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Race playing a role in Colorado school discipline, report says

By: Megan Schrader megan.schrader@gazette.comNewspaper
March 28, 2014 Updated: March 28, 2014 at 8:26 pm

DENVER - Colorado schools are involving police in discipline issues less often - an almost 9 percent improvement in a single year - unless the student happens to be black or Native American.

For those students, law enforcement involvement increased by 8 percent for black students and 3 percent for Native American students.

It's a disparity that concerns Colorado groups advocating to decriminalize school discipline.

The Colorado School Discipline Report Card released Friday by Padres and Jovenes Unidos applauded the state's step in the right direction, noting statewide drastic decreases in suspensions, expulsions and law enforcement involvement.

"The overall numbers are very encouraging," said Daniel Kim, director of youth organizing for Padres and Jovenes Unidos. "They're remarkable, a 25 percent reduction in expulsions in one year, that means something."

But he said the most damaging of all the statistics is when police are involved in a school incident, and for Colorado's black students that is almost four times more likely to occur.

"These are the most harmful of these three zero tolerance practices," Kim said, who is a principal author of the report. "These are criminal records. These are things that affect the students for their whole lives ... something that changes the entire course of someone's life."

Kim said he hopes the report will spark dialogue in communities and schools across the state, leading to meaningful change in district discipline policies.

Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, who championed legislation two years ago aimed at reducing student interaction with law enforcement, said a big next step is collecting the end-result data. She said the law requires law enforcement and district attorneys to provide data about the outcomes of interactions with students. The date would include whether they are charged with a crime, convicted, or sentenced.

Newell said that data collection and reporting has not occurred and is a key next step.

"If a child is arrested it is two times likely that they will not graduate from high school," Newell said. "That leads to getting in the system and once they are in the system it's very hard to get out. It's hard for college applications; it's hard for job seeking; it also shows statistically that they stay in the criminal justice system."

Senate Bill 46 from 2012 required school districts to adopt discipline codes that "encourage the use of alternative methods of accountability and behavior modification like restorative justice and peer meditation."

It also improved training for school resource officers - law enforcement officials who often have their offices in a school - to learn how to work with school officials to prevent arrests.

The report for the first time breaks down data from the Colorado Department of Education about how individual school districts are performing.

Kim said the intent of that comparison - district to district - is to foster dialogue among community members, parents, students and district officials.

He urged those interested in getting involved or learning more about the issue to contact by Padres and Jovenes Unidos at 303-458-6545.

For example, Kim said in El Paso County one can take urban districts, those with similar enrollment numbers and student populations, and analyze the impact school policy is having on suspensions, expulsions and arrests.

El Paso County's school districts have dramatically different statistics when it comes to student discipline.

The county's largest district, Colorado Springs School District 11, had only one student referred to law enforcement in the 2012-13 school year, giving it one of the best scores in the state. But for the roughly 1,000 students at Ellicott School District 20 the rate of law enforcement referral was 1.85 per 100 students. That rate put the district in the top 25 for highest rates of referral to law enforcement.

But Colorado Springs district had one of the highest rates of expulsion in the state - .63 per 100 students - while Ellicott Schools were far less likely to expel a student.

The smaller the school population, however, the more likely they are to suffer from statistical anomalies. A single hallway brawl that escalates to needing police intervention could skew a district's statistics for the year, while such an incident at a larger school would have less of a statistical impact.

Almost all of the school districts in El Paso County suffered from some degree of racial inequality in the use of disciplinary measures, according to the report.

"We hope that's what this report will raise questions about," Kim said, referring to the overall differences between school district statistics and policy. "By allowing Coloradans to actually see how districts stack up against each other, to ask the question, why is this happening?"

Contact Megan Schrader


Twitter: @CapitolSchrader


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