In places often farther from such attacks, impassioned calls have been made for doubling up on officers or creating school police forces as the nation grapples with how to respond to the Dec. 14 rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
In Denver, the approach will be decidedly different. Leaders from the city’s police department and public school system are to sign an eight-page contract that will bring detail to often-murky questions about the role of police in schools. The agreement emphasizes differences between student offenses that should be handled by educators and those that need police action, urges de-escalation of campus conflict when possible, and supports “restorative justice” practices that focus on making amends for misconduct rather than punishing for it.
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the move marks a “step forward” for the system of 84,000 students. “We believe that an effective restorative justice approach makes schools safer, helps keep our kids in school and on track to graduation, and makes kids learn from their mistakes and make them right,” he said.
In day-to-day school life, Boasberg said, he expects less reliance on police ticketing and out-of-school suspension.
“It’s not, ‘You did something wrong, go home for five days and watch television,’ ” he said. “It’s, ‘What did you do wrong? Who did you harm? How are you going to make them whole, and what are you learning from this?’ ”
Still, safety remains the priority, officials said. Denver will suspend and expel students when misconduct is severe, and police will make arrests and issue citations.
But Boasberg and others expect the agreement to continue a down trend in such actions. Expulsions have dropped by two-thirds over two years, and out-of-school suspensions this school year “are on pace to be half of what they were three years ago,” he said. Yet, he said, “our schools feel safer.”
The agreement puts into writing changes that have been underway in Denver for several years and have been driven in part by a grass-roots group, Padres y Jovenes Unidos (Parents and Youth United), which first took up discipline issues a decade ago when tickets were common for talking back or tussling in a hallway. Denver adopted a new discipline code several years ago, and last year a new state law addressed issues such as training of police and zero-tolerance practices.