Rethinking Discipline

Federal officials want corporal punishment – rare but legal in Colorado schools – off the books

PHOTO: EWA/Katherine Taylor

U.S. Education Secretary John King on Tuesday urged Colorado and 21 other states to stop allowing corporal punishment in schools, a practice he called “harmful, ineffective, and often disproportionately applied to students of color and students with disabilities.”

The nation’s education chief instead advocated the use of disciplinary measures that create a positive school climate and promote nonviolent techniques for conflict resolution.

King outlined his concerns in a letter to the governors and education chiefs of states that allow disciplinary techniques such as paddling or spanking.

“… The very acts of corporal punishment that are permissible when applied to children in schools under some state laws would be prohibited as criminal assault or battery when applied to adults in the community in those very same states,” King wrote in his letter.

Corporal punishment is defined as intentionally inflicting pain to punish a child or in an attempt to change behavior. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that the practice does not violate constitutional rights.

Fifteen states, most of which are in the South, have policies allowing corporal punishment in public schools. Colorado is one of seven states that lacks a policy banning corporal punishment.

Colorado law requires districts to have clear policies on the use of physical force in dealing with disruptive students and states that discipline codes can’t conflict with child abuse rules.

If the state did ban corporal punishment, it would likely have to come in the form of legislation. Jeremy Meyer, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Education, said if the State Board of Education created such a policy, it would probably be seen as overreach and be flagged by the state’s Office of Legislative Legal Services.

The use of corporal punishment is rare in Colorado, according to the most recent federal data. In 2011-12, it was used on 485 students in the state, or about .05 percent of all Colorado students.

In contrast, the practice was used on tens of thousands of students in states such as Mississippi, Texas and Alabama, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Data collected by that office shows a racial gap in how corporal punishment is dispensed. Nationally, black boys are 1.8 times as likely as white boys, and black girls are 2.9 times as likely as white girls, to receive the disciplinary measure.

And in nearly all of the states where the practice is permitted, students with disabilities were subjected to corporal punishment at higher rates than students without disabilities. Boys are also disproportionately impacted.

“These data and disparities shock the conscience,” King wrote.

King cited myriad research showing that physical punishment actually exacerbates poor behavior, rather than correcting it. Students who receive corporal punishment are more likely to be depressed or show antisocial behavior as adults.

One of the alternatives King proposed is restorative justice, which aims to address the root causes of disagreements and misbehavior through conversation rather than punishment. The practice has already gained steam in numerous Colorado schools, including Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools.

“The most frequently cited rationale (for corporal punishment) tends to be tradition and concern about how schools can ensure safe and orderly environments,” he told reporters in a briefing on Monday. “… (But) there are smarter ways to achieve safe and supportive environments.”

King’s letter comes at a time when Colorado is grappling with its approach to disciplining preschoolers and early elementary students. Over the past two years, there’s been a statewide push to reduce suspensions and expulsions of young children, a practice that disproportionately affects boys of color. It’s likely there will be legislation on the topic during the 2017 session.

Disparities in discipline have been a rallying cry for the Obama administration, which has launched several initiatives aimed at decreasing racial disparities and increasing the use of alternatives to suspension, expulsion and corporal punishment.

It’s unclear how the administration of President-elect Donald Trump will approach the matter, but the head of the nation’s largest teachers union urged continued advocacy against corporal punishment, even as Obama’s administration ends.

“It does not matter who the secretary of education is. … This is a moral matter,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “I don’t care if you are a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative or a progressive. …There is no earthly justification for paddling, caning or otherwise physically harming students in schools.”

STEM in Colorado

Colorado lawmakers are stepping in to help prepare students for the state’s booming tech sector

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School who are studying biomedical science work on an assignment. The class is part of the school's STEM offerings.

More Colorado students could be building smartphone apps by the end of next school year.

In an effort to prepare students for the state’s booming technology job market, lawmakers are considering three bills that would beef up access to computer science classes and provide students with new credentials after they leave high school.

A Chalkbeat analysis last year found that only about two out of every seven students in Colorado have access to courses in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The bipartisan bills could change that, increasing access to computer science courses for the state’s black, Latino and rural students, and — for the first time — begin to define what a quality STEM program is.

The first bill scheduled to be debated by the House Education Committee on Monday would require schools to include technology in lessons alongside traditional subjects, such as English and civics.

It would also require the education department to create lessons to help educators teach computer science as a standalone course, and set up a $500,000 grant program to help train them.

“Kids need to be up to speed on these things in order to function in the current marketplace,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, along with Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. “The more they’re attuned to the technology of the times — all the better. It will help them in college and getting their job and careers.”

The technology sector is the fastest growing in Colorado. There are an estimated 13,517 open computing jobs in the state, according to Colorado Succeeds, an education reform advocacy group that represents the state’s business community.

Some states have already made the shift to include technology in their learning standards. In Arkansas, which made the change in 2015, officials say the new standards have already started to break down stereotypes about who can do computer science.

“What we’re trying to do is to make computer science a normal part of their academic lives,” said Anthony Owen, the state director for computer science education in Arkansas. “When we make it normal for everyone, it’s abnormal for no one.”

