Ask Ricardo Martinez, co-executive director of the Denver-based parent and student activist group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, and he will tell you that it’s not unheard of for kids at the city’s high schools and some junior highs to end up in handcuffs if they are caught chewing gum in class or talking back to a teacher.
Denver police officials insist it’s not quite that simple -- but they too have grown concerned.
On Tuesday, Padres & Jóvenes Unidos (Parents and Youth United) scored a victory in their long-running fight to lower the number of students moving between area schools and the juvenile justice system. Denver Public Schools and the city and county police department announced reforms to the agreement that puts armed police officers in Denver's high schools and some of its junior highs. Civil rights activists, school researchers and proponents of school discipline reform say the changes which Denver will begin implementing -- attempting to draw the line between infractions that should be handled by school officials and misbehavior that amounts to a crime -- rank among the most progressive in the nation.
Under the new agreement, police in schools -- called school resources officers -- will meet with school officials several times a year to make sure they are all “playing off the same sheet music,” when it comes to discipline, said Robert White, chief of the Denver Police Department.
Proponents of this reform say the district's changes come at a pivotal time. A federal school safety proposal Obama administration education officials introduced after the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., could soon make funding available for more armed law enforcement officers or counselors throughout the nation’s schools.
“It is a time that really is kind of reminiscent of the early period of zero tolerance [school discipline policies],” said Russell Skiba, director of Indiana University’s Equity Project, an educational research institution.
Skiba isn’t sure when the first police officers were assigned to schools around the country. But, by the late 1980s, figures such as Joe Clark -- the former principal of an inner-city Patterson, N.J., high school made famous by the 1989 film “Lean On Me” -- were being lauded nationally for their tough stands on school discipline and behavior. Clark notoriously roamed his school’s halls with a baseball bat and became a sort of icon for those hoping to wrest control of the nation’s most troubled schools.
Then, in 1999, Columbine happened. The two teenagers who shot so many of their classmates and set off bombs at the suburban Colorado high school probably wouldn’t have predicted that their actions would inflame the rhetoric around zero-tolerance discipline and the utility of armed police officers in schools. In the years that followed, school suspensions, expulsions and even student arrests surged around the country, Skiba said.
The theory, explained Skiba: Good-to-average kids would stay in line when they saw unruly kids severely punished. But in practice, schools with a police presence (sometimes referred to as “school resources officers”) were seeing lower test scores, higher drop-out rates and what students described in studies as lower-quality environments where black and Latino students in particular complained of feeling under siege.
“Once school resources officers are in place, you not only see these negative effects on learning, but there tends to be an increase in contact with the juvenile system,” Skiba said. “And the kids weren’t imagining things. Those arrests and charges tend to fall disproportionately on students of color, particularly African-Americans.”
The problem didn’t begin with the increase in school resources officers, and is likely linked to larger patterns of racial discrimination, said Skiba. Federal data indicates that as early as the 1970s, black students were twice as likely as white students to be suspended from the nation’s schools, according to Skiba. By 2010, black students were three and a half times more likely to be suspended than whites.
Similar patterns exist in student arrests. And while white students are more often arrested for objective infractions such as vandalism or bringing drugs to school, Skiba said his research has found that black students more often find themselves in custody for more subjective misbehavior, such as disorderly conduct and communicating threats.
In fact, more than 70 percent of students arrested in school or handed over to law enforcement in the 2009-2010 school year were black or Hispanic, according to a U.S. Education Department Office of Civil Rights study released in March 2012.
Skiba isn’t overstating the problem, said Judith Browne Dianis, a civil rights attorney and co-director of the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that studies school discipline issues.
Advancement Project researchers found that in Florida, after a 5-year-old girl threw a temper tantrum at school, police arrested her for disorderly conduct. A teenager in New York doodled on a desk and found herself charged with vandalism. They began working with Padres & Jóvenes Unidos.
“What we have is really a national crisis,” said Browne Dianis. “What once got you sent to the principal’s office can now get you hauled off to jail. And for some kids, that’s the entry point, their chances of getting involved with the criminal justice system again just skyrocket once that first arrest has been made.”
In Denver around 2000, the parents and students who make up Padres & Jóvenes Unidos first began pushing the district -- which includes some 84,000 kids -- to pay closer attention to the impact of its zero-tolerance discipline policy and school resources officers, Martinez said. In 2008, the district implemented a series of policy changes that included tracking the racial disparities in student suspensions, expulsions and arrests.
Since the 2003-04 school year, Denver’s school suspensions have dropped 44 percent and expulsions nearly 57 percent, according to data provided by the Advancement Project. And the share of students referred to police or arrested at schools dropped about 63 percent during that same period. But parents like Martinez remained concerned.
During the 2011-12 school year, 512 Denver students were arrested. Black and Latino students were overrepresented in this group, Martinez said (though exact numbers were not available). So Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, the district and police started talking about more policy reforms.
In Denver, where 17 school resources officers already monitor all of the high school students and some of the district’s junior highs, some officers serve as mentors and coaches. It’s one way that the officers can help create order without creating a quasi-police state, Skiba said. They also receive special cultural competency, psychological and crisis response training and guidance on dealing with special needs students.
“We want to keep more kids in schools where they can learn and grow, where they belong instead of hauling them to jail," said White, the Denver police chief. "It’s really that simple and that big.”
In January, just weeks after the Newtown shooting, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, talked to The Huffington Post about the federal proposal to make funds available for additional school resources officers or counselors. While serving as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Duncan faced the challenge of trying to balance school safety with overly assertive discipline.
"There's no reason why additional school resources have to drive up the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline," Duncan said. "Execution is really important. Taking time to train people in a really thoughtful way."
In Denver, police and school officials are trying.