Already home to one of the most progressive school discipline policies in the country, Denver has set out to best even its own record. On Tuesday, Denver Public Schools and local and county police departments inked a five-year agreement specifically designed to limit student interaction with the juvenile justice system. The agreement offers a rare example of a school system that is bucking the national trend toward criminalizing student misbehavior.
Just two months after the gun massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and in a state that has had its share of mass shootings, the Denver pact comes at a pivotal point in the national debate on firearms and school security.
The school system had already articulated a commitment to minimizing police contact with its students. But because of a lingering zero-tolerance framework that required harsh and automatic penalties for student misbehavior, the 15 officers assigned to the city’s schools were functioning as disciplinarians, meting out suspensions, expulsions and tickets for minor infractions like chewing gum, fighting in the schoolyard and exposing their tattoos.
The new agreement–the result of a collaboration between law enforcement, school officials and a Denver-based community organization called Padres y Jovenes Unidos–turns the concept of minimal police contact into an official, districtwide policy.
“This is a historic collaboration between a school district, a police department and an organization [that] represents parents and young people of color who are most impacted by these policies,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group that partnered with Denver-based Padres y Jovenes Unidos to secure the agreement.
With the new agreement, police officers are now being directed to know and observe the difference between disciplinary issues and criminal acts. Law enforcement officials have agreed that they will only respond to serious offenses. The district will use restorative justice practices to address routine student misbehavior.
“It’s not, ‘You did something wrong, go home for five days and watch television,’ ” Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg told the Washington Post. “It’s, ‘What did you do wrong? Who did you harm? How are you going to make them whole, and what are you learning from this?’ “
The Columbine Effect
In response to the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, which left 12 students, a teacher and two gunmen dead, the state of Colorado adopted strict zero-tolerance policies. But a Columbine-like shooting is an extremely rare occurrence, and on most days police officers were being called into schools to handle everyday adolescent misbehavior.
Padres y Jovenes Unidos co-director Ricardo Martinez recalled how every afternoon at one of the city’s high schools “you’d have four to five squad cars parked outside school, chasing kids down the street.”
Tori Ortiz, a student and activist with Padres y Jovenes Unidos, recalled how in middle school she began seeing police pull kids out of class for talking back to a teacher or speaking out of turn. “They were being ticketed [by police] and being escorted away,” said Ortiz, who is now a high school student at CEC Middle College. “I couldn’t believe what was going on. I thought it was very unfair that [police] were interfering with learning time just to deal with something that could have been dealt with by teachers or in class.”
Ortiz was not alone. In a survey of 700 students at a school of 1,500, Padres y Jovenes Unidos found that a majority actually felt less safe with heavy police presence in their hallways.
In 2008 Denver community activists secured a district policy that, in essence, kicked zero-tolerance the curb. Since then, out-of-school suspensions have decreased by 44 percent, expulsions are down by nearly 60 percent, and referrals to law enforcement have dropped by half. It seemed to be an unequivocal victory, and yet there remained a persistent racial disparity in how officials implemented the policy.
Denver’s 2008 rollback of the zero-tolerance policies it adopted from the state didn’t have the same impact for all its students. Black students make up 15 percent of the city’s public school population, but comprise 32 percent of the kids who are suspended, expelled and arrested. Put another way: For every one white student who missed class time during the 2011-2012 academic year due to an out-of-school suspension, about five black and two Latino students missed school time for the same reason.
This racial imbalance appears with striking consistency across the country, and with just about every level of granularity one can use to examine the data. Such inequitable application of tough school discipline policies might be justifiable if, as zero-tolerance proponents have suggested, black students misbehaved more frequently than their non-black peers. Yet, there’s scant evidence to support this idea. In fact, researchers have found that white students who are suspended or expelled are far more likely to be reprimanded for objective infractions like graffiti, or cutting class, or smoking, whereas black students are more often referred to the principal’s office for subjective offenses like being “disrespectful” or “disruptive.” And some data suggests that black students are treated more harshly than their non-black peers for the same offenses.
The new Denver agreement compels officials to directly confront uncomfortable and often subtle issues of race. Police officers, principals and security guards will all be required to undergo trainings in implicit bias, adolescent development and the needs of LGBTQ youth. And according to Jason Sinocruz,* an Advancement Project attorney who helped craft the new contract, police officers will be required to “examine how racism and implicit bias affect policing and behavior on school grounds.”
The work is hardly over, though. In the new agreement, the district will convene regular meetings with the very organizations and stakeholders that pushed them to reform their school discipline practices. But all parties seem to be optimistic.
“When you are not locking up all these students for minor offenses you will find students will develop a positive outlook on police on campus. With this work you’re going to find that school climate is going to improve, and you’re going to find that school campuses are safer,” said Judge Steven Teske, a national figure in school discipline reform efforts. “There is another way to do this, and Denver has led the way.”
Update: In a previous version of this story Advancement Project attorney Jason Sinocruz’s surname was misspelled “Sentacruz.” We regret the error.