Advocates want reforms for how black and Latino students are disciplined at Denver schools

The group met with Superintendent Susana Cordova to discuss what they feel are disciplinary actions disproportionally affecting boys and men.
5 min. read
Padres and Jovenes Unidos youth leader Juan Evangelista leads chants at the front of a rally held by high school students in Ruby Hill after a multi-school walk-out. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver Public Schools has been placed on notice by community members who feel disciplinary actions in the district are disproportionally targeting the black and Latino boys and men.

The concerns aren't new, but last week the Latino advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos brought the issue directly to the attention of Superintendent Susana Cordova during a meeting.

The roughly two-hour meeting last week took place at Servicios De La Raza in Denver's west side. Padres & Jóvenes Unidos community organizer Hugo Juarez said they delivered a list of eight demands they would like the district to implement. Juarez said the majority of those in attendance were parents, teachers and students. About 80 people attended.

Black and Latino students together make up a majority of the district's  92,000-plus students.

Superintendent Susana Cordova discusses the first day of the Denver's teacher strike during a press conference on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, at the Emily Griffith Campus in downtown Denver. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

Cordova said the meeting showcased just important it is for the district to work both inside its schools and with the community. She heard from parents who said their students were pushed out due to district policies.

Those stories aren't just coming from other parents. She's hearing about them in her own household.

Cordova said her daughter, a high school student at DPS, told her last year she felt her race played a role in how she was disciplined. Cordova is the district's first Latina superintendent.

"As a parent, that's hard. I don't know what to tell her about it being true or false," Cordova said, adding that what happened to her daughter is minor compared to some of the things happening to other students. "I believe that these things happen. We need to be able to do better."

Juarez called the meeting a good start. They're planning on meeting with Cordova again in the near future.

"She is willing to sit down and talk about this, and that's something we know," Juarez said. But he also seemed cautious about his optimism. "I guess we'll see when we meet her (again) in a few weeks."

Among the demands is a call for the elimination of school resource officers.

Juarez, who has worked with Padres & Jóvenes Unidos since December, said Cordova has been aware of the issue for years, having worked in the district for decades. He stressed the list of demands came from collective input.

"We are not making up those demands," Juarez said. "If she really wanted to commit to solving those issues, she would have said yes to them (during the meeting)."

The list includes ending the school resource officer program by 2020, defunding the Department of Safety and conducting an independent, district-wide audit of discipline data.

Another major concern brought up during the meeting were students being "pushed out" of schools. Juarez said it happens when students are forced to move schools based on grades, behavior or performance without receiving adequate counseling or resources to help them stay in place.

Cordova last week heard personal stories from students who felt they had been pushed out by the district.

A Denver police officer parked outside of Lincoln High School on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

She heard from Lorena Limon, who has two children who formerly attended Lincoln High School. Speaking in Spanish, Limon said this week her children were pushed out and felt they were treated "like gang members." She said her kids were targeted because of some of their clothing items.

"To me, it seemed ridiculous, exaggerated that they couldn't have red laces in their shoes," Limon said. She continued, "We don't want students to feel accosted. We want students to feel supported by the school staff ... we don't want them to feel criminalized."

Because the district received the demands that evening, Cordova said she wasn't in a position to immediately agree to the terms.

For starters, she opposes getting rid of the safety department.

"We are suggesting just calling the police, not having cops in schools," Juarez said, referencing emergencies.

School safety was pushed into the spotlight last week after dozens of districts including Denver closed as authorities searched for a woman who allegedly made threats. To Cordova, it was a reminder that safety needs have a balanced approach.

But she noted that unlike what happened last week, what parents and students brought up during the meeting happens on a daily basis.

Cordova said the "over-policing" of black and Latino kids "is a very real issue." One of the steps Cordova seemed open to exploring was reviewing the district's current policies. She wants to "review, reaffirm and readjust" restorative practices and reaffirm the district's commitment to trauma-informed practices.

Cordova said the school board will be hosting the advocacy group in an upcoming meeting to continue the conversation.

It's the next step toward figuring out how the district will respond to the demands of the organization. She sees it as a chance to continue the conversation. She's tentatively planning on having the group attend a meeting this summer.

She envisions school spaces where everyone is comfortable and no one is singled out for their race.

"That's important that we work as hard as we can to create the environment that levels the playing field, not make things harder," Cordova said.

It's a picturesque vision she shares with Juarez.

"There's a lot of people that are really concerned," Juarez said. "They want to see Susana commit to those things."

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