How We Are Successfully Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Denver

Undoing decades of systematic injustices has required community-driven discipline reform and leaders willing to accept accountability.

When we started our End the School-to-Jail Track campaign ten years ago, the zero-tolerance policies that led to the suspension, expulsion, and arrest of students of color for minor misbehaviors constituted a problem with no name. We now know it as the school-to-prison pipeline, and our community-driven discipline reforms at Padres & Jovenes Unidos (PJU) have accomplished what many deemed improbable: we've pushed open the door of academic opportunity for students of color in an education system rife with discrimination, racism, and inequities.

Our new report, "Lessons in Racial Justice and Movement Building: Dismantling the School-To-Prison Pipeline in Colorado and Nationally," details our decade of policy and legislative victories—and most importantly, it offers lessons from ten years of organizing.

Paramount to our success was the realization that victory hinged on unity between people who truly understand systemic injustices. When we first started, our base and network of allies were almost entirely from the Latino community in Denver. In the last ten years, we've built a multiracial coalition that includes educators, the faith community, civil rights organizations, and others. Nationally, our ten-year partnership with the national civil rights organization Advancement Project has been critical to our success. Advancement Project used community lawyering and strategic communications to support community-driven reform. Coalition building like this among resource allies and other organizations has been critical to our success.

We also learned that we not only needed to engage students and families who were most affected by the school-to-prison pipeline, but that we also needed to provide data and resources that validated their realities. Understanding the nature of structural racism, and having facts and figures that "backed up" lived experiences emboldened our community to speak truth to power and demand change. Further, we committed ourselves to changing the public narrative, to change the debate on the need for racial justice in our schools. We've learned through the years that when political education is popular and accessible--whether it's through radio, community newspapers, social media, larger regional newspapers, local TV news, or other media--it is instrumental in helping the community understand that they are not alone.

As history has shown us time and again, it is only the organized strength of the people most affected that can change the balance of power and force officials to reconsider systems of inequity and dramatically shift the policies that create them.

Our accomplishments are proof that these strategies are working. The successes includes the Smart School Discipline Law, which improved academic outcomes by keeping students in school and learning; an intergovernmental agreement between the Denver Police Department and Denver Public Schools (DPS) to limit and define the role of police in schools; and the enactment of a district-wide Code of Conduct which places limits on the use of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and arrests, and which calls for ending racial disparities in discipline.

Besides these legislative and policy wins, we've also seen dramatic decreases in school-based arrests, expulsions, and suspensions, particularly for students of color. From 2003 to 2013, for students of color in DPS, out-of-school suspensions were down by 58 percent; expulsions were down by 54 percent; and referrals to law enforcement were down by 57 percent.

Even with these dramatic decreases, we understand that the core of the school-to-prison pipeline is a struggle that will not end with the passage of policies, no matter how good they are. To ensure that these reforms are real in every classroom, we've learned that we must also actively build accountability structures that bring all stakeholders together.

Annually, we convene a school discipline accountability session with DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, community members, parents, students, and administrators. At our last meeting this past April, youth leaders shared personal testimony, presented analysis of this year's data, and demanded that the school district do more and provide more concrete solutions. With this annual accountability session and with our Know Your Rights Campaign, students and parents are empowered to defend and protect the rights they've won under the new policies.

This, perhaps, is the most important lesson we've learned.

By insisting that the political agenda be responsive to our needs and by inserting ourselves into the accountability process and creating community-driven methods of accountability, we are chipping away at systemic barriers to political participation. The implication of this type of participatory democracy goes beyond school discipline in Denver. It is the beginning of a just democracy, one that we all deserve.

Ricardo Martinez is the Co-Director of Padres & Jovenes Unidos.