Discipline concerns flare in Denver schools

With a rising din of complaints from teachers about increasing discipline problems in Denver classrooms, district officials Monday updated the school board on plans to pump $1.5 million into mental health services for students next year, create a new out-of-school suspension option and add additional programming for troubled students.


The aim of the discipline policy, revised in recent years, is to reduce in-school or out-of-school suspensions and expulsions so that students can continue to be in a learning environment. It also aims to erase the longstanding disparity between white students and students of color in terms of consequences for student misbehavior.

However, some teachers are complaining about the policy’s numerous tiered approaches to handle each infraction, abundant paperwork and uneven distribution of resources for teachers and students. That complexity has led to confusion, some teachers say, which in turn means students are getting away with bad behavior that wreaks havoc on a quality learning environment.

Board member Andrea Merida asked for an update on the discipline policy from the district’s student services office after a 14-year-old girl was attacked at Henry World Middle School on March 8. The girl’s classmates lured the teacher out of the classroom so another girl could attack the victim. Students videotaped the assault and posted it on social media.

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And on March 20, 60 Bruce Randolph Middle School teachers, office staff and custodians sent a letter to Superintendent Tom Boasberg complaining about the policy. And 44 staff and teachers at Morey Middle School sent a letter the following day expressing similar concerns.

“The disproportionate amount of time and resources that in the past would have been spent on improving instruction is instead spent by our entire staff, including administrators, instructional team, support staff, and teachers on habitually disruptive students that continually return to our classrooms,” the letter from the teachers at Bruce Randolph states. “This has now reached a critical point.”

The teachers’ letter did not name specific incidents at the school. But Greg Ahrnsbrak, a PE teacher at Bruce Randolph who supports the letter, said that students have been caught with drugs, threatened to harm or kill teachers, or even threatened blow up the school “with no meaningful consequences.”

Ahrnsbrak said students caught fighting no longer automatically face suspension under the revised policy, which he said went into full effect at Bruce Randolph this year. As a result, he said, students with serious behavioral issues are being kept in class, disrupting the educational experience of other students.

The letter indicated that staff feel that their hands are “tied” and that they are “left with no alternatives.”

One Bruce Randolph teacher, who asked not to be identified, said that this year, 1,113 disciplinary “events” have been reported at the 600-student school. The teacher estimated that about a third of the school’s students were involved in the instances. She said seven students racked up 25 incidents each.

Ahrnsbrak said it’s his belief DPS is basically not allowing schools to effectively deal with habitually disruptive students “to make the numbers,” or ensure that the number of students being expelled or suspended keeps going down.

“Consequently, the message to all students is there are no limits,” Ahrnsbrak said.

District numbers paint different picture

District officials say that the policy is successfully reducing the number of students missing school for disciplinary infractions and is keeping schools safe. For instance, the number of out-of-school suspensions this year dropped 38 percent to 5,309 from 8,542 two years ago. Meanwhile expulsions have dropped to 69 from 108 two years ago. Most of the expulsions were for weapons violations, according to the report presented to the board.

But not all board members were feeling good about the numbers.

“If we’re looking at data so we can pat ourselves on the back when in fact teaching in some of our schools is being affected by the bad behavior — shame on us,” board member Jeannie Kaplan said. “I don’t know how we get an actual picture of what is going on.”

At Monday’s work session, Boasberg reinforced the district’s commitment to treating students equitably, keeping them in school when possible and emphasizing restorative justice programs. He described the district’s schools as “safe” and said “there’s lots of learning going on.”

“To get that balance right takes a heck of a lot of thought,” Boasberg said.

District staff highlighted additional money that will be made available next year to pay for increased mental health services for students. Specifically, $1.5 million will be spent on mental health services for students as follows:

  • $350,000 for elementary schools;
  • $650,000 for middle schools, high schools and turnaround schools;
  • $50,000 for innovation schools;
  • $151,000 for the Division of Student Services;
  • $120,000 PACE (Promoting Academics and Character Education) program expansion; and
  • $180,000 to outside mental health providers.

In addition, district staff are meeting with middle school communities this month to get feedback on the disciplinary policy’s implementation. Officials said they are also planning new school programs and pathways to support students who are struggling to succeed in a traditional district classroom.

Eldridge Greer, head of DPS psychological services, said the goal of the meetings is to find out what supports and services are necessary to ensure a positive school culture without “resulting in an inordinate number of students out of class.” Some board members expressed support for additional cultural competency and verbal de-escalation training for staff and teachers in light of concerns raised.

Greer acknowledged challenges the district faces dealing with students deemed “habitually disruptive,” and indicated a desire to nip certain student behaviors in the bud. One proposal is to implement a 15-day out-of-school suspension process with home-bound instruction in the highest need cases.

Assistant Superintendent Antwan Wilson told the board that having students misbehave on a regular basis “runs contrary to your student achievement goals.”

“We don’t want students to believe they can get away with inappropriate behaviors,” Wilson said. “That creates more inappropriate behaviors.”

Click on image to enlarge.

Board members also questioned a spike of incidents in the “detrimental behavior” category and shared colleagues’ concerns about the vagueness of the term.

Merida said she’s talked to some schools who say they used to have a restorative justice staff member who is no longer there, or other schools where there isn’t a room for a student “time-out.”

“What I fear is that we have a patchwork quilt when it comes to how we deal with some of these kids,” Merida said. “This has a lot of parents scared, it has a lot of teachers scared.”

However, Merida added, “I think we’re heading in the right direction.”

Bruce Randolph math and geography teacher Patrick Millican said he hopes the district further simplifies the policy and ensures that it has teeth.

“This has gotten to the point it’s beyond ridiculous,” Millican said. “There is no of set consequences for these kids’ actions. It’s not fair to those kids who come to school every day, work hard and try to get a good education.”

Discipline Update: Presentation to the board 5/13/13

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”