a c+ for dps

Denver Public Schools pledges to address student discipline concerns

PHOTO: Padres & Jovenes Unidos
DPS acting superintendent Susana Cordova signed on to several proposed school discipline solutions Monday. Here, she poses with students Jaquikeyah Fields and Patricia Cardenas.

Denver school officials agreed Monday to establish a centralized system for responding to complaints about school discipline, to better inform students facing expulsion or suspension of their rights, and to investigate concerns about schools underreporting discipline data.

Standing in front of a crowd that included outspoken students and frustrated parents, acting Denver Public Schools superintendent Susana Cordova made those promises in response to a new report by advocacy organization Padres & Jovenes Unidos.

The group has worked for more than a decade to expose racial disparities in school discipline and end the “school-to-jail track,” pushing DPS to rewrite its discipline policy and forge an agreement with the police to restrict the role of officers in schools.

“We are deeply committed to this agenda,” Cordova said.

The report shows that while the number of suspensions and expulsions in DPS plummeted between the 2010-11 and 2014-15 school years, deep racial gaps persist. Students of color were 3.1 times as likely to be suspended or expelled in 2014-15 than their white peers, it says.

The report points to other problems, as well. The number of times a school requested a police officer get involved in a disciplinary or criminal matter stayed virtually flat in 2014-15, which the organization sees as a stagnation of progress after years of significant decreases.

The organization also raised concerns about what it calls underground pushout. Advocates said they’ve heard from families whose children were “kicked out” of their home schools and told to go to alternative schools without being informed about their right to refuse.

And while the number of suspensions is down, the organization is concerned about “off-the-books suspensions,” or parents being told to pick up their children early because they’re in trouble at school. The kids aren’t officially suspended and therefore not counted in the data.

This is the fifth year the organization has graded DPS on its discipline practices. It gave the district an overall grade of C+, which is better than last year when it got a C.

The report offers six recommended solutions. At Monday’s meeting at a southwest Denver public housing community center, Cordova agreed to five of them, including to collaborate with the organization to address potential underreporting of discipline numbers. Advocates suspect that not all schools are collecting data in the same way.

“Without accurate data, we can’t understand where there are problems,” said student Alanis Hernandez.

Cordova only partly agreed to eliminate the use of expulsions and out-of-school suspensions for kids in preschool through second grade. Cordova explained that while the district is committed to doing so for the district’s youngest children — DPS suspended just 10 preschoolers last year and didn’t expel any, she said — it can’t make the same pledge for first and second graders.

During the event, Cordova wore a red Padres y Jovenes Unidos T-shirt and listened as students shared personal stories and read from the report. There was Jaquikeyah Fields, who introduced herself as “pre-choreographer, not pre-prison.” And Jhovani Becerra, who said he was “pre-computer science, not pre-prison.”

Arianna Perea, “pre-film director, not pre-prison,” spoke of how she was handcuffed by her school’s police officer when she was 12 years old. A classmate had reported that Perea threatened her, a claim she said was untrue.

Perea said she was eventually let go, but the experience led her to dislike school and struggle for several years. Now a student at North High School, Perea said she’s looking forward to graduating and going to college. Students need to know their rights, she said.

“When they come at you with handcuffs, knowing your rights means that those cuffs can come off,” she said.

Several Spanish-speaking mothers spoke, as well. They told stories of their children being suspended from preschool, of being called in the middle of the day to pick up older kids for alleged misbehavior and of their kids being sent home for days while the school decided to whether to expel them. Cordova, who is bilingual, addressed them in Spanish.

“I am a mother as well,” she said. Listening to their stories hurt her deeply, Cordova said.

“Your children are my children,” she said, adding that “it’s important we fight together.”

Police in schools

The Denver school district is exploring the idea of creating its own police officers

PHOTO: Photo by Katie Wood/The Denver Post via Getty Images

School safety patrol officers in the Denver district would get the authority to arrest students and write tickets under an idea being explored by the district’s safety department.

The head of Denver Public Schools’ safety department says the goal would actually be to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” that criminalizes students for misbehavior at school.

The idea is that giving more authority to school safety officers who have experience with children and training in the district’s restorative justice model would mean outside police get called less often, even for matters that are potentially criminal.

This is not yet a formal proposal, but the idea is already generating pushback.

Local organization Padres y Jóvenes Unidos has worked for years to reduce harsh disciplinary practices in the district, and its staff say certifying safety patrol officers as police officers would represent a big step backward.

“To do this would undo everything you have stood on national platforms bragging about,” said Monica Acosta, the organizing director at Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. “Going down this road would double down on policing and criminalizing students of color.”

About 77 percent of the 92,600 Denver Public Schools students are children of color. Approximately 67 percent of students come from low-income families.

