Colorado ahead of national changes in zero-tolerance school discipline policies

A little-publicized amendment to the Colorado State Legislature’s 2012 school finance bill mandated sweeping changes to the way school districts discipline students.

House Bill 12-1345, known as the School Finance and School Discipline Bill, was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper on May 19, 2012, and moved Colorado schools away from criminalizing minor school discipline infractions — known as zero tolerance — that bill proponents said disproportionately affected students of color. Prior to zero-tolerance policies, most discipline infractions would have meant a visit to the principal’s office.

“All of the research told us that zero tolerance didn’t work,” said Chris Harms, director of the Colorado School Safety Resource Center which is a part of the Colorado Department of Public Safety. “Zero tolerance was so restrictive that even if a second grader brought a butter knife to school, the incident was treated the same as if an 11th grader had brought a butcher knife. The 2012 bill directed schools to examine the consequences of minor occurrences — including possibly incarceration — and do everything possible to keep the student connected to school.”

The bill also expanded reporting requirements for criminal acts in school. Both law-enforcement agencies and state District Attorneys now must submit annual data to the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice that details student arrests and citations on school grounds or at school events. The data tracks student age, school and race or ethnicity.

A major provision of the law was to require school districts to incorporate disciplinary interventions that reduce the number of expulsions and referrals to law enforcement and to foster intervention approaches that minimize student exposure to the criminal justice system.

Other provisions of the 2012 law require school districts to develop student disruptive behavior plans, establish diversion programs as an alternative to arrest or expulsion, eliminate mandatory expulsions for everything except students who bring guns to school and sets statewide training standards for School Resource Officers.

National directives announced
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a report on March 21 that examined all 97,000 of the nation’s public schools and its 16,500 school districts — representing 49 million students — that showed students of color are disproportionately affected by suspensions and zero-tolerance policies in schools. The press release explaining the report said that “students of color are suspended more often than white students, and black and Latino students are significantly more likely to have teachers with less experience who aren’t paid as much as their colleagues in other schools.”

The U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education jointly announced in early January guidelines for school districts across the nation to move away from zero-tolerance polices, particularly those that might even unintentionally promote unlawful racial discrimination in school discipline.

The announcement stated that nationwide Civil Rights Data Collection has “demonstrated that students of certain racial or ethnic groups tend to be disciplined more than their peers. For example, African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended. Although African-American students represent 15 percent of students in the CRDC, they make up 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once, and 36 percent of students expelled. Further, over 50 percent of students who were involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American.”

Colorado two years ahead
“Colorado definitely was ahead of the curve in eliminating the zero-tolerance policies,” said Kim Dvorchak, executive director and founder of the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition. Dvorchak helped draft and pass the 2012 discipline bill, and worked alongside the Denver nonprofit Padres Y Jovenes Unidos as well as primary bill sponsor then Rep. B.J. Nikkel, a Larimer County Republican.

Nikkel, who at the time represented House District 49 which encompasses all of Larimer County except Fort Collins and Loveland, said the effort involved a bipartisan coalition of legislators, law enforcement, judicial, school administrators and teachers.

“For criminal justice in general, there were some insane policies that had been enacted to give the appearance that we (the Legislature) were tough on crime, including enacting laws that criminalized minor offenses that probably shouldn’t have been criminalized,” Nikkel said.

“As a legislator, my focus was to move us away from mandatory sentencing and stop the criminalization of our youth. There was clear evidence of students getting in trouble for things they shouldn’t have been cited for. We were ahead of the curve in changing bad policies, not just in school discipline, but also in the criminal justice arena.”

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Local data
Two years after the enactment of the bill intended to eliminate the zero-tolerance school-to-prison pipeline, Poudre School District data shows that school expulsions and suspensions have gone down dramatically. In school year 2010-11, there were 338 classroom suspensions. In 2012-13, the number dropped to 20.

Referrals to law enforcement went from 224 in 2010-11 to 76 in 2012-13. Of those referrals, data submitted by Fort Collins Police Services for schools in Fort Collins showed that about 15 percent of SRO citations or arrests involved students who are Black, Hispanic or American Indian. Poudre School District 2011-12 school year demographics show that 20 percent of the student population was Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino or Indian

“The reduction in the number of incidents over the three-year period can likely be attributed to multiple things,” said Todd Lambert, assistant superintendent of elementary schools. “There was a more pronounced focus (in the Poudre School District) on developing behavior plans for students. This does not mean that student safety was sacrificed, nor does it mean that we weren’t developing plans already. It simply means that school leaders, teachers, and parents were able to take a more comprehensive approach to issues associated with behavior.”

Lambert  said that the district’s emphasis on curriculum quality also helped reduced the number of expulsions and suspensions.

“Our teachers and building leaders have always seen the connection between the engagement level of the student and his or her behavior,” said Lambert. “We are also becoming more and more aware of how to provide our students with meaningful work and opportunities that increase their level of engagement. In other words, one of the best discipline strategies is an engaging curriculum. Our talented teachers understand this, and work to make this happen on a daily basis.”

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