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.

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.”

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