A year after a state bill to curb suspensions of young students died in the legislature, advocates have decided not to bring forward a new version, citing difficulty finding enough common ground with opponents.
The decision represents a setback for a coalition of Colorado advocates who had initially hoped the state would be a frontrunner on early childhood discipline reform but now face uncertainty about the feasibility of state-level policy change.
“We’re really disappointed,” said Corrine Rivera-Fowler, policy director at the Denver-based advocacy organization Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, a member of the coalition. “We are seeing a lot of partisan politics at the legislature and actually saw less support … to even introduce a bill.”
Last year, late-breaking resistance from a group representing rural school districts — the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance — sidelined the early childhood discipline bill.
Michelle Murphy, the alliance’s executive director, said her group had productive conversations with the coalition this year and made some progress.
But negotiations between the advocacy coalition and rural district representatives didn’t resolve all their disagreements, said Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, a member of the coalition.
Most but not all concerns this year came from the alliance. Among several that were discussed were whether to add language about drug offenses or alter the three-day suspension limit.
Early this week, the coalition’s steering committee decided not to pursue a bill during the current legislative session and “to spend more time working on the policy concepts … with an eye toward next year,” Jaeger said.
Both Murphy and Jaeger say their respective groups are leaving the door open for future talks.
Last year’s early childhood discipline bill would have limited out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in kindergarten through second grade, as well as preschoolers in state-funded programs. Suspensions would have been permitted only if a child endangered others at school or posed a serious safety threat, or if school staff exhausted all other options. In general, suspensions would have been limited to three days.
Supporters of such policies, which are gaining traction in other states and some large school districts in Colorado and beyond, say sending kids home from school for acting out doesn’t change their behavior. It also harms students educationally and disproportionately affects boys and children of color, supporters say
But some of Colorado’s rural school leaders feared the bill would take away one of their few tools for addressing behavior problems in the classroom. They also said they need more help with students’ mental health needs.
“Suspensions and expulsions are certainly a last resort,” said Murphy, “but due to lack of mental health resources and other supports for these kids, sometimes we just have no options.”
A Chalkbeat analysis of three years of data provided by the Colorado Department of Education shows that young students are suspended in all types of districts, and while dozens of rural districts suspend no young students at all, others post the highest suspension rates in the state.
Across Colorado, the use of suspensions for kindergarten through second grade students is growing slightly and young boys, especially black boys but also Hispanic boys, receive a disproportionate number of them.
Research shows that implicit racial and gender biases play a role in which children teachers watch for possible misbehavior and how they react to such behavior.
Rosemarie Allen, president and CEO of the Institute for Racial Equity and Excellence, said it’s not that educators intend to target certain children. But she said much of the state’s mostly white female teacher workforce lacks training on serving students who come from different backgrounds.
“Until we can really embrace that our black boys in our schools are victims of implicit bias and teaching strategies that are not aligned with their cultural ways of being, we’re going to continue having these problems,” she said.
Even as the push for a state law on early childhood discipline has foundered, several large Colorado districts have taken their own steps to address the issue. Last summer, the Denver school district passed a policy to limit suspensions of preschool through third grade students. District leaders in Jeffco and Aurora have also recently launched teacher training and other efforts to reduce out-of-school suspensions as well as discipline disparities associated with gender and race or ethnicity.
While advocates still hope to see state legislation in the future, they take some consolation in the growing number of district-level initiatives.
“We see a lot of policy momentum from the local level pushing up,” said Rivera-Fowler, of Padres. “When we see districts doing it on their own, it certainly builds the movement.”