Books Not Bars: Students for Safe & Fair Schools

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A Community Analysis of the Implementation of the 2008 Denver School Discipline Policy

Text of Books Not Bars: Students for Safe & Fair Schools


  • Padres & Jvenes Unidos (Parents & Youth United)With roots in the struggle for educational justice, Padres Unidos has evolved into a multi-issue organization led by people of color who work for educational excellence, racial justice for youth, immigrant rights and quality healthcare for all. Jvenes Unidos, the youth initiative of Padres Unidos, emerged as young people became active in reforming their schools, ending the school to jail track and organizing for immigrant student rights. Both Padres and Jvenes Unidos build power to challenge the root causes of discrimination, racism and inequity by exposing the economic, social, and institutional basis for injustice as well as developing effective strategies to realize meaningful change.

    Advancement Project Advancement Project is a next generation, multi-racial civil rights organization. We tackle inequity with innovative strategies and strong community alliances. With a national office in Washington, DC and two offices in California, we combine law, communications, policy and technology to create workable solutions and achieve systemic change. We aim to inspire and strengthen movements that expand opportunity for all.

    Advancement Project: The Audacity to Make Change Happen.

    Acknowledgements:We would like to recognize youth and parent members of Padres & Jvenes Unidos who dedicated time and energy to produce this report. From data gathering to providing critical feedback and revisions, their commitment to participatory research provided invaluable insights and grounding for this report. Their intrepid spirit in the fight for educational equality in our communities inspires us all.

    We would also like to thank the central office of Denver Public Schools, particularly Superintendent Boasberg and the Office of Student Services, as well as local school officials who over the years have demonstrated a commitment to change. Though there is much work to be done, their partnership with Padres & Jvenes Unidos to achieve greater fidelity to the Denver discipline policy gets us closer to ending the School to Jail Track for Denver Public School students.


    From 2005 to 2008, Padres & Jvenes

    Unidos and Advancement Project

    worked with Denver Public Schools

    (DPS) and other community members to

    craft a student disciplinary system that

    promotes high academic achievement,

    school safety, and healthier learning


    In particular, this multi-stakeholder working group sought to eliminate disciplinary measures that needlessly exclude students from school and the overuse of the police and the juvenile justice system to handle minor disciplinary matters. The results of this effort, policies JK and JK-R (the 2008 discipline policy), have been lauded as national models, and school districts from around the country have looked to these DPS policies as they attempt to address their own over-reliance on harsh disciplinary practices.2

    The 2008 discipline policy was a significant achievement for the entire Denver community, and has undoubtedly led to progress benefitting many students, their families, and the entire school system. In particular, there have been reductions in the use of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions districtwide. 3 And where restorative justice programs (which are highly effective alternatives to the zero-tolerance approach) have been implemented, they have improved school culture, academic achievement, and school attendance, while helping to address the root causes of student behavior.4

    Nevertheless, the 2008 discipline policy still has not been fully implemented, leading to many students and families continuing to experience the same misguided and counter-productive disciplinary measures that the policy was supposed to eliminate. DPS out-of-school suspension rate is still among the highest in the state, 5 student referrals to law enforcement have actually increased since the policy was passed, 6 and because of the inconsistent implementation of the policy, Black and Latino students have not benefitted from it nearly as much as their White peers.7 In fact, school discipline within DPS is more inequitable across racial categories than it was before the 2008 discipline policy was passed.

    ZERO TOLERANCE is a set of harsh, unforgiving policies and practices that emphasize the long-term removal of students from the classroom for violating school rules. Often, zero tolerance is applied to relatively minor misbehavior such as classroom disruption and schoolyard fighting. Increasingly, schools have also been relying on law enforcement and juvenile courts to address school-based issues resulting in the drastic criminalization of young people.


    The continued allowance of disciplinary measures that contradict or violate the policy results in serious harm to children and youth around Denver. These young people continue to have their educational opportunities jeopardized by overly-harsh punishments that push them out of school and often criminalize them. For example:

    Students like these continue to be taken off the track toward college and career and set on a path toward incarceration. Not only does this School to Jail Track stand in the way of building a more successful school system, it also represents a waste of resources. In the short term, relying on police and juvenile courts to handle youthful mistakes is like killing a fly with a sledgehammer, and it is very expensive for Denver taxpayers.12 In the long term, the community can ill afford to waste its human resources and diminish its tax base by using discipline practices that drive down graduation rates.13 Given ever-tightening public budgets, cost-effective education policies that promote success for our schools and our youth are more important than ever. We simply cannot afford these unconscionable, ineffective, and expensive discipline practices that push young people out of school and onto the fast-track to jail.

    DPS is to be applauded for its bold leadership and the progress it has made in addressing the School to Jail Track. In particular, many members of its staff devoted substantial time to making the 2008 discipline policy a reality and continue working toward making school discipline equitable and more effective. The District School Improvement Accountability Council also deserves special recognition for its role in improving school discipline. However, it is time to honor the commitment embodied in the 2008 policy and that of the students and community members who led this effort by finishing the job that we started. We must make our schools sanctuaries for learning, and put an end to the unnecessary use of harsh school discipline, police, and the juvenile justice system. Failure to do so will prevent Denver Public Schools from ever achieving the success that it, and the entire community, is working towards.

    Brian8,ajuniorinhighschool,triedtostopafightbetweenagroup ofboyswhowerebullyinghisfriends,whoweresmallerandyounger.Whiletherewas




    duringrecesswithMexicanflagsdrapedaroundtheirnecksandfor usingthemasbandanas.11


    This report examines DPS accomplishments thus far with respect to implementation of the 2008 discipline policy and, most importantly, articulates what remains to be done in order to make DPS the district its students deserve. The information in this report comes from publicly available data, a student-developed and implemented survey with more than 700 responses collected during the 2010-11 school year, and the stories and voices of youth from across the city.14 It was initiated, informed, and edited by youth who care deeply about the future of their education and who feel that District employees must take more responsibility to fully implement the 2008 discipline policy.

    Based on the evidence gathered, we have provided DPS with its own report card on the implementation effort15: GRADE

    Out-of-school Suspension The districtwide out-of-school suspension rate has declined since the 2007-08 school year; however, DPS continues to have one of the higher rates in the state. Many schools across the District continue to have very high suspension rates, meaning many students and especially Black and Latino students are not benefitting from this progress.

    ExpulsionThe number of expulsions in the District actually rose following passage of the 2008 discipline policy, peaking during the 2009-10 school year. While expulsions have since been reduced, DPS has yet to demonstrate a consistent reduction in expulsions over time.

    Referrals to Law EnforcementThe number of referrals to law enforcement has increased since the 2008 policy was passed, and students are continuing to receive police tickets for minor behaviors that are best addressed within schools. In short, Denver Public School