By Heath Urie Boulder Daily Camera
December 13, 2010
Colorado schools should back away from relying on police to handle minor behavioral issues because double-dip punishment from courts and schools can lead to increased drop-out rates and other unintended consequences, according to Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett.
Garnett said Monday that he's throwing his support behind an initiative led by Padres & Jovenes Unidos -- a Denver-based organization that promotes reforming schools and organizing for the rights of immigrant students -- to end the "school-to-jail" track.
Padres & Jovenes Unidos has worked since 2003 to change disciplinary practices in public schools. In 2008, the group successfully lobbied to end the zero-tolerance approach to discipline in Denver Public Schools, which was replaced with a restorative justice program.
"It was clear that suspensions were too much of a knee-jerk reaction -- the default reaction -- to disciplinary actions," said Mike Vaughn, a spokesman for Denver Public Schools. "We needed to rethink that approach."
Padres & Jovenes Unidos is now exploring the possibility of introducing legislation aimed at ending zero-tolerance policies, which carry automatic suspensions, throughout the state's public school systems.
"We want to have just a very frank discussion about how schools in the last 15 to 20 years have increasingly relied on police" to handle minor behavioral issues, said Marco Nunez, the group's director of organizing. "Last year alone, there were over 9,000 referrals to law enforcement statewide."
He said that of those referrals, 60 percent were for minor cases of misbehavior like disobedience, possession of drugs or alcohol and other violations of student codes of conduct.
Nunez said the overuse of police keeps kids out of class longer and damages their ability to be successful in school.
Garnett, who met with officials from Padres & Jovenes Unidos last week, agreed.
"I want to make sure we're not getting the court system and the law-enforcement system involved in school behavior unless it's appropriate," he said. "Obviously, you want to keep kids safe. But you've also got to make sure the consequences are appropriate."
Garnett was president of the Boulder Valley school board in 1999 when 12 students and one teacher were massacred at Columbine High School. He said the shootings had a ripple effect on school discipline that still exists today.
"There was, I think, an understandable overreaction to Columbine that tended to make everyone want to get law enforcement involved," he said. "But what tends to happen is something relatively minor or routine ... gets referred to law enforcement."
That, he said, can lead to problems for students who miss school and get caught in the court system. It can also bog courts down with cases that could have been handled at the school level.
Garnett said he wants to keep kids safe at school, and there are times when officers absolutely should be involved.
"Those folks should be looking for, in my opinion, gang activity, serious drug dealing and weapons and issues that directly, seriously impact students' safety," he said.
But an example of "overkill," Garnett said, was a case in Boulder County in which a high school student who was involved in a relationship slapped the other person. The teen was charged with domestic violence and disciplined by the school.
"You may have piled on so many consequences that it doesn't make any sense to the kids involved anymore," he said.
Garnett said both the Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley school districts do a "pretty good job" of using discretion when deciding whether to involve the police.
John Poynton, a spokesman for St. Vrain, said the district handles discipline on a "case-by-case basis" and doesn't have any zero-tolerance policies beyond what state law requires schools to report to police.
Neither does Boulder Valley, which generally follows the types of restorative justice programs that the Denver group and Garnett are supporting.
"We definitely have a restorative practices philosophy to all of our discipline," said Michele DeBerry, director of athletics, activities, attendance and discipline for Boulder Valley. "Even when our (school resource officers) are involved, they're supportive of that outcome."
DeBerry said legislation mandating restorative justice programs -- which usually involve getting the victim and the perpetrator together for mediation -- would fall in line with Boulder Valley's goals.
"It's in the best interest of the school and the community for our young students to be in the classroom and engaged at learning," she said.
Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner said his officers use discretion when dealing with young students.
"There are certainly situations where there could be criminal charges filed but it's not in the best interest of the kid," he said.
Chris Wright, a 15-year-old freshman at Boulder High, said he doesn't think it's necessary to use police to address minor incidents.
"It's just setting kids up for failure," he said, adding that it's difficult to catch up on classes if you're dealing with a suspension and court dates.
But Randy Brown, whose son, Brooks Brown, was friends with the two Columbine killers -- and who tried to warn authorities about the shooters prior to the massacre -- said he worries that neither school administrators nor the police alone can tackle the seriousness of bullying or acting out.
"We have long believed that all schools, especially high schools, need a threat assessment team," he said.
Such a panel could review conflicts among students as they happen, and work with students, teachers and parents to take action so that acting out at school doesn't escalate.
Delbert Elliott, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado, agreed that schools should have a way of monitoring students who act out, to detect patterns of behavior over time.
"We've advocated all the way along that there needs to be a social support team, or a team that essentially gets notified for all of those kinds of things," he said. "It makes sense to me that a lot of intervention be done at the school level. But I don't want the information about those (incidents) to be lost."
Contact Camera staff writer Heath Urie at 303-473-1328, or firstname.lastname@example.org.