First Person

Voices: School discipline and race in Denver


Padres y Jóvenes Unidos organizer Sarah Brown recaps results of a recent meeting with Denver Public Schools officials about continuing racial disparities in school discipline. 

Nearly 100 students, parents and community leaders came together Dec. 17 to hold Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg accountable for racial disparities and to ask him to limit the role of police in school discipline.

Marco Nunez, Sen. Evie Hudak
Marco Nunez of Padres y Jovenes Unidos and Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, appeared at a March 8, 2011, rally promoting a bill to study school discipline policies. (File photo)

Students representing Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, a multi-issue organization led by people of color who work for educational excellence, racial justice for youth, immigrant rights and quality healthcare for all, presented a report card to the district on its progress with discipline reform.

Padres & Jóvenes Unidos secured a promise from Boasberg that Denver Public Schools would implement the report’s Accountability Action Platform: A Community Call for DPS Action, which contains seven key steps that DPS must take in order to fully and faithfully implement the 2008 Discipline Policy.

Padres volunteer Dionna Hudson, alumna of South High School and political science major at University of California, Riverside, said that Denver Public Schools has made “impressive progress” reducing out-of-school suspension and expulsion rates as well as referrals to law enforcement. Hudson said the goal for next school year is to decrease out-of-school suspensions by 70 percent by eliminating out-of-school suspensions for disruption.

Throughout the meeting, students were adamant that the district stop criminalizing students for minor misbehavior. The district received a B+ in the areas of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions because of its progress in these areas over the past school year. The category of “referrals to law enforcement” received a D from Jóvenes Unidos students.

Tori Ortiz, a senior at CEC Middle College and Padres activist, pointed out that although the district did reduce the overall rates of referrals, this only brings these numbers back to the same rates they were before the passage of the 2008 discipline policy. She and other students urged the district not to push students out of school for subjective infractions, such as “disorderly conduct,” “disobedience” and “defiance.”

John Riley with the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition echoed the student’s sentiments, saying, “Scared straight doesn’t work, boot camp doesn’t work, incarceration doesn’t work.”

Riley advocated the use of meaningful alternatives such as restorative justice, school psychologists and relevant curriculum that can address the root cause of student misbehavior.

Racial disparities remain biggest failure

At Padres, we believe racial disparities continue to be the most significant failure of the district. Black students represent only 15 percent of the student population yet make up 32 percent of all out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and arrests. Latino students make up half of all suspensions, expulsions and arrests. The community was pleased with Boasberg’s enthusiastic response that DPS will commit to eliminating racial disparities within discipline by the end of this school year.

In the category of restorative justice DPS received a C-. Padres students asked Boasberg to commit to hiring a restorative justice coordinator for each high school. District officials said they didn’t have the money to do that. Yet DPS pays for 16 full-time school resource officers at a cost of $1.3 million and only has 4.5 full-time employees with restorative justice responsibilities for the entire district.

Students also demanded that the district require mandatory training on cultural competency, implicit bias and racial discrimination. Although Boasberg said these trainings were necessary to eliminate racial disparities he did not commit to holding these district-wide trainings. Furthermore, the district received a C in data collection. Although the district has made more consistent changes in data collection there is still much more to be done to make discipline data more publically available and disaggregated by race and school. Boasberg agreed to look into the possibility of improving data collection in discipline cases.

Ricardo Martinez, co-director of Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, closed the meeting with a powerful message of community voice. He called for everyone in the room to continue to work with the district to hold them accountable to these goals and thanked the district for meeting with Padres Unidos in a principled way.

In light of the tragedy in Connecticut, Padres Unidos urges the district to continue to utilize restorative justice, which is proven to make schools safer.

DPS Discipline Statistics 2011-2012

First Person

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.