#NeverAgain protest

‘Really scared and extremely angry’: Why Colorado students are walking out of school Wednesday

From left, Emanuel Lamboy, Jackie Estrada Hernandez, and Elena Skaro, eighth-graders at Grant Beacon Middle School. (Melanie Asmar)

They want this time to be different.

Whether they’re walking out of school on Wednesday to call for new gun laws or whether they’re “walking in” to broader community conversations about violence, Colorado students told Chalkbeat they want the 17 lives lost a month ago in Florida to serve as an impetus for changes that have proven elusive for years.

Students at dozens of schools around Colorado are planning to walk out at 10 a.m. Wednesday, part of a national action to commemorate the victims of the shooting in Parkland, Florida. EMPOWER, the youth branch of the Women’s March, has recorded more than 2,500 planned walkouts around the country.

The issue of mass shootings has a terrible resonance in Colorado, where the murder of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in 1999 shaped a generation. Last year, that attack fell off the list of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern American history.

Colorado has been the site of two other school shootings that quickly passed from national awareness: the 2006 Platte Canyon High School hostage crisis, in which Emily Keyes was killed, and the 2013 Arapahoe High School shooting, in which Claire Davis was killed.

Students in the Denver metro area also have a history of political activism. They’ve walked out in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and in support of classmates and teachers affected by President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Unlike in other parts of the country, many, though not all, school leaders here support and facilitate these walkouts, rather than threaten students with punishment.

At the same time, some students have chosen other ways to respond that they find more meaningful than walking out of school.

Here’s what these Colorado students had to say about why they’re doing what they’re doing:

“I was terrified of going to high school because I had heard of Columbine.”

Mariah Clute, a junior at Grandview High School in the Cherry Creek School District, was upset and worried after the shooting in Parkland. People with unstable minds know schools are easy targets, she said. It’s a feeling she’s lived with since middle school.

Back then, she said, “I was terrified of going to high school because I had heard of Columbine.”

Mariah Clute, a junior at Grandview High School in the Cherry Creek School District.

Clute, 17, plans to participate in Wednesday’s walkout because she wants to see real changes that make schools safer.

“I feel like even though this movement is getting pretty big, I think it will get even more attention as people show that they’re serious and they care about it.”

While Clute acknowledges that gun control is a “political minefield,” she said she’d like to see a return to an Obama-era rule that prevented some people with mental health conditions from buying guns.

She’d also like to see stepped-up school security. She’s heard talk about arming teachers and while she thinks that could help, she said, “I don’t feel like all teachers should have guns, at the same time.”

“Really scared and extremely angry”

Saroja Manickam, 15, is one of several students at Eagle Valley High School in western Colorado helping organize Wednesday’s walkout at her school. The sophomore, who said she’s been doing lockdown drills at school since first grade, was moved to get involved after the deadly shooting in Florida.

Saroja Manickam, a sophomore at Eagle Valley High School in western Colorado.

“When I read the news about the Parkland shooting I was just really scared and extremely angry about what was happening,” she said.

Manickam believes the Parkland shooting has resonated so strongly across the country because, “It’s the youth, it’s the kids from the actual shooting talking about it.”

Manickam said the point of her high school’s walkout is to spur action, though she also recognizes the tension in talking about gun control in a rural community where many people use firearms recreationally.

“We’re not saying we need to take away all guns,” she said. “This is to honor the victims and say something should be done.”

Manickam and her fellow walkout organizers have met with their principal and gotten permission to walk along a stretch of road in front of the school. She hasn’t made the sign she’ll carry yet, but she’s considering this message: “Could I be next?”

“Staying in and finishing what they started”

Eighteen-year-old Jabari Lottie is not planning to walk out of school Wednesday. Instead, the senior at northeast Denver’s Manual High School is helping plan a “walk-in” later this month so students from several nearby schools can come together to talk about gun violence.

