culture, must be taken into consideration. We must prioritize safety, of course, but we must focus on restoring relationships, not just punishing the deed.”

Added Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, co-sponsor of the bill: “We need to figure out the least destructive method of punishment. I think that eliminating the crazy zero-tolerance policies will put us on the right track.”

New law gives school officials more flexibility

The new law requires school districts to rewrite their disciplinary codes to eliminate automatic expulsion except for carrying firearms on campus, and to avoid referring students to law enforcement for minor infractions.

It also increases training for police assigned to school resource officer duties, and collects data on discipline incidents for possible race or ethnicity disparities. It is considered model legislation that will be replicated across the country.

Backers of the new law hope it puts an end to cases such as the 10-year-old Colorado girl who was expelled for giving her teacher a small knife that her mother had placed in her lunchbox to cut up her food, and the honor student expelled for bringing a sword to school as a prop for a school play.

But beyond these apparent absurdities, officials hope it will encourage school officials to explore alternatives to calling the police whenever possible.

That’s already happening in many places. Statewide, about 7 percent of all school disciplinary incidents in the 2009-10 school year were referred to law enforcement. Some large school districts, such as Colorado Springs and Greeley, referred virtually no incidents to police. But in Littleton, nearly 25 percent were referred to police. In Jeffco, the figure was almost 20 percent.

Race and ethnicity also appear to play a role in referrals to law enforcement. Statistics show that for every white student referred to police at school, nearly three black and Native American students are referred, and nearly two Hispanic students.

North’s restorative justice program a national model

At North, officials have taken a different tack.

“We have mediators at North and all its feeders, and intervention is available at every step of the disciplinary ladder. It’s just how we do things here now.”
–North principal Nicole VeltzeFive years ago, DPS won a grant to expand a restorative justice program initially piloted at the former Cole Middle School. North and Montbello high schools received funds to hire mediators to help students resolve conflicts and make satisfactory reparations without resorting to suspension or expulsion.

“We are often looked at as a national model,” said North principal Nicole Veltze. “We really took it to the next level. Now we have mediators at North and all its feeders, and intervention is available at every step of the disciplinary ladder. It’s just how we do things here now.”

As a result, suspensions at North have plummeted – 116 last year, compared to 310 the year before. Fighting is far less common at the school now.

A recent example: On Thursday morning, the school’s restorative justice coordinator met with two boys involved in an ugly incident that a number of other students witnessed the day before. Both boys shared their sides of the story, and together agreed on a plan of action.

“They’re both going to clean up after the soccer game,” Veltze said. “I wouldn’t have chosen that myself, but this is about rebuilding relationships. They both walked out of that mediation feeling comfortable, feeling they’d been heard. We want to make sure there’s not a repeat occurrence.”

‘We worked hard and accomplished something historic’

Dionna Hudson, 18, a recent graduate of Denver’s South High School and a leader with Padres & Jovenes Unidos, was one of the students who served on an advisory group when the Smart School Discipline Law was being drafted, and she testified on its behalf.

She’s starting to college soon, to study political science. She hopes to become a human rights lawyer.

“We worked hard and accomplished something historic,” she said. “We need to move forward in creating an environment where schools end zero tolerance and racial disparities, and provide a college prep education for all.”

Though Hudson never got in such trouble herself, she saw what happened to her brother when he was suspended for five days for disrespecting the school principal.

“When kids are pushed out of school, they’re more likely to get in trouble,” she said. “My brother wasn’t allowed to go anywhere, and my mom didn’t understand or know how to respond. I had a conversation with him and asked him how he felt about it, and he said he hated school and didn’t think he wanted to go back. He wondered why he should even try.”

“It would have been good if he could have just sat down with his principal and discuss why he was feeling that way, and collaborate to make my brother’s high school career better, without making him miss five days of his freshman year.”

She also had a friend who wound up in court for trying to stop a fight in the school cafeteria.

“The dean thought he was involved and sent him to the police officer, and he wound up getting a ticket for disturbing the peace,” Hudson said.

Eventually, a judge dismissed the ticket after questioning why the boy was missing school for such a minor event.

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