discipline debate

Colorado could be at the forefront in cutting back on early childhood suspensions and expulsions. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Christopher Webb/Creative Commons

Legislation introduced this week would limit out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for Colorado children in state-funded preschool programs and early elementary school.

House Bill 1210 represents a major shift in Colorado’s approach to early childhood discipline and a key milestone in the years-long discussion in the state and nation about the disproportionate use of harsh discipline tactics on boys of color.

The bill, introduced Monday by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, would apply to students in kindergarten through second grade, as well as preschoolers in state-funded programs that serve at-risk students and students with disabilities.

While schools and preschools would still be allowed to use out-of-school suspensions and expulsions in some cases, suspensions would be limited to three days. The bill doesn’t address in-school suspensions. Expulsions would be prohibited except as allowed under federal law when kids bring guns to schools — which is extremely rare for kids so young.

The legislation is scheduled to get its first consideration March 13 before the House education committee.

A related bill also introduced this week would create a pilot program to help schools and districts take into account students’ culture and background in discipline decisions. House Bill 1211 comes with no state funding and the program would only launch if grants and donations are available.

House Bill 1210, the discipline bill, stems from months of work by a large coalition of advocacy groups. Supporters say it balances the needs of young students who exhibit challenging behavior with the needs of schools charged with keeping classrooms safe. If it passes — and supporters expect it will — Colorado would be at the forefront of early childhood discipline reform.

Pamela Bisceglia, who worked on the steering committee that helped draft the bill, called it “incredibly progressive” and praised its “focus on what’s appropriate for young kids.”

“Whenever a child is removed from school they’re missing instruction,” said Bisceglia, coordinator for child and family advocacy for AdvocacyDenver, which works on behalf of people with disabilities. “The concern is whether they’re able to make appropriate progress if they’re missing school.”

Aside from losing learning time, being removed from school in the early grades increases a student’s likelihood of being suspended and expelled later, dropping out of school and ending up in prison, advocates note.

In the last two years, both Connecticut and New Jersey have passed laws similar to Colorado’s proposed law. New York City, the nation’s largest school district, is set to take action soon on a revised discipline code that would dramatically reduce suspensions for kindergarten through second-grade students.

If passed, Colorado’s law would take effect August 9.

Last year, 7,800 preschool through second-grade students in Colorado received out-of-school suspensions and 14 were expelled, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Boys, black students and students with disabilities were over-represented in those discipline cases.

Currently, young children in Colorado can receive out-of-school suspensions for all manner of disruption, from spitting or throwing a chair to biting or hitting classmates.

“That was part of the problem,” said Gerie Grimes, president and CEO of the HOPE Center, which runs a preschool program in northeast Denver. “It was kind of a wide open book what would cause a suspension.”

Colorado’s bill would allow out-of-school suspensions if a child endangers others on school grounds, represents a serious safety threat or if school staff have exhausted all other options.

While educators still would have some discretion to determine whether a transgression is suspension-worthy, Grimes said the narrower criteria is a good first step.

“This is a start,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we might not come back and look at other things.”

The state doesn’t maintain detailed data on what type of incidents result in expulsions or out-of-school suspensions for young children, but most fall into three general categories.

About 40 percent of elementary school discipline is due to “detrimental behavior,” which can include bullying and other behavior that poses a risk to others.

Behavior classified as “disobedient/defiant or repeated interference” accounted for just over a quarter of disciplinary actions. “Other code of conduct violations,” which generally cover less serious issues such as dress code violations or inappropriate language, account for just under a quarter of elementary disciplinary actions.

Bill Jaeger, director of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign and a participant in the bill-drafting process, said he doesn’t know of any opposition to the bill.

When conversations began last spring about potential legislation on early childhood discipline, some district officials expressed concern that limiting suspensions or expulsions would tie educators’ hands or take away necessary tools for dealing with misbehavior. But Jaeger said school districts were regularly consulted as the bill came to fruition.

“Every piece of feedback that school district partners gave us,” he said, “we moved on.”

Discipline reform

Denver Public Schools takes strong stand against suspension and expulsion in early grades

Community members gathered in the library of Godsman Elementary School for a Denver Public Schools announcement that suspension and expulsion will be eliminated for preschool through third-grade.

Denver Public Schools announced plans Wednesday to eliminate out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for preschool through third grade students except in the most serious incidents.

District officials say the move puts DPS on the cutting edge of discipline reform nationally and builds on its work over the last 10 years to reduce suspensions and expulsions for all students, and replace traditional discipline methods with restorative justice techniques.

Wednesday’s announcement during a press conference at Godsman Elementary School came as state lawmakers are considering legislation that would curb suspensions and expulsions in preschool through second grade. The district’s new policy and the proposed legislation represent milestones in the years-long discussion in the state and nation about the disproportionate use of harsh discipline tactics on boys, students of color and students with disabilities.

