11/08/2010 05:33 pm ET Updated Jun 27, 2011

Backwards Priorities

It sounds ridiculous: The Denver Sheriff's Department ordering students to ditch school so they can complete court mandated community service.

But every week Denver Public High School students are yanked out of class, loaded into vans, and taken to pick up trash along the interstate. The kids call it "work crew," and it's been in place for years.

As a teacher it's a frustrating and backwards practice. The students most in need of a quality education are pulled from my classroom, and told collecting litter is more important than time in school.

I'm not the first person to call foul on this backwards practice. City councilman (and recently announced mayoral candidate) Doug Linkhart brought it to the attention of 7news back in 2005.

"It doesn't make sense at all," Linkhart said at the time. "I think it's crazy that we take kids out of school."

But the sheriff's department fired back arguing they simply didn't have the money to run weekend programs. And apparently this easy answer was good enough for councilman Linkhart as the practice continues today (Linkhart didn't return emails regarding the work programs).

"Money" is always the easy answer, and in 2005 it appeased Linkhart as he failed to ask the tougher question: why are these work programs necessary in the first place?

These kids aren't violent offenders! They're guilty of minor city offenses: curfew violations, possession of marijuana and/or alcohol, minor property damage or petty theft. Do they really need to complete community service under armed guard?

Why can't their "work crew" be school based? I'm sure our custodial staff could use help vacuuming the floors and taking out the trash.

The Denver Sheriff's Office isn't the only branch of law enforcement with backward juvenile priorities. I've had students ordered to miss last period every Thursday in order to complete court mandated drug testing. Apparently the urine analysis has to be completed at 2:00pm; it can't wait until 3:30?

And why are juvenile parole officers scheduling meetings, and calling students' cell phones during school hours? "I have to answer this," my students blurt out in the middle of class, "It's my P.O. and she'll flip if I don't."

Here's an idea: why don't juvenile Parole Officers work out of the schools themselves? There's no better way to ensure a kid is in class and doing his work than to have their P.O. greet them every morning as they arrive, and hunt them down when they don't.

Changing embedded policies is never easy, especially when they relate to the practices of law enforcement. But if our top priority is the education of our kids, every city agency is going to have to reexamine their policies and if necessary adapt their way of doing business. And if the ultimate goal of the court system is to prevent recidivism among juvenile offenders, having them in school is far more beneficial than collecting trash.