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With New Effort, Denver Tackles School-to-Prison Pipeline

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UPDATED

The role of police in Denver public schools will change so that officers will actively work on issues civil rights groups and others say are responsible for a "school-to-prison pipeline."

Denver police and the 84,000-student school district today signed an agreement that says school resource officers must distinguish between crimes and school-based discipline incidents and that officers and school administrators must get training, annually, on these issues.

The agreement comes at an interesting time, just as many schools have been increasing the presence of school police following the December shootings in Newtown, Conn., and civil rights groups are expressing fears that the addition of officers will lead to more student arrests for minor incidents.

"Talking about the proper role of police in schools is the extraordinary part," said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Washington-based Advancement Project, one of those civil rights groups concerned about a growing police presence in schools. "Now Denver Public Schools and Denver Police have moved into a new phase. This clarifies the limited role of police in schools ... to ensure the unnecessary criminalization" of school-based offenses, she said.

The Denver contract is believed to be the first of its kind, because of the training requirements and expectations outlined for Denver police. A community group, the Denver-based Padres Y Jóvenes Unidos, helped foster the agreement. The organization has been working on education issues in Denver, including discipline concerns, for about 20 years.

In recent years, Padres Y Jóvenes Unidos has taken credit for the declining number of students being suspended and expelled from Denver schools and a declining number of referrals to law enforcement, although Denver's student population has been rising. However, racial disparities in how those punishments are handed out linger.

This agreement is a critical step in cutting suspensions, expulsions, and juvenile court referrals further and addressing those lingering disparities, said Ricardo Martinez, the co-director of Padres y Jóvenes Unidos.

"I think we're going to have great success," he said in a press call with reporters today. "We were seeing too many cases of students being sent to a court for stuff that should be handled in school. We're not advocating ... for officers to leave the school, just limit their activity, not become disciplinarians at the school."

The new Denver agreement says that the 15 school-based police officers at the city's middle and high schools must be trained specifically on their role within Denver schools, differentiate between disciplinary issues and actual crimes, try to defuse situations they do encounter, and attend three annual training sessions with principals. Officers will have to question students at the time it would have the smallest effect on the students' schooling.

In turn, principals will have to try to address most incidents of student discipline without involving those officers and also deescalate school-based incidents whenever possible.

"School climate is going to improve, and school campuses are going to be safer," said Judge Steven Teske of Clayton County, Ga., who worked on reducing juvenile court referrals from schools in his region. When police aren't so occupied with arresting students for minor offenses, he said, they can work on developing relationships with students and gathering intelligence about incidents students may be planning, keeping them from happening,m for example.

The intergovernmental agreement in Denver is one in a series of reforms to school discipline policies and practices in the Centennial State. The Denver schools already have adopted the use of restorative practices, in which students must make amends for misbehavior and learn from their mistakes.

And last year, Colorado lawmakers passed a measure that gives principals statewide more discretion over student discipline, scaling back sharply on the types of incidents for which students must be suspended out of school or expelled. It has the specific goal of keeping students out of the juvenile-justice system because principals no longer have to report students to law enforcement for minor infractions.

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