Denver rejects more guns in schools, and the school to prison pipeline

February 22, 2013

[Not sure if I’ll be writing tomorrow, perhaps…but today I found a good story to write about, I think. The connection to the NRA is a bit abstract, but maybe that explains why the news is hopeful.]

Colorado is not the first place I would think of, to find a progressive turn in policy like this. Considering the history of mass shootings there — Aurora, and especially Columbine — the state had might be the expected zero-tolerance policy in schools. But the police haven’t been busy stopping shooters from slaughtering children. Instead, they’ve been introducing ever more children to the criminal justice system, and with a persistent racial disparity to boot.

So, I’m encouraged to see the people of Denver collaborating to minimize this heavy-handed interaction between students and the police. In particular, they’re taking extra steps to confront racial bias. In doing so, they’re rejecting the NRA’s stated goal of ever-increasing police presence and more guns in schools, and they’re working to break down the insidious school-to-prison pipeline.


The school to prison pipeline, and the detestable, disproportionate effect of it on minority children, is something I’ve been familiar with for some time (unfortunately). The community here that continues to speak out about it is well worth the time of reading and learning. Here, for example:

Perhaps it’s still a foreign concept to most people, but the criminalization of black and brown youth is a daily routine. Reyes’s situation isn’t unlike that of 6-year-old Salecia Johnson, who in April of last year was arrested and handcuffed in school, after what was described as “temper tantrum.” Before her, there was 5-year-old Michael Davis, whose hands and feet with restrained with zip ties when his school called the police in to scare away his behavioral problems. The kids get the message a very young age, and the rest the world does as well, that they are potential menaces to society and will be treated as such.

Or, more recently, here:

Best publicized, perhaps, is the plight of young people in Meridian, Mississippi, where a federal investigation is probing into why children as young as 10 are routinely taken to jail for wearing the wrong color socks or flatulence in class. Bob Herbert wrote of a situation in Florida in 2007, where police found themselves faced with the great challenge of placing a 6-year-old girl in handcuffs too big for her wrists. The child was being arrested for throwing a tantrum in her kindergarten class; the solution was to cuff her biceps, after which she was dragged to the precinct house for mug shots and charged with a felony and two misdemeanors.

It looks preposterous on its face, five and six year olds being put in handcuffs or zip ties, getting taken downtown for mug shots. But this is what happens when police are placed in schools. They can become a crutch, relied upon far too often when a less extreme response would do. At times renamed “resource officers,” they can escalate a trip to the principal’s office into an early introduction to the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, the NRA is hard at work, aiming to follow up on Wayne LaPierre’s ridiculous call for armed guards in every school. They seek to develop laughably named “best practices” using a team headed up by Asa Hutchinson, lately from George W. Bush’s Homeland Security department.

“It’s obvious from the record of violence in our country that most active shooter scenarios that have occurred in a school are over within minutes,” he said. “And so it’s all about the capability of an immediate response.”Part of that immediate response would be to install trained police officers, sometimes called “resource officers,” to protect educators and students from potential threats to their safety.

“An armed guard is not a 100% guarantee of security — we would never say that — but it certainly enhances the response and whenever you can decrease that response time or improve that response time then you are going to diminish the loss of life,” he said.

Notably, the NRA has not figured out how this legion of armed guards will be paid for. They’ll be too busy attacking Democrats to be able to pony up a few bucks themselves, I suspect. I also suppose we could attack this proposal using the typical NRA line of ‘reasoning,’ since they won’t guarantee safety 100%, it must not be worth doing at all! Not a very reasonable argument after all, but it is theirs, when it comes to attacking gun control legislation. All or nothing, essentially, is the gun enthusiast’s line. The Denver school system, however, has chosen to minimize the police presence and interaction in their schools for different, better reasons. Considering that Columbine and Aurora aren’t far from Denver, it seems a brave step to take.

Leaders from the city’s police department and public school system are to sign an eight-page contract that will bring detail to often-murky questions about the role of police in schools. The agreement emphasizes differences between student offenses that should be handled by educators and those that need police action, urges de-escalation of campus conflict when possible, and supports “restorative justice” practices that focus on making amends for misconduct rather than punishing for it.Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the move marks a “step forward” for the system of 84,000 students. “We believe that an effective restorative justice approach makes schools safer, helps keep our kids in school and on track to graduation, and makes kids learn from their mistakes and make them right,” he said.

In day-to-day school life, Boasberg said, he expects less reliance on police ticketing and out-of-school suspension.

So, the schools in Denver aren’t dropping the police presence entirely; they’re committing to focus the police presence on serious offenses. I appreciate that they’ve recognized the dangers of more aggressive police response to minor offenses in school.

“Our main goal is to end the school-to-jail track,” said David Valenzuela, 17, a student leader. “What I’m hoping to see is that students are going to have a much better relationship with SROs and won’t be ticketed for minor things.”

And I can appreciate this, too. When I was a kid, one of my best friends and mentors happened to be the chief of police in my little hometown. I suppose part of that was from getting into a fight with his son one day, but mostly it came through delivering his newspapers. It troubles me to see what has become of the police these days. It doesn’t have to be like that. But to make positive change, problems have to be confronted. And though the Denver school system already rolled back this ‘zero tolerance’ policy somewhat in 2008, what was left of it still fell hard upon minority students.

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.

Credit where it’s due, they’re trying. The police and security guards will be trained to better handle their jobs in the schools and to recognize and confront racial bias. They have a written policy committing to it. And though most stories of the police that I see anymore are the wrong things cops do, I know the potential for good is out there, that better relationships can be had. I’ll be rooting for Denver to get this done right

“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.”

…and not just because it rejects the NRA’s fantasies.


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