Discipline concerns flare in Denver schools

With a rising din of complaints from teachers about increasing discipline problems in Denver classrooms, district officials Monday updated the school board on plans to pump $1.5 million into mental health services for students next year, create a new out-of-school suspension option and add additional programming for troubled students.


The aim of the discipline policy, revised in recent years, is to reduce in-school or out-of-school suspensions and expulsions so that students can continue to be in a learning environment. It also aims to erase the longstanding disparity between white students and students of color in terms of consequences for student misbehavior.

However, some teachers are complaining about the policy’s numerous tiered approaches to handle each infraction, abundant paperwork and uneven distribution of resources for teachers and students. That complexity has led to confusion, some teachers say, which in turn means students are getting away with bad behavior that wreaks havoc on a quality learning environment.

Board member Andrea Merida asked for an update on the discipline policy from the district’s student services office after a 14-year-old girl was attacked at Henry World Middle School on March 8. The girl’s classmates lured the teacher out of the classroom so another girl could attack the victim. Students videotaped the assault and posted it on social media.

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And on March 20, 60 Bruce Randolph Middle School teachers, office staff and custodians sent a letter to Superintendent Tom Boasberg complaining about the policy. And 44 staff and teachers at Morey Middle School sent a letter the following day expressing similar concerns.

“The disproportionate amount of time and resources that in the past would have been spent on improving instruction is instead spent by our entire staff, including administrators, instructional team, support staff, and teachers on habitually disruptive students that continually return to our classrooms,” the letter from the teachers at Bruce Randolph states. “This has now reached a critical point.”

The teachers’ letter did not name specific incidents at the school. But Greg Ahrnsbrak, a PE teacher at Bruce Randolph who supports the letter, said that students have been caught with drugs, threatened to harm or kill teachers, or even threatened blow up the school “with no meaningful consequences.”

Ahrnsbrak said students caught fighting no longer automatically face suspension under the revised policy, which he said went into full effect at Bruce Randolph this year. As a result, he said, students with serious behavioral issues are being kept in class, disrupting the educational experience of other students.

The letter indicated that staff feel that their hands are “tied” and that they are “left with no alternatives.”

One Bruce Randolph teacher, who asked not to be identified, said that this year, 1,113 disciplinary “events” have been reported at the 600-student school. The teacher estimated that about a third of the school’s students were involved in the instances. She said seven students racked up 25 incidents each.

Ahrnsbrak said it’s his belief DPS is basically not allowing schools to effectively deal with habitually disruptive students “to make the numbers,” or ensure that the number of students being expelled or suspended keeps going down.

“Consequently, the message to all students is there are no limits,” Ahrnsbrak said.

District numbers paint different picture

District officials say that the policy is successfully reducing the number of students missing school for disciplinary infractions and is keeping schools safe. For instance, the number of out-of-school suspensions this year dropped 38 percent to 5,309 from 8,542 two years ago. Meanwhile expulsions have dropped to 69 from 108 two years ago. Most of the expulsions were for weapons violations, according to the report presented to the board.

But not all board members were feeling good about the numbers.

“If we’re looking at data so we can pat ourselves on the back when in fact teaching in some of our schools is being affected by the bad behavior — shame on us,” board member Jeannie Kaplan said. “I don’t know how we get an actual picture of what is going on.”

At Monday’s work session, Boasberg reinforced the district’s commitment to treating students equitably, keeping them in school when possible and emphasizing restorative justice programs. He described the district’s schools as “safe” and said “there’s lots of learning going on.”

“To get that balance right takes a heck of a lot of thought,” Boasberg said.

District staff highlighted additional money that will be made available next year to pay for increased mental health services for students. Specifically, $1.5 million will be spent on mental health services for students as follows:

  • $350,000 for elementary schools;
  • $650,000 for middle schools, high schools and turnaround schools;
  • $50,000 for innovation schools;
  • $151,000 for the Division of Student Services;
  • $120,000 PACE (Promoting Academics and Character Education) program expansion; and
  • $180,000 to outside mental health providers.

In addition, district staff are meeting with middle school communities this month to get feedback on the disciplinary policy’s implementation. Officials said they are also planning new school programs and pathways to support students who are struggling to succeed in a traditional district classroom.

Eldridge Greer, head of DPS psychological services, said the goal of the meetings is to find out what supports and services are necessary to ensure a positive school culture without “resulting in an inordinate number of students out of class.” Some board members expressed support for additional cultural competency and verbal de-escalation training for staff and teachers in light of concerns raised.

Greer acknowledged challenges the district faces dealing with students deemed “habitually disruptive,” and indicated a desire to nip certain student behaviors in the bud. One proposal is to implement a 15-day out-of-school suspension process with home-bound instruction in the highest need cases.

Assistant Superintendent Antwan Wilson told the board that having students misbehave on a regular basis “runs contrary to your student achievement goals.”

“We don’t want students to believe they can get away with inappropriate behaviors,” Wilson said. “That creates more inappropriate behaviors.”

Click on image to enlarge.

Board members also questioned a spike of incidents in the “detrimental behavior” category and shared colleagues’ concerns about the vagueness of the term.

Merida said she’s talked to some schools who say they used to have a restorative justice staff member who is no longer there, or other schools where there isn’t a room for a student “time-out.”

“What I fear is that we have a patchwork quilt when it comes to how we deal with some of these kids,” Merida said. “This has a lot of parents scared, it has a lot of teachers scared.”

However, Merida added, “I think we’re heading in the right direction.”

Bruce Randolph math and geography teacher Patrick Millican said he hopes the district further simplifies the policy and ensures that it has teeth.

“This has gotten to the point it’s beyond ridiculous,” Millican said. “There is no of set consequences for these kids’ actions. It’s not fair to those kids who come to school every day, work hard and try to get a good education.”

Discipline Update: Presentation to the board 5/13/13

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.