An Interview with Catherine Strode
State Representative James Coleman (House District 7) is very proud that the education bill he is sponsoring has support across both aisles in the Colorado legislature. House Bill 17-1211 calls for a pilot program to provide educators with professional development in culturally responsive methods of discipline. In an interview with Catherine Strode, Representative Coleman says he was ‘appalled’ to learn over 7000 young children in preschool through third grade were suspended from Colorado schools last year. He adds most of those suspensions were disproportionately experienced by children of color.
Do you think school suspensions are discriminatory to children of color?
“Absolutely. I don’t just think the suspensions are discriminatory. We know the suspensions are discriminatory because of the fact it is disproportionately impacting black and brown boys and girls. If you know you have a smaller population of African Americans in the state of Colorado, how is it that we are one of the highest groups that is suspended? That is interesting to me. We don’t have as many students but we still have the highest number per capita, if you will, of suspensions. It’s the same conversation you have with incarceration. The data shows that. Students have disciplinary issues all the time but at that level, 7000 students, was appalling to me. The things that make that such an alarming number is the grade level at which we did that, preschool through third grade. I thought it was important we do something about that. I believe this is a good first step to help amend this problem.”
What does the bill do?
“House Bill 17- 1211 provides supports for our teachers in two ways. It provides them with mental health supports. Teachers go to school to learn how to be teachers, to educate our children in the classroom. They are not meant to be behavioral science experts. This bill says, ‘Let’s give you some extra cultural tips to help look at those things we don’t always identify in our youngest children.’ Instead of saying, ‘Let’s just get you out of class because we don’t know how to deal with you. Let’s figure out what else is going on here on a psychological level.’ The second part is cultural sensitivity. We want to know culturally, also socially and economically, what you are coming from. If you’re coming into a classroom on an empty stomach, you have issues at home, or you have a single parent family. What is it you are dealing with? That’s what this bill does. It provides teachers resources to educate them on that.”
Is this also a research bill?
“It does research on what’s going on with suspension. In addition to research, we’re providing the teachers the resources they need to be able to directly impact changing this suspension problem. Sometimes teachers don’t know how to deal with those cultural differences. Maybe they’ve grown up somewhere else, or they’re not from this community, or they never had the situation. For them to get that extra training to say, ‘Okay, something else is going on here. What is it?’ To understand how to have that conversation with their students.”
What stakeholder groups are backing this?
“The stakeholder groups are: Padres & Jovenes Unidos, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Democrats for Education Reform, the Colorado Education Association. They see the importance of investing in our teachers and making sure we don’t continue to sacrifice students over time through suspensions. If you’re not in the classroom, you’re not learning. I think everybody can agree with that. It goes back to looking at children and saying, ‘What is it about you we don’t understand?’ “
What do you hope the impact of this bill will be?
“I think the impact of this bill is to ultimately reduce suspensions and expulsions and to create a culture where this doesn’t keep happening disproportionately. If you don’t create a system of consistency, we will continue to see suspensions rise again. We, as a state, need to make sure our parents know it’s not okay for students not to be in school. It doesn’t help with higher education. It doesn’t help with incarceration. It doesn’t help with the lack of work force development. We’re almost last in funding as a state in K through 12 education across the country. We’re also not doing too well in terms of kids going to college. We have kids who live right next to these colleges and universities but don’t go to them. That is one of the things suspension leads to. The first step in Pre K through third grade is to start a pattern, create a mind set for that child that they’re not supposed to be here. I think we have to figure out a way to reduce suspensions for that purpose. I think that’s what this bill does.”
Catherine Strode is Advocacy Denver’s Communications and Policy Specialist. She holds a Masters degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Health Care Policy. Catherine publishes Policy Perspective, featuring interviews with state policy makers on issues that affect the work and mission of Advocacy Denver.