New law aims to curb “school to jail track”

The Colorado Statesman

Student leaders, school administrators and lawmakers gathered on Aug. 30 at North High School in Denver to celebrate the start of the school year with legislation that they hope ends the so-called “school to jail track.”

The group — led by Padres & Jovenes Unidos — highlighted their hopes for the new Smart School Discipline Law, which aims to reduce the number of students referred to law enforcement for less serious infractions.

The measure started as Senate Bill 46, sponsored by Sens. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, and Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, and Reps. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, and Claire Levy, D-Boulder. But the legislation took an unusual turn when it nearly died as a result of political gamesmanship. House Republican leaders were prepared back in May to let SB 46 die on the calendar along with 29 other bills in a last-ditch attempt to kill same-sex civil unions legislation. But the Senate was able to save several of the bills, including SB 46, by adding them as amendments to House bills.

Senate Bill 46 was attached to House Bill 1345, the 2012-13 fiscal year school funding bill. The governor signed the bill on May 19.

The school discipline reform measure gives increased discretion to school administrators and school boards when determining grounds for suspension or expulsion, as well as referring a student to local law enforcement. Administrators are now only required to expel a student in cases in which a student brings a firearm to school, as remains the case with federal law.

But overall, sponsors and their sup-porters are optimistic that the measure will lead to a reduction in the number of students who end up in the juvenile corrections system because of misbehavior at school. Hudak offered as an example a student from Lafayette who was found playing with a toy gun. She doesn’t believe there should be police involvement in situations like that.

“Because of the previous law, he was expelled. He was taken to juvenile detention. He was chained and searched and treated like a criminal,” explained Hudak. “He was a little kid, 10 years old, just playing with a toy. So, our zero tolerance policies were way out of fairness and what really is realistic in our society.”

Newell added that the idea is to strike the right balance between appropriate discipline and helpful intervention.

“We need to prioritize, of course the safety of the schools, while still utilizing the positive restorative disciplinary actions, the measures that are focused on the correction of the behavior, not just the punishing of the deed,” she said.

Padres & Jovenes Unidos began working on the legislation with lawmakers in 2010. They began by informing legislators of zero-tolerance policies held by school districts, pointing out that over the last 10 years, nearly 100,000 students across the state have been referred to law enforcement by their schools.

For Dionna Hudson, a youth member of Padres & Jovenes Unidos who worked closely with lawmakers on the bill, Thursday was a time to celebrate her achievements, having lobbied for the legislation for nearly two years.

Hudson graduated from high school last spring and is headed to college. She says enacting the Smart School Discipline Law was the best graduation present she could have asked for.

“The student voice was the driving force behind moving statewide policy to change school culture,” she said.

Nicole Veltze, the principal at North High School, says her school has independently been working on school discipline reform, and has watched as referrals to law enforcement, along with suspensions and expulsions, have declined. In the 2009-2010 school year, North High School saw 300 out-of-school suspensions. That number decreased to 116 in the 2011-2012 school year, representing a reduction of over 60 percent.

“This number will continue to decrease with restorative justice,” said Veltze. “We’ve shown that restorative justice works.”

Denver Public Schools administrators agree that discipline reform policies can have a positive impact on school districts. Antwan Wilson, the assistant superintendent for Denver Public Schools, said expulsions have dropped from about 180, to only 63 last school year.

“We want to make sure that our schools are safe, and if students do things that are inappropriate we want to address those things, but we don’t want to be expelling students from school who mistakenly bring toy guns… and we want principals in their buildings making those kind of decisions and really creating an environment where the students can have some trust and confidence…” said Wilson.

Concerns with limiting control

But outgoing Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, has concerns with the bill, especially as the bill was first written. In its original form, the bill included more stringent mandates on how school administrators could interact with law enforcement and file discipline reports.

Hudak said she recognized the concerns over reporting control, and revised the bill to give school administrators control over how they see fit to report instances. She acknowledges that administrators would still be allowed to report students to law enforcement on a case-by-case basis.

“We tried to make everybody happy and I believe we accomplished that,” said Hudak.

King worries, though, that the legislation begins a slippery slope toward removing district control over discipline decisions.

“I want to make sure that we never restrict the ability of the school district and the teachers in the system to be able to do what they think is best in individual situations,” said King.

He is also concerned that some have said the issue is also about race, suggesting that districts judge students in disciplinary situations based on race, and not just on behavior.

“The reporting requirements assumed that the discipline system of the school and the discipline system of the police of the State of Colorado are anti-minority,” said King. “I still am concerned about that because it wasn’t just about judging students on their behavior, but also on their race…”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com