The events that occurred happened while students were in the building,” Lottie said. “I feel like walking out is almost more disrespectful than staying in and finishing what they started.”

Manual High School student Jabari Lottie. (Courtesy Jabari Lottie)

Lottie has participated in protests before, joining other Manual students in walking out in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. He was also part of a walk-in at which Manual students hosted Denver police officers for a conversation about the relationship between law enforcement and the community. He said he preferred the conversation.

“We did a silent walkout and yeah, the people saw us in the streets, policemen saw us in the streets, but at the end of the day, it’s only a representation of what we think,” Lottie said. “But (with) a walk-in, we can really have a discussion.”

The planned walk-in on gun violence will feature students leading conversations about the necessity of guns and the dangers of them, the arguments for and against stricter gun control laws, and how other countries regulate guns compared to the United States, Lottie said.

Lottie said he believes something has to be done to keep people from killing each other with guns, a problem he sees as uniquely American. “If we all didn’t have guns, these altercations would not end in violence and mass shootings wouldn’t occur,” he said.

“It really does take a group of people to say we can’t take this anymore.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, a senior at Hinkley High School in Aurora, said the Parkland shooting had a magnified impact at her school when students were placed on lockout the same day.

It’s not entirely clear what happened. There was a report of someone in the school with a gun, Aurora police said, but a gun was never found. Three juveniles were charged with trespassing. A spokesman for the school district said the lockout was a precaution, and the police determined the school was safe.

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, Hinkley High School, Aurora (Courtesy Brianna Mauricio-Perez)

Mauricio-Perez said many students and parents feel the school district didn’t provide enough information about the incident and some question whether the correct response was used if the threat was reported inside the school.

“It started making us feel unsafe,” Mauricio-Perez said. “Even though nobody was hurt this time, what is it going to take for something to change?”

When she walks out Wednesday, Mauricio-Perez wants to send a message to her Aurora school district that communication should improve between students, parents, and officials so that all can work together to help keep schools safe. She also wants lawmakers to consider gun regulations.

“Things have to change,” she said. “It really does take a group of people to say we can’t take this anymore.”

“We need to show that this time will be different.”

A few weeks ago, Madeline Dean and several of her classmates from the Denver School of Science and Technology’s Stapleton campus went to the Colorado Capitol to testify against a bill that would have allowed people with concealed carry permits to bring handguns on to school grounds.

This bill, sponsored by a survivor of the Columbine massacre who now serves as the top Republican in the House, is part of Colorado’s perennial gun debate. Every year, Democrats kill this legislation after hours of emotional testimony.

It was there that students from DSST: Stapleton heard about the walkouts and started talking about doing their own. Many people thought Sandy Hook would be a turning point, said Dean, a senior, especially because the victims were so young. But nothing happened. She hopes this time is different.

“There is a lot of fear when you go to school and when you have lockdown drills,” Dean said. “In a lot of ways, students are directly affected by this, but they haven’t spoken out before. … Now that it’s happened again, we need to show that this time will be different, and we won’t accept this anymore.”

Dean sees the problem of gun violence as much broader than just mass shootings.

“A lot of people aren’t thinking about how it’s connected to other issues like police brutality and mental health,” she said. “We don’t talk about that, but people who care about those issues should care about this one.”

“We are honoring those people who lost their lives, with action.”

Caitlin Danborn, a 17-year-old junior at Arvada West High School in Jeffco, decided to organize a walkout at her school because she was inspired by the students in Florida, upset that shootings continue to happen, and worried after threats were made at her school just days after the shooting in Florida.

Caitlin Danborn, 17, Arvada West High School, Jeffco. (Courtesy photo)

“That really spoke to everyone at our school,” Danborn said. “We’ve had tightened security measures since then. We have to do things like sign out when we go to the bathroom.”