The district’s new early childhood discipline policy will be unveiled at Thursday’s school board meeting and will be followed by a 60-day public comment period before it is finalized. It will take effect July 1.

District officials and representatives from local advocacy groups emphasized that the new policy will be accompanied by efforts to provide teachers and other staff with support in using alternative methods to suspension or expulsion.

“We really want to address the issue of student behavior. We really want to address also the issue of adult behavior and give adults a better set of tools and take out the hammer that you don’t need in your tool box…Some tools should not be in the toolbox when we are looking at babies,” said Ricardo Martinez, co-executive director of the Denver-based group Padres & Jovenes Unidos.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said about 500 students in preschool to third grade were suspended last year — most of those in second and third grade. None were expelled.

Under the new policy, suspensions would still be allowed in rare cases if a student poses a serious threat to himself or others. In those cases, suspensions would be limited to one day.

While several school districts and states have banned or significantly curtailed suspensions and expulsions for young students, most focus on students through second grade.

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity, said part of the reason DPS chose to extend its policy through third grade is to ensure kids are proficient in reading and math by the end of third grade.

“There’s no way we can reach that goal if a student is not in class,” he said.

Starting early

Why boosting mental health for the youngest children is attracting federal — and private — investment

John Hicks, co-facilitator of a parenting class called "The Incredible Years" listens as participants discuss setting rules for their kids.

At dinnertime on a Tuesday night, nine parents sat in a Commerce City preschool classroom discussing the difficulty of setting rules for their small children.

Some said they bark orders too often and are trying to cut back. One mom said she wished one blanket rule — “just love each other” — would cover it. But inevitably she finds a dozen more specific things to list off: Don’t bite, don’t hit and so on.

Over the next hour, the parents and two facilitators talked through more effective approaches, including giving kids fewer direct orders, defining “non-negotiables” and letting little things go.

The parenting class was part of a federally-funded initiative called Project LAUNCH that aims to help parents, preschool teachers, pediatricians and other adults in Adams County boost mental health in young children. It reflects growing national awareness that children stand a greater chance of succeeding in school and life if they get mental health support in their earliest years.

“We have so many kids with social and emotional needs,” said Lisa Jansen Thompson, executive director of the Early Childhood Partnership of Adams County. “It is just increasing.”

The Project LAUNCH work in Adams County is a five-year, $2.6 million effort funded by a federal grant program that pays for similar efforts in states and tribal areas across the country.

Getting kids reading well by the third grade used to be the “north star” for many early childhood advocates, Jansen Thompson said. But now, abundant data show the need to start earlier — well before kids enter school. That’s when key lifelong skills develop, such as the ability to form close relationships and manage strong emotions.

And if that development hits a roadblock, a new set of problems can crop up, like kids getting suspended in preschool or having pitched battles at home.

Competition was stiff for Colorado’s Project LAUNCH funding. Eleven communities submitted letters of interest within a 48-hour period. The Adams County proposal, which focuses on Spanish-speaking families in the southern portion of the county, ultimately won out.

But the story didn’t end there. The outsized interest in early childhood mental health — along with the success of an earlier Project LAUNCH site in Weld County — inspired a first-of-its-kind effort by eight private funders to replicate the program in four other Colorado communities.

That initiative — called LAUNCH Together — last fall awarded a total of $8 million to grantees in Denver, Pueblo, Jefferson County and, working as one team, Chaffee and Fremont counties. The private funders include seven foundations and one health care provider.

“We were not trying to prove that a privately funded model could do this better,” said Colleen Church, director of programs for the Caring for Colorado Foundation, one of the funders. “We were really building off what had worked.”

She said interest in early childhood mental health had been growing among funders for several years, elevating it to the level of traditional child health priorities such as ensuring kids have access to medical care and are fully immunized.

The funders hired a Denver-based organization called Early Milestones Colorado to lead the privately funded effort.

While the details differ in the five communities participating in Project LAUNCH and LAUNCH Together, the primary strategies are the same. They involve special training for preschool teachers, parents and the staff of home visiting programs, which send professionals to work with parents of babies or young children. The idea is to help the adults with whom children interact learn how to foster social and emotional skills in kids, and spot red flags that might require outside help.

There are also efforts to get new mothers screened for depression and to make sure children are routinely screened for developmental milestones at doctor check-ups — and if problems arise, give families quick access to mental health services.

Janine Pryor, coordinator of the Chaffee County Early Childhood Council, said because of the LAUNCH Together funding, “We’re sending people to trainings that no one here could ever afford.”

Leaders of the various LAUNCH efforts say their goal is not just to alter the experience that kids and families have now at preschools, doctor’s offices and in their homes, but to make systems-level shifts that ensure changes continue after the grant money runs out.

At the same time, they want to raise public awareness about the importance of early childhood mental health and reduce the stigma that so often accompanies it.

“We’re going to try in our region to really get the word out and develop messages that will resonate with everyone,” Pryor said.