A second bill under consideration in Colorado would make mostly technical changes to the state’s new P-Tech schools, a model that mirrors a New York City school that partners with IBM to give students work experience and a path to an associate’s degree while in high school.

The model allows students to stay in high school for up to six years — which has caused schools that house P-Tech programs to worry about their graduation rates.

House Bill 1194 would change the way the state calculates graduation rates to avoid penalizing schools that have P-Tech students enrolled for an extra two years.

The third bill, House Bill 1201, would create a special kind of diploma that shows colleges and employers that its holder is proficient in STEM subjects. To get the diploma, students would have to take a variety of STEM classes, earn high marks on standardized math exams, and demonstrate their science skills through a special project they complete their senior year.

“I want to make sure, across Colorado, that we have clear expectations and that they’re equitable expectations,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “All of our schools are doing a good job preparing our kids, but I want to be specific in terms of what our colleges and workforce is seeking in our graduates.”

The bill, however, stops short of defining what coursework students must complete. Local schools will decide that. That was important to Jess Buller, the principal of West Grand’s K-8 school who helped write the bill. He noted that different schools and districts offer different STEM courses.

“We want that STEM endorsement to be that sign of distinction, that a student completed a program and does not need the remedial work that might be required for other students,” Buller said. “The bill is specific enough, but flexible enough.”

Morgan Kempf, the STEM science specialist for Pueblo City Schools, said she is excited to offer such a credential.

In the absence of a special diploma, Pueblo Central High School, the city’s STEM school, has sought outside accreditation to give weight to its STEM courses. The school has also started handing out school letters, usually a tradition reserved for varsity athletes, to exceptional STEM students.

“It’s an extra stamp of approval that recognizes and appreciates what they’re doing and at the level of rigor they’re doing it at,” Kempf said. “That stamp of approval lets students and potential employers know they’re meeting expectations.”

Week In Review

Betsy DeVos’s second week at the U.S. Education Department: What you need to know

PHOTO: Department of Education

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s second full week on the job was characterized by mixed messages.

She made the department’s first big policy shift, but might not have wanted to. She criticized teachers and said they were doing a great job. And some education leaders criticized her policies while at the same offering to work with her.

It’s a lot of news, and we’re here to help you keep up. Some highlights:

She a lost an internal battle to keep Obama-era protections for transgender students — though it also became a PR win. Accounts of the fight come from the New York Times, which said DeVos couldn’t outmaneuver Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who wanted to kill the old guidance requiring schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice. That prompted some headlines like this one, from Quartz: “Betsy DeVos—of all people—is fighting Donald Trump to protect transgender students.”

One interpretation, courtesy of Justin Cohen: “The more cynical way to view this story, is that the administration was always going to rescind this guidance, and that letting DeVos disagree publicly with Jeff Sessions would give her a temporary, harmless PR coup after a bruising confirmation process.” If that’s true, “Outside political pressure matters, and in this case, that pressure might have forced the hand of a cabinet secretary.”

The New Yorker’s take: “But trying to do something good—if that is, indeed, what DeVos tried to do—deserves no praise when the end result is to be complicit in something bad.”

We’re seeing the influence of others in Trump’s inner circle. Sessions is one — and Education Week explains that his influence over the transgender guidance led to some hand-wringing about whether Democrats should have directed more of their anti-DeVos fervor at the attorney general during his confirmation fight.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and the former head of Breitbart News, described Trump’s agenda in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference as having three parts: national security, economic nationalism, and the “destruction of the administrative state.” Trump’s Cabinet nominees “were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction,” he said. And in her own on-stage interview at CPAC, DeVos said she thinks the federal government should have “as light a touch as possible” on education.

Some education leaders say they are open to working with her. Two leading education officials say they don’t support DeVos’s outlook or policy priorities but will sit down with her anyway. Randi Weingarten, head of the country’s second largest teachers union, has committed to touring two schools with DeVos — one that she picks and one that DeVos chooses. “You have to talk, and you have to engage,” Weingarten told the New Republic.

New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña sounded a similar note this week: “I work with everyone,” she said. “I will have conversations with anyone and everyone to ensure that the work we’re doing here is being celebrated and recognized, and we’ll see what time will bring.”

And one notable leader who has offered public support for DeVos, Success Academy charter schools founder Eva Moskowitz, is facing forceful pushback from her own staffers, according to Politico.

That comes after DeVos got into trouble with teachers — then tried to mitigate the damage. DeVos’s comments criticizing teachers at the first public school she visited for being in “receive mode” spread via social media last weekend, drawing sharp criticism from the school itself.

DeVos responded, “Great teachers deserve freedom and flexibility, not to constantly be on the receiving end of government dictates.”

But the episode appeared to cut off goodwill from one education leader: Kaya Henderson, the former head of D.C.’s public schools. Her response on Twitter started with, “Sorry lady. Tried to give you the benefit of the doubt.”

DeVos’s popularity is low but on the rise. A poll found that public opinion of DeVos is back to pre-confirmation hearing levels — with a third of Americans seeing her favorably. During the confirmation process, just 12 percent of Americans viewed her favorably, the same poll found.