Soda stand

Will diet soda be allowed back in Colorado high schools?

After a seven-year ban, diet soda would get the green light to return to high school vending machines if the State Board of Education approves proposed changes to state beverage rules next month.

Education department officials say they are making the recommendation to align Colorado rules with new federal rules and reduce schools’ regulatory burden.

But a host of health-minded organizations are pushing back against the proposal, saying the state was ahead of the curve when it launched a policy banning soda and diet soda from schools in 2009 and is now poised to give a drink laced with artificial sweeteners a new toehold among teens.

“We just think our state has already done great work on this and it doesn’t make sense to roll it back,” said Leslie Levine, technical assistance and research manager at the advocacy group Livewell Colorado.

The proposed beverage rules, which the State Board will consider at its Aug. 10 meeting in Grand Junction, grew out of a regular review of state policies, officials said. If approved, they would take effect by the 2017-18 school year at the latest.

Even if the State Board gives the go-ahead for diet soda in high schools, individual districts could decide not to stock the drinks.

Beverage rules

Still, critics of the proposed rules worry about dangling unhealthy beverages in front of students and tempting cash-strapped schools with the promise of new soft drink revenue.

Diet soda, though low in calories, has no nutritional value, harms teeth and diverts students from drinking healthier beverages like water, they argue.

“Allowing diet soda in schools just provides an unnecessary marketing opportunity to an industry that has fueled the obesity epidemic, and the tooth decay epidemic, I might add,” said Wyatt Hornsby, campaign director for Delta Dental Of Colorado Foundation.

The foundation is among more than a dozen groups ranging from health advocacy organizations to the Colorado PTA that have signed a letter urging State Board members to reconsider the diet soda proposal.

Colorado’s Healthy Beverage policy, originally passed by the State Board of Education in 2008, includes numerous provisions governing the type, size and calorie count of beverages allowed in schools outside of the federally regulated school meal program.

At the time, there were no federal rules governing such beverages, but that changed in 2014 when preliminary federal rules—called Smart Snacks in Schools standards—were approved. Just last week, the United States Department of Agriculture released the final version of the those rules.

Opponents of Colorado’s proposed rule changes say the federal rules represent the lowest bar states must clear, and don’t prevent stronger state-level policies.

“This is Colorado,” said Hornsby. “We pride ourselves on being the healthiest state in the nation so we need to aim higher.”

The current proposal to relax the beverage rules for the K-12 system comes just six months after Colorado significantly tightened beverage rules for kids in child care—banning all soda, flavored milks and sports drinks, and allowing 100 percent fruit juice just twice a week.

To some advocates, the conflicting efforts are perplexing.

But there’s also widespread recognition that many high-schoolers already have the independence and purchasing power to buy any sweet drink they want at the corner store.

School district officials have varying opinions on the proposed changes.

Ann Cooper, Boulder’s food service director, said via email she doesn’t think two sets of beverage guidelines—one federal and one state— would be onerous for districts. She also said diet soda shouldn’t be allowed in schools.

Kara Sample, assistant director of nutrition services in Weld County District 6, supports aligning Colorado’s Healthy Beverage policy to federal rules. She likened Colorado’s rules to an onion, with several layers of requirements that can be confusing to vendors and school district personnel.

Still, she said she was saddened that diet soda is allowable under the federal rules and that she’d be happy with a prohibition on diet soda in the new Colorado rules if that was one of the only major differences from federal rules.

Below are public comments on the proposed changes to the Healthy Beverage Policy. The education department recommends written comments be received by August 3, but will accept them up to and during the day of the State Board hearing.

crisis mode

Adams 14 proposing expanding mindfulness and other programs for student well-being

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The Adams 14 school district is proposing an expansion next year of mental health staffing and two programs, including mindfulness, meant to help students get out of “crisis mode.”

After significant pushback in the current year on cuts that were meant to have schools sharing mental health professionals, every school will have their own next year.

Kim Cini, the district’s assistant director of student services believes, however, that the work of helping students with mental health problems, can’t be only the responsibility of a particular staff member in a school.

“You are never going to have enough mental health workers, ever. You just aren’t,” Cini said. “We are at a time and place in education, in the nation, that it’s time for all of us to step up and get involved. You need your classroom teachers, your parents, volunteers, front office staff, everybody.”

That belief is behind Cini’s push to introduce mindfulness programming in the district’s middle schools. That programming is meant to teach students to also take charge of their own mental well-being and to teach them ways to cope with stress.

In elementary school, Cini helped introduce a curriculum called Random Acts of Kindness to help younger children learn social and emotional skills including coping with trauma, a common challenge for students in the district where more than 86 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a measure of poverty.

Three elementary school principals — from Dupont, Alsup and Kemp — tried out the Random Acts of Kindness this year, and Cini said they’ve seen results. Now, she is planning to expand the program to more schools next school year.

Pat Almeida, principal of Dupont Elementary, one of the three schools using the Random Acts of Kindness curriculum this year, said students get 30 minutes daily to learn coping skills, talk about current events on their mind, and plan activities meant to show compassion for one another.

“My staff is so much more focused on that time as being part of our wraparound services for all kids,” Almeida said. “It’s just part of what we do.”

Almeida said for most students the program has big benefits, but said for some students, it’s not enough help. That means often teachers are able to identify those students who need extra help more quickly and to provide them the right resources.

Long term, Cini said she will be looking at surveys in those schools working on mindfulness or Random Acts of Kindness to see if students report an increase in feeling safe, calm, or in sleeping better.

“We need to get them to go to sleep and stop that hypervigilance and hyperarousal,” Cini said. “They’re just hyperaroused at every little thing. I mean every time Trump comes on with something about DACA, we’re off to the races over here. It’s just crazy.”

Principal Almeida said the work has also made staff reflect more about the work as well.

“As adults we think we understand compassion and empathy,” Almeida said. “But to actually think about it and teach it is different.”

Cini said staff across the district are, like students, also in crisis, and often making decisions based on urgency.

“When you’re operating in crisis mode, you are hypervigilant and you start responding and your decisions become shaped around that,” Cini said. “You see a couple of kids wear a gang-related color and as a leader you make a decision to ban the color red based on the actions of a couple of kids. That’s a pretty big thing to do. We have got to stop making decisions like that.”

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?”