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Colorado Springs-area school districts lead state in expulsions, suspensions

February 16, 2014 Updated: February 16, 2014 at 2:08 pm
photo - Widefield School Resource Officer John Huntz stands in the hallway during classes Friday, February 14, 2014. "Our ultimate goal is the safety and security of this school," Huntz said. "And that's all we live for is to make sure the kids can come here to a safe environment." Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette
Widefield School Resource Officer John Huntz stands in the hallway during classes Friday, February 14, 2014. "Our ultimate goal is the safety and security of this school," Huntz said. "And that's all we live for is to make sure the kids can come here to a safe environment." Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette  

Two Pikes Peak region school districts lead the state in expulsion and suspension rates, a ranking they hope to change.

The area's largest district, Colorado Springs School District 11, expelled 182 students last school year - the most of any district in the state.

Also in a No. 1 spot for 2012-13, under the category of "classroom suspensions," was Harrison School District 2, with 997.

The numbers, compiled by the Colorado Department of Education, don't tell the whole story, local school officials say. And they expect this year's statistics to improve, based on recent adjustments to conduct policies and new procedures for handling misbehavior.

Part of the problem, D-11 spokeswoman Devra Ashby said, is that the reporting of behavior and consequences is not standardized or audited.

School district boards establish their code-of-conduct policies based on statewide definitions as to what data must be reported, said Megan McDermott, assistant director of communications for the Colorado Department of Education.

"How that is interpreted beyond these definitions is up to local schools and districts," she said.

Definitions of the categories are broad. For example, "detrimental behavior," the second-leading cause of expulsions in Colorado, is "Behavior on school property that is detrimental to the welfare or safety of other students or of school personnel, including behavior that creates a threat of physical harm to the student or other students."

The punishment doled out to offenders varies by district.

Ashby said D-11 doesn't often use "in-school suspensions" - where students are suspended from the classroom to another location in the school - which is why D-11 recorded just eight last year, compared with 1,035 in Harrison D-2. Instead, D-11 favors detention, she said, which is not included in the statistics.

"There doesn't seem to be a consistency to the numbers. They're all over the map," Ashby said.

Still, D-11's expulsion rate - considered the most serious action that can be levied against a disobedient student - was five times that of any of the other 16 districts in the region. The second highest was Academy School District 20, with 36 expulsions.

"Some schools seem to use suspensions more than expulsions. I would say we don't expel students faster than other districts suspend students," Ashby said. "If we have students who keep repeating the same infractions, they will get expelled. We're not just going to keep suspending them."

The 997 classroom suspensions in Harrison D-2 - defined as removing a student from the classroom, contacting the parent and holding a conference with the student and parent - far outpaced the region's second highest of 169 at Falcon School District 49.

D-2, the fourth-largest district in the area, also had the region's most repeat offenders, with 4,402 duplicated misbehaving students.

Work to improve behavior

Harrison D-2 Superintendent Andre Spencer said his district's rates are not "significantly higher than some other districts."

"Every year is different. One year can show a spike, other years a decline," he said. "It's important to keep in mind it's not about the lowest numbers but what's being done to make sure our kids are safe."

D-2 revamped its conduct rules for this school year. Among the changes, the policy lays down steps administrators are to take in response to certain behaviors. Corrective action is tiered in four levels, depending on the severity.

For infractions such as disrupting the classroom, "We address the situation with parents before it becomes a suspendable offense," Spencer said. "It's helping us identify support systems that are in place prior to suspension."

Another step involves rallying community resources to help errant kids turn around their behavior, Spencer said, such as the Entrada School Based Health Center, which provides physical, mental and behavioral services.

Agreeing on a behavioral contract and after-school detention also have been added as disciplinary measures, he said.

"Our goal is to keep every kid in school as much as we possibly can because we know we can give them the best education," Spencer said.

Expelled students are given alternatives to in-classroom education. D-2 provides one-on-one tutorial services. Some districts, such as Falcon D-49 and Academy D-20, have separate programs not on school campuses, to ensure expelled students continue earning credits toward graduation and prevent them from dropping out of school.

D-11's board also revised its procedures this year, Ashby said, which "allow schools to better handle more behaviors at their sites, rather than having the student come to central administration."

That may ultimately decrease the expulsion rate and increase the suspension rate, she said.

Spencer believes D-2's new process will lower suspensions and expulsions districtwide.

"I do anticipate a decline across the board," he said. "We're working to make constant improvements and adjustments."

