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Alternative High Schools Work To Keep Students Out Of Justice System

DENVER (CBS4)- A new school year is underway and students are once again facing a variety of stressors. COVID-19 is amplifying everyday struggles and often leads to trouble beyond school hallways and into the courtroom.

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While many Colorado schools take a zero-tolerance approach to disciplining students, two alternative high schools in Denver are doing things differently.

"I walked away that night in cuffs," Julian a freshman at 5280 Alternative High School said.

He wasn't running from police, or doing anything destructive, he was caught on the roof of his high school at night.

"I had other charges pending. If that charge were to get on my record, a lot of things could've gone bad," he said.

Elie Zweibel, a juvenile civil rights attorney in Denver, says not every student's story will end that way.

"My average client is between 14 and 16 years old but I have clients as young as 8," he said.

In his experience broad and often harsh discipline policies push students out of school.

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"I see students being expelled for tagging, spraying graffiti off school grounds; I see students being expelled for pretty routine playground fights; I see students being expelled for mere allegations," Zweibel said.

It often leads to more serious involvement with law enforcement

Jen Jackson the principal at The Academy of Urban Learning says that's how the "school to prison pipeline" gets started.

"Students will go into a detention center and they come out and it's difficult for them to find a school that will take them or has the capacity to fulfill all the needs they may have rejoin and catch up," she said.

Her school, AUL is there in those situations as a trauma-informed alternative high school. They offer education and support.

"Basic needs have to be met before you can ask kids to do trigonometry. If you're hungry you can't do calculus. It's also important that kids are able to ask for their needs without any shame."

Julian avoided falling into that pipeline because of the school he was in.

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"They said, 'Two kids are on the roof of your school.' I said, 'Don't press charges,'" Melissa Mouton said.

Instead, Mouton fought for him in court. She's founded 5280 to keep teens in recovery and in school.

"Who is advocating for these kids? Why aren't the schools going to bat for their students?" she said.

Both educators believe their approach doesn't have to be a last resort.

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