School administrators heard about Danborn’s plans when her Facebook event for the walkout had about 50 people confirming they would participate. Working with the administration, teachers, and other students, Danborn said the plans for Wednesday’s walkout will call for students to walk across the school to a field where students will form the shape of a heart. A drone will take aerial photos. Throughout the day, there will be letter-writing stations at the school where students can write a letter to their representatives.

“We wanted to have something tangible and very intentional that would be very visible,” Danborn said.

She thinks it’s unfortunate that students who are in fear have to stand up for change, but says that is why things are different after the Parkland shootings.

“I hope that people can see unity, and they can see that school safety and gun violence are two issues kids feel passionately about — enough that we’re willing to get up and walk out and do something visible,” Danborn said. “I also hope they can see that we are honoring those people who lost their lives, with action.”

“People will stop and say, ‘What are these kids doing?’”

Eighth-graders Ada Youngstrom, Lillian Lemme, and Rachel Zizmor say they’re motivated to walk out of school by love for the community they have at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver.

“One of the big things we were talking about when we presented to our classmates is that one person with a gun could destroy our community,” Youngstrom, 13, said. “Skinner is a family, and gun violence has made us understand that that could go away so fast.”

From left: Lillian Lemme, Rachel Zizmor, Ada Youngstrom, all eighth-graders at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver. (Courtesy Ada Youngstrom)

The students all come from politically active families, attended the Women’s March, and frequently discuss current events in social studies class. They’re frustrated that previous school shootings haven’t created any policy changes, and they don’t want this one to fade from the public eye.

“One thing I really want adults and politicians to take from this is that we’re not going to forget anymore,” Youngstrom said. “I’m never going to forget about the 17 (people) who are killed. From the day of the shooting on, we are holding their memories and their lives in our hands. I’m not going to just stand by.”

The organizers are hoping that between 300 and 600 students will walk out of school. Seventeen students will stand outside the school to represent the 17 lives lost as their classmates march out to West 38th Avenue, the main thoroughfare in the neighborhood.

“What we’re hoping to accomplish is that because 38th is a busy street, people will stop and say, ‘What are these kids doing?’ and know that we are doing something and maybe become aware,” said Lemme, 14. “If there’s a procession of 300 to 600 students, that’s not something you can ignore.”

The students said they know that walkouts by themselves won’t change laws, but it’s a way to honor the lives lost and keep the pressure on policy makers.

“This is powerful because it’s silent to show respect for the students in Florida, but by itself, it’s not going to change anything,” Zizmor, 14, said. “It’s a step in the right direction. … Just because we’re kids and we’re small doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference.”

“17 different things that would make a change”

The eighth-graders organizing the walkout at Denver’s Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver are hoping to focus on more than just the debate over gun control. Part of their goal is to give their fellow students different ways to honor the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting.

They’ve timed their walkout to last 17 minutes, with sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders each leaving school through different doors and taking similarly timed routes to the same public park. There, the students will read the names of the 17 victims and hold a moment of silence for each.

But for those who don’t want to walk out, or who want to do something more, the students are offering another option – one with its very own hashtag: #What’sYour17? The idea is to encourage teenagers to do “17 different things that would make a change,” said 13-year-old Jackie Estrada Hernandez, one of the students planning the walkout.

Those things could be as simple as smiling at 17 new people, the students said.

“It would help the community out because some people have problems, but if you smile and give them a compliment or something, it would probably make their day,” said Elena Skaro, 14.

Emanuel Lamboy, 13, had a different take.

“I imagine I’m smiling at the 17 people that died and trying to commemorate them,” he said.

 

Unintended consequences

When Denver stopped lunch-shaming, debt from unpaid meals skyrocketed

PHOTO: David Buffington | Getty Images

After the Denver schools chief made a high-profile announcement last August guaranteeing a full meal to students whether or not they had the money to pay, many advocates cheered the end of so-called “lunch-shaming” in the 92,000-student district.

Then came an unpleasant surprise: Debt from unpaid lunches soared, rising to $356,000 from $13,000 the year before.

