First seen in the Colorado Springs Indy
On the third day of online school in August, Dani Elliott called her 12-year-old son. She was terrified. She told him to lock every door, turn off the lights and go to the basement until his father returned from a quick errand down the street.
Widefield School District 3’s two school resource officers (SROs), who are El Paso County Sheriff’s Office (EPSO) deputies, were on their way to her home for a welfare check. A teacher had reported Elliott’s son and his friend, another student taking classes at her home, for displaying what the teacher thought, but was not sure, was a toy gun during an online class.
Elliott’s first thought, she says, was of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy like her son who was killed by police in 2014 when an officer shot him because he thought his toy gun was real.
“It seems like almost every week there’s a new story, and I did not want my son to be the next headline of something that happened tragically at the hands of law enforcement because of a misunderstanding,” she says.
It seems like almost every week there’s a new story, and I did not want my son to be the next headline of something that happened tragically at the hands of law enforcement because of a misunderstanding.
—Dani Elliott, mother of 12-year-old suspended for displaying a toy gun
The SROs gave Isaiah a stern lecture with his father present and told him he could have been criminally charged with “interference with an educational institution.” He was not charged, but he was suspended by the school for five days for behavior which was “detrimental to the welfare, safety or morals of other pupils or school personnel” and violating district policies.
Before COVID-19 forced public education to adapt to online schooling, nationwide data showed nonwhite students, specifically Black and Native students, faced higher rates of punishment in school than their peers. According to data collected by the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) for the 2018-2019 school year, Black and Native students in Colorado were disciplined at rates almost three times higher than white students and five times higher than Asian students.
Experts say implicit bias and racism result in higher rates of punishment of minority students, which contributes to the “school-to-prison” pipeline where students of color are more likely to end up incarcerated and less likely to graduate than white students. Elliott believes her son was a victim of that same bias, only in a new online setting. And there are other cases like Isaiah’s. In September a 9-year-old Black student was suspended in Louisiana when a teacher saw a BB gun in his room during an online class.
Locally, Elliott says the school handled the situation poorly. “Not only did [they] fail to protect his safety, but [they] endangered his life, potentially, by calling the police,” she says.
But the district says it acted with Isaiah’s well-being in mind, though it is not policy to send SROs to the home.
Isaiah’s parents pulled him out of D-3’s Grand Mountain school after the incident due to, they say, fears for his safety. But Elliott says Isaiah’s interaction with the EPSO deputies took away a piece of his innocence. She says he was in tears after the visit and thought he was going to jail. All of a sudden, an already difficult school year became even harder.
El Paso County school districts reflect the discipline disparities found across the state and nation. In D-3 and Colorado Springs School District 11 (D-11 has one of the highest populations of African American students in El Paso County), Black students faced discipline around two times more often than white students during the 2018-19 school year, according to the CDE.
In Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, one of the least diverse districts (Black students make up less than 3 percent of the student body), Black students are 2.5 times more likely to be disciplined than their white peers. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that Black students were three times more likely to be arrested or referred to law enforcement than white students nationwide in 2015-16.
Isaiah has also been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) Elliott says — a second strike. Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended as other students, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The number of suspended Black students with disabilities is even higher: More than one in four Black or Native boys and one in five girls of color with disabilities were suspended from school during their academic careers, according to a 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.
Nationwide, students are now referred to law enforcement for behavior that a principal would normally handle, says Marc Schindler, the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a national research and policy organization focused on juvenile and criminal justice issues. According to their 2020 report, more than a quarter-million students were charged with misdemeanors in 2010 from SROs and entered the legal system for behavior school administrators would normally handle.
The use of SROs rose sharply after school shootings — committed almost exclusively by white males —became more common. But Schindler says SROs introduce bias and the punitive nature of law enforcement into the schools they are supposed to protect, negatively impacting students of color.
“There’s nothing to show that [SROs] will reduce the number of school shootings, and actually, what we end up getting are these unintended consequences, not that schools are safer, but that students are more likely to be referred to the justice system, particularly Black and brown students,” Schindler says.
“What we see is far, far too often this type of adolescent behavior being dealt with in a police precinct. And again, that disproportionately impacts young students of color more so than white students,” he says.
Young Black boys are often thought to be older than they are, Schindler says, adding that probation officers are also more likely to interpret Black boys’ normal adolescent behavior as criminal in nature than that of their white counterparts.
Schools that still have more traditional punitive policies are now applying them to a pandemic-adjusted school year. So punishment that used to result from actions in brick-and-mortar school is coming into the home.
“I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think that kids are going to not be exhibiting adolescent behavior in the environment that they’re in. That’s always happening no matter where they are,” Schindler says. He suggests supportive interventions to get students back on track.
“Quite frankly, unless there’s an imminent and significant danger to somebody, the appropriate response is much more often than not going to be positive interventions, not a punitive response,” he says.