Police in schools is a controversial topic in Denver. Staff and students at an alternative school called RiseUp Community School are speaking out this week about an incident in which Denver police searched for a student the principal told them wasn’t there. The principal said police officers pulled their guns on a teacher during the search.

The incident sparked intense backlash – and an apology from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“What happened should not have happened,” he said at a school board meeting Thursday night. He said the district will participate in a city investigation of the incident and work “to ensure something like this does not ever happen again.”

RiseUp student Mary Jimenez said she and her peers were left feeling disrespected and unsafe.

“Because we are students of color and students of low-income, we get harassed and pushed around and we’re expected not to fight back,” Jimenez told the school board.

Although the incident involved city police officers, not district safety officers, community activists said it’s an example of why law enforcement doesn’t belong in schools. Armed officers create a hostile learning environment, they said.

But Denver Public Schools Chief of Safety Mike Eaton said school policing is different than municipal policing. Whereas city police would be more likely to use the criminal justice system to respond to a report of a student getting into a physical fight or having illegal drugs on campus, Eaton said district officers would be trained to first look to the discipline policy.

The policy emphasizes that consequences should be age-appropriate and that the focus should be on correcting student behavior. “Interventions should provide students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes,” the policy says, “and re-engage the student in learning.”

The district safety department employs about 135 staff members, Eaton said. Of those, 35 are armed safety patrol officers who are not assigned to a particular school but respond to incidents across the district. Those are the only officers the district would seek to certify as police, he said. Unarmed school-based campus safety officers would not be certified.

Authorizing any new group as police officers requires approval from state lawmakers.

Denver Public Schools already has 16 “school resource officers,” which are city police officers assigned to work in its large high schools and a few middle schools. Eaton said his aim would not be to increase the number of school resource officers but rather to give the district’s own security staff the discretion to handle police matters.

“We have the opportunity to directly impact the school-to-prison pipeline, to eliminate or reduce it,” Eaton said. School policing, he said, “focuses on restorative and redemptive practices in dealing with students. Students are young. They’re going to make mistakes.”

Several large, urban school districts across the country have their own police forces, including districts in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Miami. Before moving forward with a proposal in Denver, Eaton said he’d seek input from students, parents, and community members.

He has floated the idea by the Denver school board. The board president and vice president said they’re open to discussing any ideas that would make students safer. But president Anne Rowe said she understands why the community might be concerned.

“I can appreciate the initial reaction of folks when they think about an urban district thinking about certifying their officers,” she said. “That’s going to require a lot of community engagement and getting down to: What are we trying to accomplish by doing that?”

Road map

A new guide aims to help Colorado school districts offer mental health support to students

First-graders at Denver's Munroe Elementary do a mindfulness exercise led by school psychologist Amy Schirm.

A new toolkit to be officially released Monday will help Colorado educators, parents, and district administrators infuse mental health support into classrooms and schools.

The 60-page online guide from the nonprofit Mental Health Colorado comes out at a time when many school leaders say they desperately need help addressing students’ mental health needs and districts have increasingly emphasized social and emotional skills.

The guide includes 10 key practices for promoting mental health in schools, including offering services in school-based health centers, reducing the stigma around mental health treatment and prioritizing suicide prevention. Besides listing effective curriculums and programs, it provides examples of how Colorado schools and districts are using proven practices.

The kit also includes suggestions on how to secure funding for school mental health initiatives.

“There are ways to do that and examples of how to do that because most people have no idea how to get the ball rolling,” said Jen Marnowski, spokeswoman for Mental Health Colorado, which advocates for the prevention and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders.

Leaders in the Jeffco and the Estes Park districts are among those who’ve expressed enthusiasm about the toolkit so far.

“It’s great. It’s the right work,” said Jon Widmier, Jeffco’s student services director.

He said the kit, which the district will pilot in two elementary schools next year, lines up with the district’s emphasis on educating the whole child.

“The mental health piece of that is huge … This is so right in line with what we’re trying to accomplish on that,” he said.

Marnowski said the genesis of the toolkit was a listening tour the organization conducted in communities across Colorado two years ago. The group’s leaders heard from parents, educators, public officials and law enforcement officers who voiced concerns about the lack of access to mental health care, the desire for more mental health support in schools, and the state’s high suicide rate.

The toolkit is meant to give districts a roadmap from addressing some of the problems community members cited.

“Kids are in school so many hours a day that’s it’s very effective to do this when they’re [there], to get them the help they need,” she said.

Widmier said he sees the kit as a useful tool for all kinds of districts.

“We’re very fortunate in Jeffco because we ‘ve got a school board that really supports the mental health needs of our students … There’s a lot of school districts out there that haven’t focused on it that much and I think this is going to be such a great resource for them as well.”