Denver’s exploding meal debt — amounting to roughly 900 unpaid lunches every school day of the year — illustrates the balancing act districts nationwide face amid growing public support for policies prohibiting lunch-shaming. Such shaming often involves giving students who can’t pay small, alternative meals, putting stickers or stamps on them to remind their parents to pay, or even throwing out their meals.

In the last couple years, a growing number of districts nationwide have established policies to curb lunch-shaming. Some states, including New York, Iowa, and New Mexico, have passed statewide legislation with the same goals. The idea behind such measures is to free students from the burden of debt they have no power to pay and ensure they don’t go hungry at school. But with school districts obligated to pay for the meals, food service leaders are often left scrambling to cover mounting costs.

The school lunch debt is one reason Denver district officials quietly introduced snacks such as Doritos and Rice Krispies Treats in elementary school cafeteria lines late this past winter. The new additions, seen as unhealthy by some parents, helped generate around $41,000 in new revenue for the nutrition services department.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, said she hasn’t yet heard of another district with a debt increase the size of Denver’s following the introduction of a lunch-shaming prevention policy. But she said it’s an issue the group, which represents school food service employees, plans to watch closely.

“In many districts, allowing all kids to automatically get a free meal …. can turn into a real financial challenge for the program,” she said, noting that it can take away the incentive for parents to fill out the free and reduced-price meal application.

Nearly one-third of the district’s lunch debt last year came from families who were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, but signed up part-way into the school year, after their children had already received free school lunches. The federal government covers lunch costs for students eligible for free lunches and part of the cost for students who qualify for reduced-price lunches. For elementary school students in Colorado (and starting next year for middle-schoolers), the state covers the remaining cost of reduced-price lunches.

Another 68 percent of Denver families with unpaid meal debt don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Still, district officials said it’s impossible to determine how many of those families would qualify for subsidized lunches if they applied, how many struggle financially but just miss the cut-off for eligibility, and how many can afford to pay for school lunches but choose not to.

Theresa Peña, regional coordinator for outreach and engagement in Denver’s nutrition services department, supports the district’s new lunch-shaming prevention policy, which ended the practice of giving students with lunch debt cheese sandwiches or graham crackers and milk.

Still, district officials didn’t expect the ballooning lunch debt, which at one point was projected to hit a half-million dollars, she said.

Peña said the district is stepping up efforts to get every family to fill out the free- and reduced-price meal application for next year — an extra challenge in the current political climate in which some immigrant families fear leaving a paper trail.

Last year, in addition to adding new revenue-generating snacks in elementary schools, the district tried to recoup the debt by making weekly robocalls to parents, working with principals to do outreach to families, and in some cases sending letters home with students.

“We made a pretty hard push,” Peña said. “It did make an impact, but not as great an impact as we had hoped.”

A national problem

Most districts nationwide accrue some debt for unpaid meals.

A 2016 survey by the School Nutrition Association found that three-quarters of school districts rack up unpaid meal debt, up slightly from 71 percent two years before.

In Denver, the amount of lunch debt ranges widely by school, with some accruing less than $50 and others accruing thousands. Omar D. Blair Charter School had the highest lunch debt among Denver schools last year at $11,500. Meanwhile, Florida Pitt Waller, Joe Shoemaker Elementary, Thomas Jefferson High School, and Cheltenham Elementary all reported lunch debts between $2,500 and $5,000.

At Shoemaker, where two-thirds of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, Kitchen Manager Chris Juarez said he believes much of the school’s $4,000 in lunch debt came from families who would have qualified for subsidized lunches but didn’t apply. Sometimes, he said, families don’t realize they have to re-submit their application each year; this fall, he plans to meet with returning families — in addition to new families — to emphasize that fact.

Other parents don’t realize they have to add to the form if a related child joins their household, he said. And language barriers may still be a problem, even though the form is available in many languages. In addition, some may worry that filling out the form means their immigration status can be tracked. A 2017 Denver school board resolution specified that the district does not collect or maintain any information on students’ immigration status.

