Racial Divide: Minorities disciplined at high rates

What some schools are doing to change the way they handle troubled students

AURORA - At Aurora West College Preparatory Academy and at schools across the district, there is a problem with the types of students suspended or expelled.

"Across the country there's a disproportionate number of Hispanics, African-American students typically who are over-represented in discipline numbers and the same is true in APS," Rico Munn, Aurora Public Schools superintendent, said.

9NEWS has partnered with iNews of Rocky Mountain PBS to look at data from the 20 largest school districts in Colorado to detect how race plays a role in the academic achievement. We're looking at the demographics of schools before, during, and after efforts to desegregate schools in Colorado.

The data shows that one of every seven black students and one of every 12 Hispanic students is disciplined in school compared to one of out of every 25 white students.

"(Minorities) are getting expelled or suspended for the same behaviors for which their white peers have little or no consequence," Sarah Park. director of education for the Denver Foundation, said.

The Denver Foundation is a non-profit looking to support schools in the Denver metro area to try to reverse a trend that has developed over decades.

"Systemic and structural racism which is very hard to talk about and absolutely central to these issues," Park said.

So, the foundation is promoting a strategy called Common Sense Discipline which trains teachers and administrators in conflict resolution skills to address discipline issues before they go too far.

"Common sense because there's a reason why kids, adults, and anybody gets upset," Park said.

Aurora West is one of 19 schools across the district that has shifted from the traditional method of referrals, suspensions, and expulsions to Common Sense Discipline.

"There's five core elements -- relationships, responsibility, respect, repair, and reintegration," Aurora West Principal Brian Duwe said.

Students are taught to try to find solutions to issues before going straight to punishments.

"You try to talk things through," Litsy Hernandez, an eighth grader at Aurora West said. "Try to fix the problem."

Duwe says the whole point is to keep students in class instead of in suspension.

"The more time we put a student out of class, the less successful they're going to be," Duwe said.

Munn says Aurora is trying to break what has been labeled as the "School to Prison Pipeline" for minority students.

"If we can redirect them and identify and resolve their issues in a way that's a positive outcome for them and their families and their lives, that's much better than directing them to the criminal justice system," Munn said. "We don't want to be part of engaging in that cycle."

Statistics show that students who are suspended or expelled are 3.5 times more likely to be in trouble with the law over the next year.

"The most important element of discipline practices is to build a strong relationship with students," Duwe said. "So, all of our teachers have received some sort of training in restorative practices."

Duwe and Park say at Aurora West and other schools across the district, Common Sense Discipline is working.

"We're more preventative. We're better planned," Duwe said.

Fewer students, especially minorities, are being kicked out of school.

"We're very excited about the trend lines. We're very excited about what we're seeing," Munn said.

Three years ago, Aurora West had 16 expulsions. This year, so far, zero.

"(Aurora West) saw a 70 percent reduction in suspensions," Park said.

But, perhaps the most important statistics. At Aurora West, while discipline rates are going down, academic achievement is going up.

Litsy says the school feels safer.

"Comparing to last year, I think it's a lot better," Litsy said. "Less kids are getting into trouble."

Park says the challenge is that the Common Sense Discipline does need more training for staff and and a restructured support system within the school. She says the Denver Foundation wants to expand this method to more schools around Colorado.

"Punitive consequences are proven not to work, which is really surprising to a lot of people," Park said.

Munn says Common Sense Discipline may not be the right fit for every school. And, he adds that sometimes suspensions and expulsions cannot be avoided. But, he does support the idea of finding ways find resolutions to discipline issues.

"That shouldn't be the only tool that you have," Munn said. "We want to make sure we utilize the full range of tools in particular the ones that keep kids in school and engaged in learning."

(© 2015 KUSA)


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