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Expulsions dip to record low in Denver schools

The number of students expelled from Denver Public Schools has dipped to an historic low at a time of steady enrollment growth.

However, students who face harsh penalties for breaking school rules are disproportionately African-American students, according to a report presented Tuesday evening to the Denver school board.

There were 185 expulsions in 2009-2010 compared to 63 last year, said John Simmons, executive director of student services for the district. Meanwhile, the number of out-of-school suspensions has declined in that same period from 9,558 to 7,525 last year.

Fifty-five percent of students suspended from school last year were Hispanic, which is close to the 58 percent of Hispanic students who attend school in the district.

The big gap is between white and black students. White students make up 20 percent of DPS students but only 8 percent of those suspended. Conversely, black students make up only 15 percent of district students but comprised 32 percent of those who faced out-of-school suspensions last year.

The ratios for expulsions are similar. White students make up 10 percent of the pool, black students represent 30 percent and Hispanic students 56 percent.

Eldridge Greer, manager of psychological services in the district, said DPS is undergoing a philosophical shift in terms of how it handles discipline. Research and personal experience has shown that booting students out of school simply doesn’t change student behavior.

Instead, the district is embracing restorative justice programs and other techniques to resolve conflicts and to educate students about the impact of his or her actions and work with the student to make things right.

Click on charts to enlarge.

Denver’s goal is to become the first urban district to eliminate racial disparity in its expulsions and suspensions.

Denver is backed up by the passage last year of Senate Bill 46, also called the Smart School Discipline Law, which aims to curb the so-called “school to jail track” that critics say resulted from the adoption of zero-tolerance discipline policies a decade ago.

The district is moving in this direction so that “one bad afternoon doesn’t have to turn into a bad week or a bad year for a student,” Greer said.

Board member Jeannie Kaplan raised a concern about whether teachers are equipped to handle students who will now remain in the classroom.

Greer said all DPS teachers are offered de-escalation training to handle situations such as a student cursing at a teacher in front of other students.

“We want to give teachers tools to address student behavior without removals,” he said.

The district also plans to do a better job educating school communities about the reasons for the shift in policies, and providing more support to teachers who lack the tools or skills to deal with disruptive students.

Students caught with guns on school grounds still face automatic expulsion for one year, however.

And out-of-school and in-school suspensions remain an option for situations that put other students and school staff at risk, such as drug distribution or incidents involving weapons, robbery, bullying, assault, sex assault, indecent exposure, unlawful sexual contact, arson, explosives, witness intimidation, hazing and habitual disruption.

Greer pointed out that three Ds are not on the list: disrespect, defiance and disobedience.

“These three – while challenging – are one of most significant areas of disproportionality among students,” he said.

Simmons and Greer said those issues can be handled in alternative ways.

Board President Mary Seawell asked if the suspensions or expulsions are more prominent at certain schools or in certain parts of the city than in others.

“There is no concentrated evidence that any particular school or type of school is a driver for this type of disproportionality,” Greer said. “This is not a DPS-created issue. The difference is we’re not afraid of the data and our goal is to eliminate it.”