Juarez suspects only a small percentage of Shoemaker families can afford to pay for their children’s lunches, but choose not to.

Shoemaker Principal Christine Fleming, said her top priority is making sure kids get to eat lunch, no matter what. She sees non-payment as a “parent issue,” and said, “I don’t want 5-, 6-, 7- year olds to carry that burden.”

Fleming said she’s always reserved some money in a special “principal’s account” to cover the cost of unpaid lunches, including in 2017–18, when she set aside a few hundred dollars.

Previously, that practice was common across the district, Peña said, but once the lunch-shaming policy took effect, “a lot of them said, ‘Zero out my principal account. I’m not going to do that anymore.’”

In 2016–17, when the district’s lunch debt was just $13,000, an online fundraising campaign and a contribution from a private donor covered the outstanding balance. But not this year.

A district grant of $100,000 paid off lunch debt from students who were eventually eligible for free or reduced-price lunch last school year but whose parents may not have signed up right away. Peña said the district has not finalized how the remaining $256,000 will be paid, and has until June 30 to make a decision.

Is it junk food?

Before this year, elementary schools in Denver sold some snacks — officially called a la carte items — in their cafeterias. These included turkey sticks, granola bars, popcorn, string cheese, and yogurt.

Peña said the district decided to add more a la carte items in February, a few months after district food service supervisors visited nearby districts, including Jeffco and Cherry Creek, and learned that “a la carte sales were a big deal” there.

The additions include more than a half-dozen kinds of chips, Rice Krispies Treats, gummy fruit snacks, and pistachios. All of the items — some of which are slightly reformulated versions of the same products sold on grocery store shelves — adhere to federal rules governing school snacks. Parents were not informed of the new snack offerings when they were introduced.

Susan Scovell, who has two children at Bradley International School in southeast Denver and works part-time as a personal chef, said of the new snacks, “It’s pretty much total junk food.”

She got wind of them when her second-grade daughter began mentioning that friends routinely bought Doritos and Cheetos at lunch time.

“It took me months to figure out this was going on,” she said. “Most parents really had no idea.”

Scovell said the new snacks stand in stark contrast to the district’s efforts to emphasize scratch cooking and other kinds of healthy eating initiatives, such as the week-long fruit- and vegetable-tasting event at Bradley this spring.

Peña, who said the district plans to communicate better about the snack options this coming year, said parents can prevent their children from buying certain snacks. To do so, they need to contact the school’s kitchen manager and request that a note be added to the student’s school meal account citing the restriction. She conceded that the process may not be obvious or easy for all parents, and said the department will look to address that.

Peña also said that principals or kitchen managers have the option to limit the sale of a la carte snacks at their schools. For example, they can choose not to sell certain items, or restrict the sale of a la carte items to the last 15 minutes of the lunch period or to certain days of the week.

Denver is hardly unique in offering a la carte snacks at elementary schools.

Other large Colorado districts, including Douglas County, Jeffco, and Cherry Creek, also offer such items to grade school students. All three districts allow parents to limit or block their children’s snack purchases.

Carol Muller, state director of Colorado Action for Healthy Kids, which promotes nutrition and exercise initiatives in schools, said one of the top concerns she hears from parents across Colorado is about a la carte snacks. At the same time, she understands the financial pressures school cafeterias are under.

“It’s a really tough issue for everyone involved, including us,” she said. “We certainly support food service staff. We don’t want to add a bigger burden to them, but on the other hand, as a parent, I don’t find all the snacks acceptable either.”

survey says

More bullying reported at New York City schools, study shows

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

More New York City students say there is bullying in their schools, a report released Monday showed. The findings also revealed that many schools reporting the greatest number of violent incidents on campus have no social workers on staff.

The report was commissioned by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer also released an audit of how school safety matters are recorded, and concluded that the education department should provide more oversight and streamline incident reporting rules.

