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Brilliant, Thoughtful… And Struggling

The Inequities Of Zero Tolerance

If you’ve happened upon my column over the past year in these pages, then you may already know I’m a Stedman parent and an active participant in Park Hill Neighbors For Equity in Education, which is working to achieve exactly what its name suggests. I also work as a school psychologist at a remarkable small alternative high school in Northwest Denver, called Academy of Urban Learning (AUL Denver).

Our kids at AUL are a brilliant, thoughtful, and introspective bunch, though many have struggled to feel successful in their educational careers up until now.

I recently sat talking with one of those brilliant kids, and asked him when he first experienced trouble in school. Without missing a beat, he replied, “Second grade. That’s when I got suspended for the first time. To be fair though, I probably deserved it.”

“What made you think you deserved it?” I asked. “I hit a kid, and they had one of those, what’s it called, zero-tolerance things,” was his response.

In the mid-90s, schools began to roll out “zero-tolerance policies” nationwide. Schools that have adopted these policies won’t tolerate any kind of misbehavior or violation of school rules, regardless of circumstance. There’s no asking why the behavior occurred, or working with the student to remedy their actions. Instead, students are suspended or expelled, and often receive immediate contact or consequence from school-based law enforcement officers (SROs), thus funneling children directly from school into the criminal justice system. This is called the School-to-Prison Pipeline.

When he stopped caring

When a fifth-grade student can’t read at a fifth grade level, it would be abhorrent to shame them for failing to learn. Instead, supports should be put in place to ensure the student’s needs are being met, and to help bring them up to grade level.

Somehow we have forgotten that children come to school to learn not just how to read, but how to behave and socialize as well. Motive for a child’s behavior can often be complex, and related to circumstances such as poverty, abuse, neglect, or other factors contributing to toxic stress. But instead of receiving compassion, support, and intervention, children with problem behaviors are often pushed out of school.

When removed from the school environment, these children (the most in need of behavioral support) lose access to learning from positive peer interactions that are supervised and facilitated by trained educators. Further, when the student returns to school, they are stigmatized for their “bad” behavior, both by peers and adults alike, impacting their ability to form strong connections at school, and increasing their risk for criminal activity.

After my student told me about his first suspension in second grade, I asked him what happened when he returned to school. He replied, “They just sat me in the back, let me do me, and then called my mom every day after school.” He says that’s about when he stopped caring for school – because that’s when school stopped caring for him.

Check out these numbers

It should come as no surprise that students most impacted by zero-tolerance policies are children of color and children with disabilities — and it starts early. In September, I shared with you this data from the U.S. Department of Education: black children represent 19 percent of preschool enrollment, but 47 percent of the out-of-school suspensions . . . in preschool!

In DPS, the school board implemented a policy in the 2017-2018 school year to reduce the number of early childhood (preschool through third grade) suspensions and expulsions. In 2015-16 alone, there were 500 of these early childhood incidents.

The new policy is certainly a step in the right direction. But, during the 2018/2019 school year, a total of 431 white students were suspended, compared to 2,040 Hispanic/Latino students, and 1,185 black students.

Despite accounting for a quarter of the DPS student body, white students made up 11 percent of the total out of school suspensions, compared to 52 percent of Hispanic/Latino students and 30 percent of black students (who only account for 13 percent of the DPS student body).

In Colorado’s general population, 70 percent identify as white, 21 percent identify as Hispanic, 4 percent identify as black, and 1 percent identify as American Indian. Within the Colorado incarcerated population, however, 44 percent identify as white, 33 percent as Hispanic, 18 percent as black, and 4 percent as American Indian.

In other words, white people are significantly underrepresented within the prison system, while people of color are significantly overrepresented.

We can do better

This doesn’t just start in schools; it starts in preschools. This starts as implicit bias on the part of the white teacher, misinterpreting behavioral intent. It continues when children of color are suspended and expelled at a rate three times that of their white peers. It escalates when those same children are ostracized from school, and are unable to make healthy connections. And it culminates when those same children are handed over to the juvenile justice systems by their own educators, or, they eventually drop out.

As I shared with you last month, 84 percent of Colorado state prisoners never graduated high school.

According to the ACLU, the School-to Prison Pipeline begins with inadequate resources in public schools. While funding shortages affect schools across the board, the impact is greater at schools impacted by poverty, whom often have higher needs and can’t supplement their budgets with PTA fundraising.

These schools often struggle to find money in their budgets to provide physical materials to students (updated textbooks, paper, pens, calculators), access to support (social workers, psychologists, paraprofessionals), art and music instruction, or field trips. These inequitable education environments lead to disengaged students, low graduation rates, and increased risk of court ¬involvement.

While all of our Greater Park Hill neighborhood elementary schools are making strides and working hard to provide high-quality education to all students, the truth is, there is a gap in the distribution of resources among them. We can do better for our children, and your voice matters in making that change.

Join us at one of any number of upcoming Imagine One Park Hill Community Engagement Sessions. Dates and times can be found at PHNEE.org/oneparkhill.

Erin Pier is a mother of three, Stedman parent, and school psychologist at AUL Denver. She is an active member of the Park Hill Neighbors For Equity In Education, which works toward diversity, equity, and inclusion in all schools in the neighborhood. For more information, check out the group’s Facebook page at facebook.com/phnee, or send an email to info@phnee.org.


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