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Insights: School discipline creates a Colorado House divided

March 19, 2017 Updated: March 19, 2017 at 4:13 pm

My favorite teacher had me assaulted, and I learned that from the Colorado Legislature last week. At least science teacher Terry Niblett didn't take it lightly.

Through the glass of a locked high school science lab, he waved six boys to the office of vice principal Barnett Willdon, a burly man in his 50s who was a known bruiser with a wooden board.

We had thrown a football across Mr. Niblett's classroom - three or four more times after he told us to stop. "Take it outside," he said, locking the door behind us.

A trip to Mr. Wilson was a foregone conclusion that our back ends would be lit afire like Roman candles, but that was out of Mr. Niblett's hands.

I thought about my first visit to the board of education this week. Colorado lawmakers debated a ban on corporal punishment, which died in a Senate committee. A ban on suspending or expelling students who are in the second grade or younger gained preliminary approval in the House on Friday.

For hours legislators in both chambers debated the minds of children, how teachers shape self-esteem and the classroom's common good.

A child beaten or banished gets a reputation as trouble, sees himself as bad and school as a hostile environment, early childhood learning experts said at the Capitol last week. The seeds of bad attitudes get planted as easily as reading and writing, they said.

Things like that weighed heavily on Mr. Niblett, a man of uncommon patience and good cheer.

"I can't beat a kid into learning," he said on the phone Saturday night, his grandchildren chirping in the background.

No matter how frustrated he got, hitting a kid "hurt me more than it hurt them," he said.

I had pressed my luck as a knucklehead in his class before, but I finally crossed the line with the football.

"If the disruption gets where I can't teach, and it's all centered on them and this episode, the grandstanding, I'm going to put it back on learning," Mr. Niblett said.

He called it "the rock and a hard spot" children put educators between - how much effort can a teacher put into a troublemaker before it takes away time and energy from the kids trying to learn?

"This suspension business is kind of scary," Mr. Niblett said. "A lot of times these kids have nobody at home. Their parents are working, and you could be sending them home to a worse situation.

"Some of these kids come to school to eat."

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, no relation to the butt-bruising Mr. Wilson at my school, that I know of, was a career educator and superintendent.

He said he needed to be able to put suspension on the table sometimes to get unmotivated parents' attention. In all his career he never had to follow through and kick out a young child.

House Bill 1210 would still allow schools to suspend or dismiss students who pose a danger and help them get treatment, rather than just sending them away.

Rep. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora, a former classroom teacher and the bill's sponsor, said disproportionately it's children with learning and behavioral disabilities, and children of color, who are receive the harshest punishment.

"They don't go away; they're going to come back," she said of classrooms and society.

If the divisive bill passes the Democratic-led House, it faces dim prospects before the Republican majority in the Senate, which killed the spanking ban last week.

Lawmakers could instead support House Bill 1211 to provide $300,000 a year in grants to school districts that work on more effective ways to discipline.

No taxpayer money is involved, but rather gifts, grants and donations would fund the effort to find Colorado-grown solutions, according to the bill to be presented on the House floor Monday by sponsor James Coleman, D-Denver.

"Maybe that's the problem we need to take a look at," said Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, about class sizes and training, "rather than placing the burden squarely on the shoulder of 3-year-olds to 7-year-olds."

That fall afternoon in 1979, the burden was on the back ends of me and my friends as we shuffled from the science building past the lunchroom, down the hall past the home ec room, the library and trophy cases to our fate.

Mr. Wilson left early for the day. The next morning I was waiting at his office first thing to get it over with. I got one impressive whack and the weight of worry lifted off me. The boys he went looking for got three swats and one said he walked funny for a few steps.

Maybe that's the lesson for legislators on finding a solution on school discipline: It doesn't pay to wait.

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