“The audit found clear breakdowns in communication in the reporting and tracking of incidents and actions taken,” according to a press release from Stringer’s office.

The education department disputed some of the comptroller’s findings, and in a written statement, spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote: “We have detailed protocols in place to ensure allegations of bullying are immediately reported, investigated and addressed, and are investing in both anti-bullying initiatives and mental health supports.”

But the pair of reports raises scrutiny of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school discipline reforms, which favor  “restorative” practices that emphasize mediation over punishment, and make it harder to suspend students.

Advocates of the de Blasio reforms say the shift is necessary because black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or disciplined at school. Research has shown such disciplinary action can lead to higher dropout rates. Critics of the reforms, meanwhile, say the changes have created more chaotic schools.

The findings are also likely to add to a chorus of parents and elected officials who say more emotional supports are needed for the city’s most vulnerable students. Students who experience a mental health crisis during the school day may be handcuffed and shuttled to hospitals. The city’s latest budget, which was approved last week, includes an additional $2 million to hire social workers and guidance counselors in schools that currently don’t have any.

Here are some highlights from the reports.

More students report there is bullying in their schools — but the data comes with a catch.

Last year, the education department’s annual survey showed that 82 percent of students said their peers “harass, bully, or intimidate others in school.” That’s up year over year, and up significantly from 65 percent of students in 2012, which was the lowest rate recorded since at least 2010. (De Blasio’s discipline reforms started to take effect around 2015.)

A note about these numbers: Prior to 2017, the survey asked whether students harass, bully or intimidate other students none, some, most, or all of the time. The most recent survey responses were slightly different: none of the time, rarely, some of the time, or most of the time — a change that may have artificially inflated the bullying numbers.

That’s enough to render the survey data unreliable said Max Eden, a researcher who has studied school climate for the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute — a critic of the mayor’s discipline reforms. Still, taken with other findings, it’s reasonable to think that bullying is on the rise at city schools, he said.

Among the other evidence: A first-of-its-kind report, released this month under a new city law, that showed substantiated bullying incidents are on track to increase this year.

Schools that log the most violent incidents often lack mental health supports.

Guidance counselors and social workers are key when it comes to creating safe schools because they can help address the root cause of violent or troublesome behavior, advocates who want more mental health supports say.

But many of the city’s neediest schools go without that help.

Of the schools reporting the most violent incidents on campus, 36 percent lack a full-time social worker, the comptroller found. On campuses where there are social workers, caseloads are a staggering 700 to one. That far exceeds the recommended ratio from the National Association of Social Workers of 250 general education students per social worker — and it’s higher than the citywide average of 612 students per social worker, according to the comptroller.

The comptroller’ compares that to the ratio of New York Police Department school safety agents who are placed in schools: There is one safety agent per 228 students, according to the report.

“Our city is failing to meet the social and emotional needs of our students,” Councilman Mark Treyger, of Brooklyn, who has pushed the city to report more up-to-date bullying data and to hire more school counselors, said in an emailed statement.

Schools may be underreporting violent incidents, something the education department disputes.

In a separate audit, the comptroller compared logs kept by school safety agents to incident reports filed by school leaders. In 21 percent of cases, incidents that were noted by safety agents were not reflected in the school reports.

The school data, in turn, are used to report incidents to the state for its Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, or VADIR. The discrepancy could raise questions about the already-controversial reporting system. (VADIR has been criticized for classifying schoolyard incidents as serious offenses, and the state has tweaked its definitions in response to those kinds of concerns.)

This finding also comes with some caveats. The comptroller looked at only 10 schools — a tiny sample of the city’s portfolio of about 1,800. And the education department took issue with the methodology.

In its response to the audit, education department officials said that the police data doesn’t align with the state’s reporting categories, and that the information may not be comparable because of student privacy concerns and recordkeeping issues on campuses where multiple schools share a building.