The Denver school board is considering modifying its policy on expulsion, which has been a topic of debate ever since a formerly expelled student shot two deans inside East High School in March. The proposal would require Denver Public Schools to offer students an alternative to expulsion that would allow the students to remain in their home schools.
There are caveats. The proposal, officially known as Executive Limitation 10.12, would only allow alternatives to expulsion “in accordance with law and whenever possible,” according to a draft of the policy discussed by the school board Thursday.
Since the shooting at East, DPS officials have held firm to their approach of using expulsion as a last resort — a stance that has mobilized some parents to push for stricter discipline. The district’s position is that even a student facing serious criminal charges can remain in their home school as long as a judge has decided the student can be out in the community.
State law says a student who brings a gun to school should be expelled for a year. But the law gives superintendents the discretion to “modify this requirement for a student on a case-by-case basis.” DPS’ policy takes advantage of that discretion. The district’s discipline matrix says bringing a gun to school results in a mandatory expulsion hearing, but not a mandatory expulsion.
DPS has expelled students for bringing weapons to school; in the 2021-22 school year, state data shows it expelled 10 students for that reason. But the district recently denied an expulsion request for a middle school student accused of attempted murder, allowing the student to stay in his home school. The alleged crime happened off campus.
Board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson wrote the expulsion policy proposal. Both he and Superintendent Alex Marrero said it would not change district practice, but rather codify it.
“In my opinion, we already do this, and it’s just putting it into board policy,” Anderson said at Thursday’s school board meeting.
The board ultimately voted 6 to 1 to move the proposal forward for further consideration. Board member Scott Baldermann was the sole no vote.
Earlier in the meeting, Baldermann offered an amendment that would have guaranteed students at risk of expulsion a seat at “an appropriate pathways school that aligns with the supports necessary” for the student. DPS has 22 pathways schools, which are middle and high schools that offer students who are off track to graduate a different pathway to do so.
Only one pathways school, PREP Academy, was specifically designed to serve students who have been expelled from other DPS schools. Other pathways schools can accept expelled students, but most enroll at PREP Academy, a district spokesperson said.
The board did not vote up or down on Baldermann’s amendment. It did not vote to adopt Anderson’s proposal either. A final vote likely won’t happen until November.
Three school board seats are up for election on Nov. 7, and Anderson is not seeking a second term. The board is scheduled to meet Nov. 16, meaning the current board could vote on the policy after Denver voters elect new board members but before those members take office.
Several board members said they still have questions about the proposal.
“I don’t know what ‘alternative to expulsion’ means,” board member Charmaine Lindsay said.
Anderson said in an interview that rhetoric from parent groups formed in the wake of the East shooting pushed him to propose the policy. He named two groups in particular: Parents-Safety Advocacy Group, known as P-SAG, and Resign DPS Board.
“We’ve seen individual groups that have tried to weaponize our discipline system against students who have learning differences or have challenging days that need extra love and care from our system,” Anderson said. “We have parent groups that have formed — and they don’t want these kids to attend our traditional schools. That’s not who Denver Public Schools is.”
Parents involved in founding those two groups said they oppose Anderson’s proposal.
“It’s going in the wrong direction,” said Steve Katsaros, a P-SAG founder. “These are kids that are crying out for help from really troubled environments, and they don’t need to be pushed into comprehensive school environments where they’re expected to all of a sudden learn.”
Heather Lamm, a founder of Resign DPS Board, which is focused on ousting the two board incumbents running for re-election in November, expressed similar sentiments.
“What’s amazing to me is that this board has decided, instead of a focus on educating kids, it is going to spend its time and resources on protecting a select few from the consequences of criminal activity,” Lamm said. “I think that’s outrageous.
“These kids deserve an education,” she said. “To say that the best way to do that for these kids or anybody else is to keep them in their home school, I would very, very much challenge that.”
In the 2021-22 school year, DPS expelled just 21 students. The neighboring suburban Cherry Creek School District, which is smaller than DPS, expelled nearly seven times as many.
Anderson said that while he trusts the current board and administration to treat expulsion as a last resort, he wants to ensure that approach is enshrined in policy before he leaves the board.
“I don’t want us to be like Cherry Creek schools,” Anderson said at the meeting.
This story has been updated to clarify the state law on expulsions.
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.