School discipline reformers in Colorado seek to eliminate “zero tolerance” rules

According to the Denver Post, school discipline reform has gained traction, as several organizations have mobilized efforts to dismantle what they call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” They claim policies needlessly shunt misbehaving students into the criminal justice system and disproportionately affect minorities. Meanwhile, schools fret over liability and program mandates, while youth and family advocates worry that gutting effective new approaches could render any changes pointless.

In Colorado, a legislative task force heard testimony and in the fall of 2011 voted to begin work on draft legislation. But trying to accomplish reform amid the current economic crisis presents a challenge all its own. Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, has introduced Senate Bill 46, after leading a series of stakeholder meetings on the school-discipline issue. Newell said school districts are “pretty freaked out” that the effort may come with a price tag they can’t handle in the wake of already deep cuts. For instance, “graduated discipline” programs like restorative justice, characterized by negotiation, restitution and reconciliation rather than more punitive measures, have been shown to prevent unnecessary criminalization of young students.

According to Marco Nuñez, director of organizing for Padres & Jovenes Unidos’, a Denver parent/youth advocacy group, “The spirit of the bill overall is to move away from zero tolerance, a punitive response to student behavior, to something that’s more restorative and emphasizes learning.”  But Newell notes that while she wants to move at least incrementally in that direction, “it’s the resources holding us back.”

Lack of funding, as well as a lack of understanding about how school discipline policy affects kids with disabilities, remains a concern for Yvette Plummer, executive director of the Denver Metro Community Parent Resource Center, which serves families of children with disabilities. Students with disabilities who act out often find themselves disproportionately referred to the justice system, she said, and their parents tend to be ill-prepared to deal with the fallout. She worries that much of the conversation about a bill has surrounded institutions and liability, rather than students, and wonders how so many diverse interests can cobble together effective legislation.

One provision that’s certain to remain in Newell’s SB 46 is a fresh look at zero tolerance. Janelle Krueger, program manager for the Expelled and At-Risk Student Services Grant Program at the Colorado Department of Education, traces the state’s zero-tolerance polices back as far as Denver’s 1994 “summer of violence,” when some high-profile incidents shone a harsh spotlight on juvenile crime.

The Columbine school shootings further swung the pendulum toward zero tolerance, both in Colorado and nationally. But with set-in-stone sanctions came outrageous stories like the Rhode Island kindergartner who was suspended for bringing a plastic knife to school to cut cookies. Greater discretion for local school officials marks one point of agreement among the stakeholders who have met for months to craft a workable bill. “We don’t want kids behaving in certain ways,” Krueger said. “But having said that, it doesn’t mean every code of conduct violation needs a law enforcement response.”

In a state inordinately touched by school violence, stakeholders agree on one other thing: School safety should not be compromised. “Nobody is talking about doing anything that would undermine schools’ and law enforcement’s ability to prevent something from happening in the future,” Nuñez said. “That’s off the table.”

Source: Denver Post, 1/17/12, By Kevin Simpson

[Editor's Note: In July 2011, Legal Clips summarized an Associated Press piece in Education Week reporting on Colorado legislators' efforts to examine student discipline in the state in order to determine whether changes are needed to policies they believe result in  thousands of students being unnecessarily charged with criminal behavior. See the editor's note for background on similar efforts to move away from zero tolerance policies.]

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