Who Is In Charge

State panel targets school discipline

Zero tolerance policies came in for a lot of criticism Wednesday at the first meeting of a legislative study committee assigned to review discipline methods in Colorado schools.

Such policies have lead to criminalization of students who commit minor infractions, exploding suspension and expulsion rates, increased dropout rates and reduced student achievement, witnesses told the Legislative Task Force to Study School Discipline, meeting at the Capitol.

Witnesses repeatedly used the phrases “school to prison pipeline” and “school to jail track” to describe the effect of zero tolerance policies, increased use of suspension and expulsion and rising numbers of student referrals to police. The use of all those tactics has increased in the years since the 1999 Columbine High School tragedy.

Students testify at legislative hearing
Students Jose Cordova (left) and Brandon Wagoner testified about school discipline policies to a legislative task force on July 27, 2011.

“Zero tolerance, when it comes to the vast majority of incidents … actually makes schools less safe,” said Seema Ahmad of the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group that works on school discipline.

She continued by saying, “Zero tolerance is a mismatch with where young people are developmentally” and “Zero tolerance policies that are blunt and hard don’t have the deterrent effect many of their proponents believe they have.”

Ahmad’s slide presentation even cited No Child Left Behind, accountability systems and testing as having created incentives for schools to push troublesome and under-performing students out of school.

Marco Nuñez, a member of the task force, presented Colorado statistics gathered by Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, a community group that has advocated for reform of discipline practices. Nuñez is a staff member of the group.

Nuñez and high school senior Dionna Hudson said the group’s research found that there have been nearly 100,000 student referrals to law enforcement in Colorado during the last decade.

“We see racial disparities in how students are punished,” said Hudson, saying that three black students and two Hispanic students are disciplined for every white student.

Nuñez said more than 60,000 Colorado students received out-of-school suspensions last year and more than 2,000 students were expelled. Referrals to police, suspensions and expulsions vary widely by district, the two said.

Discipline methods vary by district

They said Jefferson County has the highest rate of police referrals, 19 percent of all disciplinary cases, and the Harrison district has the highest use of suspensions and expulsions.

Nuñez said there’s a data gap in how many police referrals result in citations, and that there’s also no data on how much current discipline policies cost schools and law enforcement.

Both cited the Denver public schools as a case study in how reform of discipline policies can work. The district adopted a less punitive discipline policy in 2005, and Nuñez said referrals to police dropped from about 1,400 in 2002-03 to 512 in 2007-08.

National statistics for 2006 cited by Ahmad included 3.3 million students suspended, 100,000 students expelled and discipline rates double those of 1974. Those statistics found that minority and disabled students were disciplined at higher rates than other students.

Jonathan Senft, a legislative researcher, told the task force that “Colorado has a pattern of setting rigid laws” on school discipline but that the legislature “has eased those laws” in some cases.

Incidents “that would have been handled internally a generation ago are now referred to police,” he said, tracing the origin of zero tolerance policies in Colorado to a comprehensive law passed in 1984. That and subsequent laws “have resulted in a number of unintended consequences,” Senft noted.

The 16-member task force includes six legislators and 10 other members from law enforcement, education and youth services agencies. It’s assigned to examine zero tolerance, use of law enforcement referrals and the interaction of school discipline and the criminal justice system.

Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland
Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland

Members of the panel seem inclined to the view that school discipline policies need change. “Sometimes we’ve created new problems” with school discipline laws, said Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland and vice chair of the task force. “That’s certainly the case with zero tolerance.”

The task force is scheduled to meet on Aug. 24 and 30, Sept. 12 and Oct. 12. The panel is authorized to propose up to eight bills on the issue. The Legislative Council will review the committee’s proposals during a Nov. 8 meeting. Task force website

The panel is one of two study groups looking at education-related issues this summer and fall. The Educational Success Task Force, assigned to suggest ways to improve student transitions at key points in the K-12 system, hasn’t yet started work.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.