Guest Commentary: Smarter discipline in schools
by Ricardo Martinez, Co-Director of Padres & Jovenes Unidos
Colorado needs to institute smarter school discipline so kids stay in school learning, not on the streets and in the criminal justice system.
Earlier this month, an 11-year-old girl in Adams County was handcuffed at school, put into a police cruiser and taken to a juvenile justice holding facility. Her crime? Returning to her locker during lunch recess to get her sweater and sassing the assistant principal by saying, "I don't have time for this," when asked why she was in the hallway.
There is no question that this girl was rude and school authorities were quite right to call out her inappropriate comment. But is it really necessary to call the police when a pre-teen gets a little cheeky?
Unfortunately, this case is not an anomaly. A Weld County student was charged with felony assault for racing in the hallway with a classmate, who fell and broke his elbow; two Arapahoe County elementary kids were charged with "school staff interference" and detained overnight for ditching a class; and a Jefferson County high school student was ticketed with "disturbing the peace" for knocking on a classroom window.
What has happened to common sense? Aren't school administrators capable of teaching respect and redirecting kids' misbehavior?
As a reaction to the Columbine tragedy, "zero tolerance" school discipline policies were adopted, calling for mandatory suspension, expulsion and police involvement for even minor student behavior problems. As a result of many of these inflexible policies, nearly 100,000 students across the state have been referred to law enforcement by their schools in just the last 10 years, according to the state Department of Education.
These students are removed from school, negatively affecting their education. They fall behind in classes, are more likely to start skipping school, and end up dropping out at higher rates. Some end up on a school-to-jail track, when an arrest for a minor school indiscretion leads to increased and unnecessary involvement in the juvenile justice system.
Moreover, multiple studies show black and Latino students are impacted at higher rates, not because they misbehave more but because they receive harsher consequences than their white peers.
Let's be clear: Keeping students, teachers and schools safe is priority No. 1. Nevertheless, school personnel should be able to use good judgment and exercise discretion to determine appropriate disciplinary responses to everyday student misconduct. There is no reason to automatically refer kids to police when it is not necessary.
The Smarter School Discipline bill (Senate Bill 46) would keep kids in school learning and prevent them from getting involved with the criminal justice system. Supported by law enforcement, school administrators, district attorneys, judges, teachers, students, parents and others, the bill is a bipartisan approach to change the culture and practice of school discipline.
Instead of automatic suspensions, expulsions and law enforcement referrals, school administrators will be able to use prevention, intervention, restorative justice, peer mediation, counseling and other discipline approaches to deal with problems and encourage students to be more responsible school and community citizens. School resource officers will receive more training to better address behavior issues with students and administrators.
I have seen these alternative methods work. After a fistfight when he was a freshman at North High School, one boy participated in restorative justice. He not only was able to stay in school, but he also learned how to resolve conflicts peacefully. Three years later, he graduated and is now a mentor to high school youth.
The future of Colorado's youth depends on staying in school learning — and staying off the streets and out of the criminal justice system. The Smarter School Discipline bill will bring common sense back to dealing with student misbehavior.
||Ricardo Martinez is Co-Director of Padres & Jovenes Unidos