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School Police and Principals Forced to Undergo Trainings in Implicit Racism

As Denver bucks the national trend of criminalizing student misbehavior, its school district is also taking a stance against prejudice punishments.

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Race Matters

Denver’s 2008 rollback of the zero-tolerance policies it adopted from the state didn’t have the same impact for all its students. Black students make up 15 percent of the city’s public school population, but comprise 32 percent of the kids who are suspended, expelled and arrested. Put another way: For every one white student who missed class time during the 2011-2012 academic year due to an out-of-school suspension, about five black and two Latino students missed school time for the same reason.

This racial imbalance appears with striking consistency across the country, and with just about every level of granularity one can use to examine the data. Such inequitable application of tough school discipline policies might be justifiable if, as zero-tolerance proponents have suggested, black students misbehaved more frequently than their non-black peers. Yet, there’s scant evidence to support this idea. In fact, researchers have found that white students who are suspended or expelled are far more likely to be reprimanded for objective infractions like graffiti, or cutting class, or smoking, whereas black students are more often referred to the principal’s office for subjective offenses like being “disrespectful” or “disruptive.” And some data suggests that black students are treated more harshly than their non-black peers for the same offenses.

Facing Race

The new Denver agreement compels officials to directly confront uncomfortable and often subtle issues of race. Police officers, principals and security guards will all be required to undergo trainings in implicit bias, adolescent development and the needs of LGBTQ youth. And according to Jason Sentacruz, an Advancement Project attorney who helped craft the new contract, police officers will be required to “examine how racism and implicit bias affect policing and behavior on school grounds.”

The work is hardly over, though. In the new agreement, the district will convene regular meetings with the very organizations and stakeholders that pushed them to reform their school discipline practices. But all parties seem to be optimistic.

“When you are not locking up all these students for minor offenses you will find students will develop a positive outlook on police on campus. With this work you’re going to find that school climate is going to improve, and you’re going to find that school campuses are safer,” said Judge Steven Teske, a national figure in school discipline reform efforts. “There is another way to do this, and Denver has led the way.”

Julianne Hing is a reporter and blogger for covering immigration, education, criminal justice, and occasionally fashion and pop culture.
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