“Those types of policies and approaches we would encourage for schools to have in the best of times. And they should have those types of policies and approaches when kids are in a remote situation,” Schindler says.
Almost a month after Isaiah was suspended, his parents spoke in front of the D-3 School Board about the damage resulting from the incident, demanding systemic changes to address the disproportionate punishment of nonwhite students. Multiple community members and organizations were there in support. One was a Widefield alum, now a mother with four children who have attended the district’s schools.
Alexis Knox-Miller, who is also the recently hired director of equity and inclusion for D-11, told the Widefield board that she was angry — but she wasn’t surprised.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and almost three months before Isaiah was suspended, Knox-Miller sent a detailed letter to the board asking them to address what “Black Lives Matter” meant to the district. She included five requests — from creating an equity policy, to examining achievement and discipline data for “disproportionate trends,” to crafting a plan to “mitigate them.” She received one response, from Carlos Gonzalez, out of five members on the board.
At the board meeting in September, Gonzalez was also the only one who responded to the community members.
“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired and asking for what’s owed us, which is an education for our children,” Knox-Miller told them. “We pay taxes. And as a taxpayer in this district, I’m no longer asking.”
Knox-Miller said her “stomach dropped” when she heard about Isaiah. “That bias that our kids are bigger and more dangerous than [white kids] are is real. And so the fact that you sent a police officer, saying there was a gun in the home, to this boy’s house is crazy to me. It’s a death sentence,” she says.
“Our kids deserve the best education. They deserve the best outcomes. And Widefield needs to be prepared to do that,” Knox-Miller says.
Both D-11 and D-12 say they have taken steps to address discipline disparities. D-12 Superintendent Walt Cooper says that the staff began implicit bias and diversity training in 2019 after a few Black families voiced concerns about a lack of action addressing race in the district. The district has trained in culturally responsive teaching and bias awareness. But the pandemic has thrown a wrench into the training this year. Cooper says it is hard to effectively engage in the classes and intensive group discussions online.
“If we’re just focusing on discipline, for example, what we need to make sure is that consequences and expectations are consistent among all students, whether that be students from different races,” Cooper says, adding a consistent standard needs to be applied “both in terms of expectations, and in terms of consequences.”
D-11, which has some of the highest rates of disciplinary actions against students of all races countywide, has taken numerous steps to address the issue, including implementing cultural competency training for leadership and staff. It also created one of the first equity policies in the region, which addresses the historical achievement inequities between nonwhite and white students, Devra Ashby, the chief communications officer for D-11, wrote in an email to the Indy.
The district also created and filled a new position, director of equity and inclusion, with Knox-Miller. Her job is to lead efforts to address inequities. D-11 has changed policies as well; it’s created a new discipline matrix and guidance documents, and focused on restorative practices and site-based alternatives to suspension. These processes have not changed for the virtual classrooms, Ashby says.
“Virtual classrooms are still classrooms,” she says, adding there have been fewer disciplinary actions with online schooling this year and there has been staff training on when schools have the authority to act.
“We do not apply blanket responses to discipline issues and treat every behavior incident as a unique event, examining all the factors before issuing a resolution or consequence,” Ashby says. Cooper says that D-12 has not changed its discipline policy for online classes.
Elliott says D-3’s response has been insincere and offensive. Isaiah still has a suspension on his record, and she says that they have failed to address her demands.
Samantha Briggs, the district’s spokesperson, wrote in an email that the SRO was involved to “ensure safety.” She continued, “We regret the inadvertent fear caused for the family and we empathize with them.” Briggs says that the district is waiting to meet with the family and address their concerns.
D-3 announced Oct. 9 that culturally responsive staff training will start this fall, and the district will hire an equity, diversity and inclusion firm to perform a full audit on the district. “This is not in response to this one incident or our [September] board meeting. These are things we actually started talking about in March,” Briggs, the spokesperson, says.
“We can always reflect on what we could have done better considering the circumstances. And so those are conversations we’ve been having,” Briggs says, adding district families will receive monthly updates on the district’s efforts to address bias and diversity.
We can always reflect on what we could have done better considering the circumstances. And so those are conversations we’ve been having.
—Samantha Briggs, District 3 spokesperson
Elliott says it’s a first step, but until the administration is held accountable and offers a public apology to Isaiah, she is “not backing down.”
Since her son’s suspension, Elliott has taken to the national stage to talk about Isaiah’s experience. She warns other parents of the risks of online school and raises awareness about the unequal punishment of Black and brown children. Isaiah is back in online school at a charter and regaining his confidence and sense of normalcy, she says.
Elliott isn’t planning on being quiet anytime soon. Her advocacy for her son has spread to other students. “I refuse to let society tell him what he is because they think [they] know; they don’t,” she says. “They don’t even give him a chance to figure out who he can become. He shouldn’t have to be labeled as a threat. He shouldn’t have to be seen as scary.”