A task force convened to assess whether zero-tolerance school disciplinary policies should be revamped heard overwhelming testimony Wednesday that the practices hinder graduation rates, particularly among minorities.
“This is taking the pendulum back into the middle and really looking at the balance between safety and success,” said Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, who chairs the Legislative Task Force to Study School Discipline.
Mandatory expulsion and suspension for certain indiscretions and the involvement of law enforcement for disciplinary matters previously handled by educators came under fire at the meeting as barriers to high school completion, college admission, employment and military service.
“For the last 10 years, over 100,000 students in Colorado have been referred to law enforcement by their schools, and situations that used to occur where the student would go to the principal’s office, now they’re being referred to law enforcement,” said Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster. “If a student is even suspended one time in middle school, research shows that it’s a key predictor that they will eventually drop out.”
Nationally, African American students are three times as likely as white students to be expelled and Latino students are 1.5 times more likely to be expelled than white students, according to Seema Ahmad of the Advancement Project, which monitors school discipline. Students with disabilities also endure higher rates of suspension and expulsion than students without disabilities, Ahmad said.
Marco Nunez of Padres & Jovenes Unidos (Parents and Youth United)—a group devoted to equal access to education—said closely tracking those disparities like Texas and Tennessee do would be a step toward rectifying the gap in Colorado.
School districts nationwide and federal lawmakers reacted to the siege on Columbine High School in Littleton in 1999 by adding to the list of zero-tolerance policies that require suspension or expulsion of students.
In Colorado, mandatory suspension and expulsion for certain behaviors has been part of the law since 1984. Since then, the state’s zero-tolerance policies have at times been relaxed and at other times tightened.
Under Colorado law it is beyond the discretion of school administrators whether to suspend students caught with guns, knives or bludgeons, those discovered to be selling drugs on school grounds or those who commit robbery.
Laws that required suspension or expulsion for assault or carrying simulated weapons—like the wooden props a drill team might use—have been undone.
“Colorado has a pattern of setting both rigid laws on mandatory expulsion, but has also relaxed those laws over time as the circumstances have arisen,” said Legislative Council staffer Jonathan Senft.
The task force’s objective is to adjust school discipline policies and laws in a way that keeps schools safe but doesn’t deter high school graduation or limit students’ futures in other ways. It could generate up to eight bills for the General Assembly to consider when it reconvenes next year.
The task force consists of lawmakers and a broad range of citizens coming from perspectives of law enforcement, child advocacy, victims’ assistants, educators and other perspectives. A student group also will offer its input to the committee.
Stephanie Garcia, president of Pueblo City Schools’ board of education, serves on the committee. She said a recent audit of school resource officers’ functions in Pueblo schools showed an alarmingly high number of tickets were being issued to students at school.
Pueblo City Schools’ students received four times as many tickets during the audit period than students in some school districts with far greater enrollment, Garcia said.
“Some (were) for things you would understand why—weapons, drugs,” she said. “But also for trespassing and other things we really questioned.”
Other witnesses echoed that observation. Smarting off to teachers and verbal confrontations between students that in the past meant trips to the principal’s office today land students before judges.
“I really commend (Pueblo City Schools) for reviewing that. Obviously they’ve seen the importance of this issue and how it’s affecting youth in Pueblo,” said Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland.
“We’re not tracking the impacts of zero-tolerance policies consistently, so districts like Pueblo’s are way ahead of the game,” said Newell.
Former Alamosa Police Chief John Jackson, now the chief of the Greenwood Village Police Department, said tickets aren’t always the answer to stemming unruly situations at schools. He pointed to his experience in Alamosa as an example.
“We had a high school environment of almost 700 students, and it was a really volatile environment,” he said. “There were a few students who were running the school; faculty were scared.”
He characterized Alamosa High School at the time as “not a very safe school” where crime was rampant. Jackson’s department documented more than 70 criminal incidents at the school during his first year there.
“We dedicated police resources with an eye toward not arresting and not creating a police state, but turning that environment around,” Jackson said. “We had more than an 80 percent reduction in crime by the third year.”
The committee will meet up to five more times before issuing recommendations in October.
Copyright (c) 2011, The Pueblo Chieftain, Colorado. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.