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KOLD INVESTIGATES: Desegregation court fight intensifies over high-risk students in Tucson USD

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Mar. 10, 2022 at 10:40 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - A dispute is intensifying tonight over how Tucson Unified school district is handling the rise in severe discipline this school year.

It’s mainly centering on one thing: a TUSD program designed to help the most troubled students avoid the pipeline to prison.

Certain teachers became outraged and one even quit over how the district handled DAEP this year.

Disturbing behavior at Gridley Middle School is one example.

A student brought a loaded gun on campus after being suspended while another student is put on long-term suspension twice for fighting.

Seventh grade teacher John Easley ran up the district leadership ladder voicing teacher concerns.

Easley said, “We see that we have children coming back from suspensions and almost immediately re-offend. There’s no change. And that’s really disheartening because we actually care about those kids.”

“And the only reason they repeat offend, because they know they can get away with it.” said former Gridley counselor, Tony Mosley, who left the school last year out of frustration over how the district deals with discipline.

“The way it’s being used is causing a danger to staff and students. They’re given blanket suspension with no services being provided,” Easley said.

Gridley isn’t the only school that’s gained attention.

This violent fight at Rincon High ended with several students, a parent and a staffer, facing charges ranging from aggravated assault to fighting. And Tucson police recently released a report of more fights on campus just a few months later.

A TPD officer reported one of the students “wouldn’t listen” to him and had to chase him after he “left through the back door” while he was detained.

About the same time, another fight broke out on campus and some students “jumped on top of School Safety Officer vehicles”.

The officer arrested three students for disorderly conduct.

One of the parents told police her child “needs resources and was looking for help with him”.

Without it, students can end up suspended or expelled.

And that’s where DAEP comes in: the District Alternative Education Program.

It’s at the heart of the dispute.

DAEP deals with primarily students who commit Level 4 or 5 violations, like assaults, fighting, weapon, drug and alcohol possession, and theft.

It’s a voluntary alternative to long-term suspension that allows students to continue their education and at the same time teaches them how to make better decisions.

Some even avoid serving time in a detention facility.

The district has touted its success since its inception in 2015.

These are the yearly counts: 250 students referred to DAEP the first year and about 300 during the 2018-19 school.

This TUSD evaluation reported: “students who completed DAEP in 2018/19 were less likely to be involved in 4 or more incidents when compared to the three years prior.”

“DAEP is a great program and has turned a lot of kids around. It’s a very powerful brand and it has a very successful track record. I’ve seen kids come out of the program and they are different and they’ve learned how to behave in a classroom,” Easley said.

It’s also a critical component of the desegregation court order.

DAEP is a stand-alone USP mandated program.

“The court is still supervising the district,” said Sylvia Campoy, a civil rights compliance officer, who partially oversees how the district is handling DAEP.

And right now, she argues, leadership is way off mark.

“Whatever the motivation, the consequences are dire and they’re wrong,” Campoy said.

What she’s referring to is the district’s decision to “retool” the DAEP program.

DAEP teachers quickly objected to the district’s plan confused about the direction that included going 100% virtual and combining middle and high school classes.

“And one of them left the district altogether because she was not about to do distance learning teaching with kids that need direct services, that need the social, emotional wraparound services,” Campoy said.

So if the program has worked so well, why mess with it? That’s what Campoy is asking, especially since educators nationwide anticipated more students would struggle emotionally and socially when they returned to campus.

Campoy said, “The district’s move was not only sudden and poorly planned -- it wasn’t approved by the plaintiffs and court.

A district email August 20th reveals: “the DAEP program is going through substantial changes, so it is a good idea to limit what you share with parents at long term hearings” because “we aren’t sure what DAEP is going to look like”.

The plaintiffs jumped in with a slew of court filings asking the district to restore the program.

“It cut more than half the staff. It has not filled critical positions in the DAEP program,” Campoy said.

Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo explained during a board meeting that “low enrollment didn’t not justify the number of DAEP teachers”.

The district argued DAEP is offered in the same way as it has been in the past and will monitor DAEP enrollment and add teachers and classrooms as needed.

“As we get better at restorative practices and we get better at student services, we’re just not putting the same amount of students in DAEP,” Trujillo said.

Campoy questions Trujillo’s reason the DAEP counts are lower.

The court-mandated DAEP Implementation Committee reported a major change with suspensions hearings.

A committee member wrote, “Long term hearing officers revised their suspension hearing script to downplay offering the program as an option for students and their parents” and site administrators began to “offer and recommend abeyance contracts rather than DAEP because they knew remote instruction would not be successful for these high-risk students.”

Simply put, those students can avoid suspension if they don’t violate the agreement.

Easley contends the district is failing students, even those suspended, and it explains a reason behind the rise in violence on campuses.

“We are concerned that the current code of conduct and the way that’s its being used is causing a danger to staff and students. We strongly believe that it’s not serving the needs of the children that are actually committing these acts. They’re given blanket suspension with no services being provided,” he said.

Easley, Campoy and Mosley believe in restorative practices.

The district changed the Code of Conduct rules in the 2018-19 school year, giving students with certain first and second offenses a chance to improve their behavior through restorative conferences and circles.

“I believe in it, but it does take practice. It takes effort and It takes the will to make sure you utilize the practice,” Mosley said.

But Campoy is not convinced that effort is happening at all the schools.

She disputes the data detailing incidents that she receives from the district saying it’s filtered.

“The plaintiff has agreed to the district’s commitment to implement restorative practices. The word here is implementation. What is reported to the court on paper is not always what is actual life. It’s not systemic, it’s not consistent. The way I see it after 18 years being involved with the current desegregation court order is that the district provides the court with piles and piles of paper report, data. It’s not worth the paper its printed on,” Campoy said.

KOLD reached out to the district to discuss the DAEP program and claims, but was denied even a discussion.

But the district did respond to the court, saying the plaintiffs’ claims are not true, except one. It’s corrected how long term suspensions are handled.

The district now saying it’s making sure the hearing officers are an advocate for DAEP enrollment.

We’ll continue to monitor how TUSD is handling these severe discipline cases.

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