Drug violations lead

For the past decade, drug violations have been the leading cause of school expulsions in Colorado, with the exception of 2005-06, when there were more incidents of "dangerous weapons."

The use, possession or sale of drugs on school grounds or at school events accounted for 614 of the state's 1,473 expulsions last year. Detrimental behavior was second, followed by dangerous weapons.

Marijuana is the primary drug of choice among students, said Lt. Jeff Kramer, spokesman for the El Paso County Sheriff's Office.

"We get occasional scenarios involving heroin or cocaine, but marijuana definitely leads the way," he said. "It's more readily available to kids."

Kramer said he would not call drugs "a vast problem" in local schools, though.

Some students disagree.

"Oh, yeah, there's a lot of drugs. At my school, they had the drug dogs come and search every day," said 16-year-old Ryan Anaya, who attended Liberty High School but now is enrolled in online classes. "One kid got expelled for having a jarful of marijuana in his car. But a friend of mine got caught with weed and just got suspended."

Substance abuse is the "single most troubling school safety trend," said Larry Borland, a retired school security chief who does security consulting for public and private schools.

"We have told our kids, 'It's OK to smoke marijuana, it's OK to drink alcohol. Mom and Dad are doing it.' That kind of behavior is going to come right back into behavior on the part of the students," he said.

While schools are considered "drug-free zones," and possessing marijuana under age 21 is illegal in Colorado, schools handle violations differently.

Of the 4,933 suspensions and expulsions for drug violations last year in Colorado, 1,921 were referred to law enforcement. Part of the reason is that drug violations also include prescription drugs, which are legal but, for the most part, cannot be brought to school.

Jan Petro, the Colorado Department of Education's data services director, said she's not aware of any requirement that a drug offense must be referred to law enforcement.

"Therefore, the numbers are low, depending on local practice and policy," she said.

Locally, Falcon D-49 had the highest amount of school referrals to law enforcement last year, at 45. Academy D-20 and Widefield School District 3 each had 25.

The "zero tolerance" drug policies that typified school culture in the past have given way to a general understanding that "student behavior isn't always black and white," Borland said.

"People began to realize that kids are still in the process of growing up, and they're going to mess up once in a while. I'd been in the business almost 20 years, and I always said there are misconduct cases that ought not to result in a kid getting a criminal record," Borland said.

Suspensions and expulsions over issues such as dress code, truancy, tardiness and gang involvement, which fall into the "other code of conduct violations" categories, have decreased steadily and significantly statewide in the past decade.

"When I first got into this business, you could get expelled for carrying a pocket knife," Borland said. "Schools are beginning to look at other options for dealing with minor violations of the code of conduct."

Part of the reason for the change is Colorado's school discipline reform law, which the Legislature approved in 2012. It gives schools more flexibility in discipline policies and encourages them to pursue restorative justice practices rather than referring students to law enforcement. The changes also eliminate mandatory expulsions except in cases involving firearms and allow schools to set up graduated punishment that matches offenses, such as Harrison D-2's new tiered system.

Tough enforcement

But schools are tough on the significant infractions that rise to criminal status, including drug cases, robbery, assault, possession of firearms or other weapons and threats. When a 17-year-old student in Lewis-Palmer School District 38 brought a handgun to school Jan. 29, he was arrested and charged with a felony and a misdemeanor.

"We have a handful of those types of incidents in most districts throughout the course of a school year," Kramer said. "Most aren't the case where there was necessarily an intent to use the weapon or commit a violent act - but it's a poor choice that has to be dealt with properly."

In schools in the unincorporated county, deputies work as school resource officers and are involved with every school, Kramer said.

"They establish a relationship with not only the administrators but also the students. They see them in the halls and become a positive influence," he said. "They often direct students into making better decisions."

Police K-9 units also are used during random drug searches at schools and when drugs are suspected to have been brought on school property.

Despite the horrific incidents that have happened in schools in Colorado and across the nation in recent times, schools remain "one of the safest places kids can be," Borland said.

"Kids are much more likely to be seriously injured away from school than at school," he said. But, as far as drugs go, "we're not out of the woods yet. There is a growing concern about the ramifications of the legalization of recreational marijuana on our kids."

Spencer, head of D-2, said it takes a unified effort to keep kids safe.

"We know that drugs and weapons just cannot be in schools," he said, "and we have to work together as a unit to combat that. When we look at schools and behaviors, we have to be cognizant of societal issues. It's not one community versus another, but our community in general."

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