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Collinus Newsome: DPS’ “new” discipline matrix is half-baked at best

Editor’s note:  Collinus Newsome is a longtime Denver educator, activist and philanthropist (see detailed bio at the bottom of this post). She has been deeply involved in Denver Public Schools safety issues since March 2023, when her brother, Wayne Mason, was one of two deans shot and seriously wounded by an East student they were patting down for weapons.

I want to make clear from the outset that I speak for myself. I am not associated with any organization or advocacy group. I am writing this because I sincerely want to help improve safety in Denver Public Schools.

The last year and a half has been the hardest season of my life. As a person who has big emotions, I feel things very deeply. 

I am going to share as much as I can with honesty and integrity about how the failure of the DPS discipline matrix has impacted so many faculty, kids and families – mine included. My emotional outbursts at board meetings aren’t helpful, but they are my way of releasing the incredible amount of anger and sadness I feel. 

A few weeks ago, after dropping my youngest daughter at school, I called Steve Katsaros (cofounder of P-SAG, a parents’ school safety advocacy group) to vent about all this nonsense with the revised discipline matrix. On my way home coming down Lincoln Street, I decided to follow through on my word from the last board meeting and went to DPS headquarters to see senior leaders. 

Despite my appearance—bright pink Hoka recovery flip flops with socks, jeans, and maybe a hoodie—I insisted on waiting until I could speak with them. I was recovering from a sunburn earned at a lacrosse game and it was peeling. I looked like a crazy woman. 

After some persistence, Deputy Chief of Staff Deborah Staten and Deputy Superintendent Tony Smith set up time to meet with me. Staten shared the “new” matrix’s theory of change, and in true form, I proceeded to pull it apart. 

It is no more clear than what they currently have in place. What I saw would be the presentation shared at last week’s board meeting. The addition of a seventh tier of behavioral offenses made it worse. 

Simply put, I told her it wasn’t ready. I suggested piloting the matrix at a few schools first to understand what works and make necessary adjustments. Discipline matrices are designed to be implemented equitably across the board. They are intended to ensure that consequences are clear and predictable. That’s what DPS is trying to do. 

Consequences should not be punitive, but should lead to more targeted actions of support, especially if behavior becomes habitual. The problem in general is that for particular demographics, the consequences are not progressive but punitive in nature from the start.

What I want to make clear is that you cannot build a discipline strategy around a particular demographic of students. But you should strategically ensure that resources are specifically allocated to address the overrepresentation of students who receive disproportionate exclusionary practices. 

DPS’ data overwhelmingly suggests that the demographic most likely to receive punitive discipline practices are Black boys. Quite frankly, you can predict the incredible number of exclusionary practices experienced by Black boys within the first 25-30 days of school. That predictability should be a reason to push in resources to support this population the very first day of school. 

The ebb and flow of poor behavior for most kids is normal. Knowing this, schools could be responsive and not reactive in supporting their students during these times. Staten’s statement to the Denver Post suggested that what happened at East was not about the matrix. 

Wrong. In my opinion, East is ground zero for the most egregious failure of the discipline matrix. The new matrix’s consequences for violence in schools are inadequate. 

My question here is that if a student has reached tier three, when does a student receive a behavior plan? When a kid reaches tier six, when does a safety plan become mandatory? By the time a kid reaches tier seven (the most serious behaviors), that should have a completely different consequence. 

If a kid comes into a school at tier seven for whatever reason, if I’m a building leader, there would be no occasion where I would let that student take five steps into my school. My job is to keep every single person in that building safe. Period.

And I’d make sure everyone knows how the district responded. I’m also willing to sit down with the “activists” who have centered themselves throughout all of this. Let’s have that conversation; I’ll wait for the invitation to do so. 

My personal experience with the failure of the matrix implementation and the confusion around the process itself shows a complete lack of awareness of how the matrix will impact how schools are structured to operationalize its implementation. 

All DPS has done is make it more convoluted. I shared exactly that when I met with Tony Smith. I respect Tony because of our growing up as athletes together. Tony, God bless him, challenged me to approach discussions about the matrix with curiosity. 

While I am open to this, I refuse to be curious about the failures that almost cost lives at East. 

The district’s minimization of the violence experienced by the kids, faculty, and families who were at school on March 22 2023 is heartless. In fact, it is probably one of the most disturbing things I have ever experienced. 

I am also trying to understand how so much about the lead up to that day was missed. I don’t know the way forward. I’ve always been an educator, and that’s all I know. Yes, let’s be curious, but let’s be sure DPS gives us something to be curious about.

Oh, and for the record, I asked Tony Smith  to protect me and my family from any retaliatory actions this administration may take against me. After all, there have been several recent instances of people being silenced or threatened with legal action if they don’t keep quiet. 

It’s a crying shame that I have to ask for that protection. But as I said before, I’ll go first. I have a lot to lose, and in some ways I already have. 

But I’m willing to put it all on the line if it means keeping kids, including my own, safe.